This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.

Who Speaks for the Trees?
Why are Conservation Groups Advocating Logging Public Forests?
by GEORGE WUERTHNER

“I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.”

– Dr. Seuss

It seems more and more there are fewer conservation organizations who speak for the forest, and more that speak for the timber industry.  Witness several recent commentaries in Oregon papers that are by no means unique. I’ve seen similar themes from other conservation groups across the West in recent years.

Many conservation groups have uncritically adopted views that support more logging of our public lands based upon increasingly disputed ideas about forest health and fire ecology, as well as the age-old bias against natural processes like wildfire and beetles.

For instance, an article in the Portland Oregonian quotes Oregon Wild’s executive director Sean Stevens bemoaning the closure of a timber mill in John Day Oregon.  Stevens said: “Loss of the 29-year-old Malheur Lumber Co. mill would be ‘a sad turn of events’”  Surprisingly, Oregon Wild is readily supporting federal subsidies to promote more logging on the Malheur National Forest to sustain the mill.

In the same article Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center was quoted as saying “Had you told me 10 years ago that I would be trying to keep a mill open in eastern Oregon, I would have said you’re crazy, but things change.” 

George Sexton, the Conservation Director, for KS Wild in a separate editorial in the Medford, Oregon Mail Tribune advocates more logging of our federal lands by writing in an editorial that We can make forests healthier and communities safer from wildfire and provide a product to the mills. It is time to follow the lead of the local Forest Service and produce timber in a way that attempts to restore our forests rather than exploit them.”

THE CONTEXT

I think what motivates such commentary from these organizations is the desire to defuse the timber issue. They hope that support of logging in less controversial areas such as tree plantations, heavily roaded and previously logged areas will keep agencies and timber companies away from roadless areas and critical habitat for rare and declining wildlife species.  It is part of an misguided strategy to ultimately garner more protection for wildlands.

It’s important to note that all of these conservation groups I am critiquing here as well as throughout the West which are currently supporting more logging continue to fight the worse logging proposals in roadless areas and old growth, and are strong advocates for wilderness designation.

However, I believe that their support for logging represents  a failure to challenge many of the flawed assumptions that are guiding federal logging programs and in some cases even repeating many of the same pejorative language helps to undermine in the long term conservation efforts. After all if the public believes our forests are sick and unhealthy; that logging will cure them; that logging will preclude wildfires and eliminate beetle kill, and that rural economies are dependent on public lands logging to survive, than they are, in my view, contributing to the wrong message.

Bear in mind that these organizations do not unconditionally support all logging. Rather they have very specific criteria and limitations used to determine which logging operations they support and which they may oppose at times. Nevertheless, the public seldom hears these qualifiers.

For instance, it was standard practice in the not too distance past for conservation groups to point out that nearly all federal timber sales lost money. Today one seldom hears any of these organizations discussing the poor economics of federal logging—indeed, they are often supporting these money losing timber sales.  They would also point out how logging harmed wildlife, fisheries, spread weeds, and the many other ecological impacts. Logging hasn’t changed. These impacts still exist—but in today’s world few are articulating these costs.

If there is going to be logging on public lands we need to consider all these costs and benefits fairly. Even if there is some benefit that can be ascribed to a given logging proposal, the economic and environmental costs may still not justify this expense.  Far too often these organizations are unwilling to critique or point out that the flawed premises used to justify logging.

SMART RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PARADIGM

Such comments as mentioned above, and many more I could quote from other conservation organizations, tend to endorse a certain way of thinking which I call “Smart Resource Management (SRM).” The SRM paradigm is a direct descendent of Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Forest Service who advocated the “wise use” of natural resources.  It assumes we know enough about ecosystems to manage them without unintended consequences and wise enough to do so judiciously—two assumptions I would challenge.

SRM is the antithesis of wildness or self willed nature. This notion that we can and should manage ecosystems as a giant garden is, in my view, the root cause of many of our environmental problems.  I tend to believe that most of the people working for western conservation groups are not strong supporters of SRM school of thought. Unfortunately conservationists have adopted the language, analogies and “stories” that support and lend credibility to the SRM ideas which dominate land management decisions.  We hear our forests are sick, unhealthy, will be improved with logging, and so on. These are the words and story of industry.

I personally feel there is a growing body of evidence that questions whether our forests are significantly altered from what one might expect given climatic and other conditions. These ideas challenge the assertion that we “need” to log our forests in the first place—assuming again that we are smart enough to manage forests to begin with.

However, if forests are not significantly altered if considered from a boarder set of criteria, this negates any requirement for “restoration”.

Even if one agreed that some forests have changed from recent historic conditions, it doesn’t automatically mean that logging is the best or only way to put these forests back on a more natural trajectory—natural processes like beetle kill, drought, wildfire, and other factors are currently doing a fine job of maintaining the health of millions of acres of our forests.

