Zero cut policy: what if it really happened?

A reader takes a look at forest management practices and proposes a middle ground to help make the USFS more sustainable.

by Apurva Dave'

The San Diego Earth Times published the results of a Market Strategies, Inc. poll in its September 1998 issue. The issue at stake was logging in the National Forests. Basically, the poll asked, Do you favor or oppose logging in our national forests? About 69% of respondents were in opposition, and 25% were in favor.

These results are by no means surprising. We live in a nation of peace and love and all things environmental (but give me my maple furniture, fireplace, and triple-bagged groceries please). I argue that we should resist our primal urges to turn all forests into National Parks, and instead continue down this damned path of consumption. Has the devil caught your ear yet? If so, read on, and I'll tell you why we should put up with the past negligence of the Forest Service.




To begin, let's get a feel for the organization we're dealing with. The U.S. Forest Service administers 187 million acres of land designated as National Forests. But not all National Forests are created equal: logging activities are grouped into certain areas. Places like the Pacific Northwest are churning out timber in quantities that could put even Beanie Babies to shame, while Southern California's Cleveland National Forest offers no logging permits for what little timber it has.

According to the Timber Sales Program Information Reporting System (TSPIRS), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) harvested 3.28 billion board feet of timber last year (1997). Timber sales provided 55,535 local community jobs and a regional income of $2 billion. $220.0 million in gross timber sale receipts were returned to the states and counties where national forest timber had been harvested for use in benefiting local schools and roads. The point is, logging on USFS land represents a large income for communities. If you plan to have a tug-of-war with the USFS, you're going to need some serious ammunition.


Guilty as charged: the case against the Forest Service


On the surface, the facts against the Forest Service are compelling. The reckless clear-cutting of the 70's and 80's and the even-aged logging of the same time period brought with it erosion, water quality degradation, habitat destruction, and a whole host of other problems. Logging generally entails the creation of roads into wilderness areas, a process which USFS Chief Mike Dombeck noted earlier this year as one that, "leaves the most lasting imprint on the landscape." "Imprint," perhaps, with an extra serving of ecosystem fragmentation on the side. A 1997 count of road-miles built by the USFS totalled 378,000, roughly 8 times the length of the interstate system.[1]

To top it off, the Forest Service timber program loses taxpayer money! A number of sources point out this fact: a $5 million timber sale does not bring $5 million back to the Forest Service's coffers. Sale of timber does not always cover the miscellaneous issues surrounding a timber sale: sale preparation, administration, inventory, reforestation, road maintenance, and other expenses. A loss might not be terrible if it were for constructive purposes, but we as taxpayers are unwillingly paying for the destruction of our public lands.

In terms of economics, these timber sales (and land destruction) may not even be necessary to meet resource demand. From 1991 to 1995, when the federal timber harvest was cut in half by owl litigation, America's total timber production (public and private) actually climbed by more than a billion board feed and timber companies were somehow able to export to Asia tens of thousands of "raw," or unprocessed, logs and with them, the processing jobs previously held by American workers.[2]

Have you had enough? Are you incensed? Downright mad? You have a right to be. A number of people have decided they're not going to put up with this poor excuse for a "Resource Management Agency," and have proposed a solution to the problem: stop logging altogether. Proponents of the Zero Cut Policy say our best bet is to stop this madness, and save the environment while we still can. In the process, they note, we can save money and still supply the timber we need. Let's look at the reasons why this may be a little too severe an approach to take.


Throwing the baby out with the bath water: the case in favor of the Forest Service


So far we've seen that logging on forest lands can be (1) ecologically insensitive, (2) a monetary burden on taxpayers, and (3) unnecessary to fulfill national timber demand. Is it possible to defend the Forest Service from such a complete attack?

