Forest Advocates are Sharply at Odds over Logging's Benefits, Perils

A new pro-logging stance among some conservationists has opened a rift in Lane County's environmental community that is likely to emerge in public during the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference this week at the University of Oregon.

A new pro-logging stance among some conservationists has opened a rift in Lane County's environmental community that is likely to emerge in public during the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference this week at the University of Oregon.

At the conference, members of the Sierra Club and the Native Forest Council will undergo their annual renewal of vows to end commercial logging on federal land. Meanwhile, the Cascadia Wildlands Project and the Oregon Natural Resources Council will argue that there should be more logging -- and more logging jobs and wood for mills -- on federal lands. They're talking about thinning, not clear-cuts.

But the very idea of environmentalists touting a logging regimen raises the hackles of some in the zero-cut crowd.

"I consider these (pro-logging) people either corrupt, naive or heavily indoctrinated lemmings and sheep," said Tim Hermach of the Eugene-based Native Forest Council, which has 3,000 members nationally.

In the topsy-turvy world of new environmentalism, the loudest voices for increased logging have emerged from the radical, tree-sitting Earth First! group. And the stubborn, zero-cut stance comes from the large and venerable Sierra Club.


A switch in philosophy The environmentalists now in favor of logging have read scientific articles and come to the conclusion that more cutting would be better for the forests, said James Johnston, executive director of the Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands Project, which has 600 members.

A series of studies out of Northwest universities in the past decade has shown that human-planted fir trees on federal land are unlikely to turn into old growth forests without thinning.

Up to half of the 7.4 million acres set aside in the Pacific Northwest under the federal Northwest Forest Plan to sustain spotted owls and other old growth species -- called late successional reserves -- are human-planted, even-aged forests.

Without thinning, they become dense clusters of spindly trees with dark and comparatively barren land underneath, and that's a far cry from the richness and complexity of an old growth forest, Johnston said.

"We should not regard those late successional reserves as locked up. In fact, we should actively manage those reserves and use thinning and other management tools to accomplish the objectives of those reserves," he said.

The science also suggests that it takes periodic disturbance -- such as fire -- in a natural forest to create old growth trees. Fire sweeps through, clearing out the underbrush, letting in light and depositing mineral-rich ash.

Studies of old growth trees showed most have survived such a disturbance in the first 50 years of their existence, and researchers think that the disturbance may be necessary to produce trees durable enough to gain old growth weight and stature.

To activists, that means the race is on to thin the even-aged forests that are envisioned to become old growth forests under the Northwest Forest Plan.

"The earlier we do it the better. The more aggressively we can get the agencies to thin those young stands, the better off the stands will be," said Jeremy Hall, Northwest field representative for the 6,000-member Oregon Natural Resources Council.

While favoring thinning in the reserves -- which are largely untouched since the 1994 adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan -- these groups oppose logging of any remaining old growth trees on federal land.

"There's just no scientific rationale for cutting down a 400-year-old tree.

It does not make a forest healthier, ever," Johnston said.

But part of the pro-logging groups' revolutionary calculus is figuring that the thinning projects would bring jobs to Oregon loggers and sawmills, Johnston said.

Logs from 10 to 27 inches at breast height exist in the reserves and could be cut, he said.

"We really can have it all," Johnston said. "We can have timber sales that are moving millions of board feet of timber products off the forest while at the same time improving forest health."

To Log, or Not

This kind of talk makes the zero-cut activists shudder.

They say that all the wood must be left in place to rot and replenish the forest soil. They say that even if thinning was a good idea, man couldn't be trusted to carry it out on behalf of the forests.

And they condemn pro-logging environmentalists as defeatists who will undermine the movement to stop logging on federal lands.

Sierra Club member Martin Litton said the United States has already logged so much land that its soils are being depleted. Thinning takes away nutrients, he said.

"We're depriving the forest of all the nourishment that's going to create the next trees," he said. "They've got to live on something. They can't just live on the air and sunshine. They've got to have something to stick their roots into."

The Redwood City, Calif., activist is scheduled to speak Sunday on a panel titled, "A Line in the Sand: Zero Cut, Forever Wild, and Wild Forest Sanctuary."

Hermach, the Eugene activist who's also on the panel, said humans should leave the thinning to God and nature, who do the work with insects, fire and disease.

"Those forests will modify themselves," he said. "Those forests will adapt.

They will become great again, if they're ever protected from further predation by man," he said. Hermach said the pro-logging environmentalists are playing into the hands of wood products corporations, whose sole purpose is to make money off public lands.

"They assume that this thinning will make the forest better, validating the industry's argument that chain saws make a better forest," he said.

"It's like the Vichy government in France of the 1940s. There were groups of French men and women cooperating with the Nazis claiming it would be better for us," he said.

The charge makes Johnston, who favors large-scale thinning, philosophical.

"There's this dichotomy between logging and not logging. It's a dichotomy that marks the whole debate about forests and forest protection," he said.

"Since the 1964 Wilderness Act, the idea has been you either intensively manage forests -- you clear-cut the hell out of them and put them on short rotations -- or you designate an area as Å’wilderness' and it's totally hands off. Neither of those things are the solution."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News