There may be legitimate rationales for logging, but it’s not the one usually given for logging public forests today. Indeed, the major justifications given for logging public lands is typically some social or ecological benefit—to reduce fires, clean up bug killed trees, fix watersheds, restore forest health or provide for “economic stability” to rural communities. In far too many cases, all of these are just cover to hide the main reason for logging—to maintain the local timber industry at the expense of our forest’s ecological integrity and taxpayer dollars.

DEAD TREES ARE CRITICAL TO ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

Even if I were to agree that forest management has led to a deviation from historic conditions, I see no need to introduce logging into the forest to “fix” the situation. Forests are perfectly capable of “restoring” themselves. That is what beetle kill and wildfires are doing.

Dead trees are actually a sign of a healthy forest ecosystem that is functioning properly to readjust itself to the prevailing conditions.

What isn’t well known, and you won’t know it from listening to the advocates of logging, is that many of these assumptions and ideas that have guided forest management policies are being challenged. There is a growing body of research that suggests that dense forests, even in dry ponderosa/Douglas fir stands, may not be significantly out of historic condition. That fire suppression has been less effective than previously thought. That thinning doesn’t preclude large blazes and so on.

For example the alternative to the fire suppression has led to denser forest stands is countered by another paradigm that climatic conditions—namely moister, cooler conditions for decades in the last century–may have done more to create dense forest stands and limited fire spread than human fire fighting.

There are a growing number of people, myself included, who believe we don’t have enough dead and dying trees in the forest to sustain forest ecosystems—therefore we do not think that beetle kill and large fires are something to bemoan, rather they should be celebrated.

There is also conflicting opinion about whether logging can actually reduce or slow large fires under severe fire conditions. There is an abundance of evidence from large fires that logging has little effect on slowing blazes—which of course from an ecological perspective we need.

Even if thinning did appear to slow or halt small fires, historically speaking it is the very few, but exceptionally large fires that account for nearly all the acreage burned—and consequently do all the ecological work. If, as many conservation groups now acknowledge, wildfires are critical to ecosystem health—than we must do everything we can to facilitate large blazes—not prevent them.

So if the goal to promote healthy ecosystems, we need large blazes and major beetle kill.  I hear few conservation groups, particularly partnering with logging advocates promoting non-invasive measures such as homeowner responsibility for reducing home flammability as well as zoning to reduce home construction in these areas that would reduce conflicts with large fires. Is this coincidence? I don’t think so.

It is not unlike groups that are livestock advocates that are unwilling to suggest that ranchers take greater responsibility for reducing predator conflicts by using guard dogs, removal of dead carcasses, calving and lambing sheds as well as other measures that would reduce or eliminate the presumed need for predator control.

All of these ideas and others are a challenge to the common discourse promoted by the timber industry and its lackeys in forestry schools, federal agencies, and now even far too many conservation groups.

Now I will be the first to grant that many of these new ideas and challenges to the old paradigm are preliminary and may, upon future review, be found to be overly simplistic as the original ideas they are replacing about fire suppression, forest health, fire ecology, and so forth.

But isn’t it the job of conservation groups to err on the side of caution? If there is dispute about whether logging is needed or not, shouldn’t conservation organizations err on the side of no active management rather than promoting policies that by happy coincidence just so happens to line the pockets of the timber industry?

NEW IDEAS ABOUT FORESTS CHALLENGE OLD PARADIGMS

Far too many conservation groups have gone well beyond advocating “wise use” to advocating exploitation.  Much of it based on out of date ideas about wildfire ecology, forest health, and logging.

Take for instance George Sexton’s idea that we can log our way to “forest health”. The underlying presumption of such commentary is that our forests are no longer healthy.  But new insights into how forest ecosystems work challenge the dominant paradigm. Increasingly we find that dead trees, whether due to beetle kill, diseases, drought or fires are a sign of a healthy forest, in much the same way that wolves killing elk indicates a healthy predator prey relationship.

Groups as diverse as Oregon Wild, the Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association as well as others—all of whom I might add do a lot of good conservation work in other areas–are advocating thinning to preclude large wildfires and beetle kill. Not only is there a growing body of literature that suggests that thinning is not effective at stopping fires under extreme fire conditions, one has to ask why you would want to do this?  Even if the motivation is forest “restoration” why not advocate restoration by natural processes like wildfire or beetles?

Forest ecosystems require periodic inputs of dead trees. Dead trees fill many critical roles and functions in forested ecosystems from homes to many bird species (45% of all birds rely on dead trees) to habitat for salamanders, ants, bees, lichens, fungi and a host of other species.  Dead trees falling in streams are important for aquatic ecosystems, and rotting wood in the soil is critical to soil nutrients.

The natural background rate of tree mortality that occurs in the absence of large fires or beetle kill is not sufficient to provide the long term input of dead woody biomass essential for functioning forest ecosystems. Forests need occasional large scale mortality to provide for these dead wood needs.