Well, before we rise up in arms to disband the U.S. Forest Service, we should note some trends contrary to the above comments. According to the 1997 TSPIRS report, the Forest Service is converting its activities from commodities-based to stewardship-based ones. Dead and dying trees count for 40 percent of timber, as opposed to 20 percent in 1989. Forty percent of all harvesting is for "Forest Stewardship," that is, harvesting which is designed to help maintain and restore habitats. This number is up from 24 percent in 1993, and is forecast to exceed 50 percent next year. Also, Chief Dombeck of the Forest Service proposed a ban on the building of new roads in roadless areas.

While the Forest Service hasn't done enough to make us come crawling back with our hearts in our hands, we can see a paradigm shift towards usage patterns which are more likely to be ecologically sustainable. But a change in philosophy is only as good as the information that it is based on. Is the Forest Service is basing its shift on documented science, and not some black-box decision process which precludes citizens from understanding what is shaping our forests?

A good example of their scientific work is the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP), a study designed to evaluate the current management of the Sierra Nevadas, and suggest methods of improving the ecological and economic "well-being" of the system. The project team consisted of 18 scientists, 19 consultants, and 107 authors and coauthors of reports. Public hearings were also held, so that residents' issues could be addressed. In the end, this report addressed issues as diverse as climate change, socioeconomic status, forest-resource use, population growth, fire, and urban development. Such a well-versed study could get the approval of some of the toughest skeptics.

For the moment, take it on faith that the USFS is trying to transition to more sustainable methods of resource use. Let's talk money. Will this venture always be a loss to taxpayers? The costs of forest stewardship are often considered losses: much more time and effort must go into the selection of trees to be harvested and maintenance of the system than would be necessary in clear-cutting or even-aged logging. It follows, then, that these activities will detract from profits generated by commodity timber sales, and this shift to stewardship harvesting will likely continue to make the USFS timber sales program lose money.

But we must remember that we are receiving nonmonetary benefits (a sustainable ecosystem, for example), and our alternatives to this loss may not be any better. If, as suggested by Zero Cut Policy, we let private landowners meet 100 percent of the demand for timber, we are simply displacing the destruction of public lands to private land. Although such a course of action would preserve public lands, it would be difficult to see how this would work towards an overall goal of ecological stability in our nation: biology does not distinguish public lands from private ones.

The same dilemma will be present if we look outside of our nation to meet the demand for timber: we are likely to import forest resources from nations which do not strictly monitor or enforce timber production. If this occurs, we simply displace our problems on other nations, and risk destroying global ecological stability. What's worse is that the further this problem moves from our backyard, the more likely we are to forget about it and the less likely we'll be to have any control over it. A future goal should be to keep the problem in our backyard, under our control, and find a way to make it less of a monetary drain.


Conclusion: what will make us better off?


If we can look past the destruction and liberties taken with our national forests, if we can cut past the bureaucracy, I think you'll see that what we're left with is an improved philosophy. The USFS is an experiment in multiple-use management. We should recognize that it is an ongoing experiment, which we have the opportunity to influence. Instead of throwing out the idea of using our forests, let's instead look for a way to make the U.S. Forest Service work the way we want it to. By taking advantage of the local, regional, and national Public Involvement Processes in the USFS, and by basing decisions on well-thought out science, we can shape the Service into an organization that is ecologically sustainable, economically self-sustaining, and in touch with the community within which it exists.

Thanks to the following resources for their wealth of information. I encourage you to check them out yourself, and decide how to help shape our National Forests.


1. Zero Cut: A Sensible National Forest Policy

2. Zero Cut: Why Americans Will Benefit Economically by Stopping National Forest Logging:

3. Roberts, Paul. "The Federal Chain-Saw Massacre." Harper's Magazine, June 1997.

4. The US Forest Service Homepage (containing news releases, scientific studies, and financial data):

5. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP)

6. Saving America's Forests:

7. The Forest Policy Center:

  WANT TO GET INVOLVED? Call Cleveland or Tahoe National Forests and learn how to join their Public Involvement Processes. Tahoe National Forest Public Affairs Department, phone: (530) 265-4531, National Forest, Phone: (619) 673-6180.