Thinning forests, even if it worked to effectively thwart fires and beetles, would be undesirable because it would be short circuiting the long term flow of dead wood.  Even if some old growth died as a consequence of fires or beetles, this does not represent a loss to the ecosystem since big dead trees are the most valuable to the ecosystem.  So what if some old growth burns up—so long as we don’t remove those trees by logging, they will continue to full fill important functions in the forest ecosystem.

LOGGING IS NOT BENIGN

Beyond these problems, logging is not benign. Many of the real costs associated with logging remain unaccounted and often ignored.

If we are trying to decide whether to log a particular area or not, we need to fairly articulate the real costs as well as the benefits. In far too many cases, the benefits are imaginary or fleeing (as in the assumption that logging can reduce the spread of large blazes) and the negatives are ignored or glossed over.

For example, logging roads cutting across slopes severs the subsurface flow of water, diverting it on to the surface of the road, which in turn causes excessive sedimentation in streams. Logging equipment also compacts soils reducing infiltration.  Both factors create greater erosion and sedimentation loading in streams.

Logging roads, equipment, and access created by logging roads is one of the major vectors for the spread of weeds. In the long run, the introduction of weeds may have more negative impacts on wildlife and the forest ecosystem than any effect from natural processes like fires.

Logging roads are also a major vector for hunters, poachers, trappers, ORVs, and other human activities that can disturb sensitive wildlife or reduce wildlife populations. For instance, grizzly bears avoid logging roads—and thus logging roads effectively reduces bear habitat.  Elk also avoid roads. And even so-called closed roads and/temporary roads still provide access to hunters, and are often broached by illegal ORV use.

I have only mentioned a short list of the effects of logging—and I could add a much lengthier list here.

The point is that these negatives are seldom mentioned when decisions to log or not are discussed. And even if they are acknowledged agencies and supportive groups often advocate other “techno fixes” to correct the problem. For instance, it is common for the FS and their conservation group allies to acknowledge that logging can spread weeds, but then the response is that we have to spray herbicides to control the weeds. Even if herbicide spraying were implemented, an honest appraisal would admit that spraying is seldom a 100% effective.  Does it make sense to risk the spread of weeds by logging  forests on the assumption logging will preclude fires or restore the forest, when ii may not be effective in reducing fires anyway and the forest is perfectly capable of self restoration?

IF CONSERVATION GROUPS DON’T ARTICULATE LOGGING IMPACTS—WHO WILL?

What is problematic about conservation groups endorsement of  logging is that they then become captured by the industry. They cease to be advocates for the forest. It is difficult to be in collaboration with industry or politicians while at the same articulating the many ways that logging impacts the land. Yet if conservation groups like NW Conservation, MWA, Oregon Wild, KS Wild, Idaho Conservation League, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and others will not articulate these problems to the public, who will?

All the public knows from the quotes in the paper or hearing a short radio spot is that our forests are “unhealthy”, logging “improves” forest health or that logging will reduce fires or beetles.  And it is a natural conclusion that dead trees are a sign of an unhealthy forest ecosystem. They hear that conservation groups believe logging is the cure for a host of ailments that affects the forest– real or imaginary.

Instead of promoting logging, conservation groups ought to be articulating all the negatives associated with logging. If they support anything it should be the alternatives to logging—be a staunch supporter of more wildfire—and do not use qualifiers like “good fires” (low intensity) and “bad fires” (stand replacement). Tell the public why beetle kill is good for forests—how it creates a nice mosaic of age classes and is one of the main ways we get biomass into forest ecosystems. Why dead trees are needed for “healthy” forest ecosystems.  These are the messages that conservation groups should be sending—because if they don’t, no one else will do it.

ALTERNATIVES TO LOGGING

Furthermore, these groups could point out that there are alternatives to logging.  Even if one agrees with the premise that our forests have deviated from historic conditions, one could advocate allowing natural ecological processes to correct the situation.

Keep in mind that in our national parks and wilderness areas—the kinds of places that these groups with names like Montana Wilderness Association, Oregon Wild, KS Wild, and others believe is a desirable land status—are restoring themselves with wildfires, beetles, and other natural processes.  They don’t need to be logged to be healthy.

Permitting fires and beetles to “restore” forests—if indeed they even need restoration–is akin to promoting wolves to “restore” healthy elk herds by reducing elk numbers. Wolves are far better at determining which elk should or should not survive than the indiscriminate killing by hunters just as wildfire, beetles, and so forth at better than any foresters in determining which trees should be killed.

Is it the role of conservation groups to be advocates for logging? If conservation groups abdicate their responsibility to speak for the forests—then who will?

There are not enough loraxes around anymore.

George Wuerthner is the Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology and has published 35 books, including soon to be released Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth