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Can we make our forests last?

Forest management is a learning process, like everything else in life. We learn as we go, and are bound to make mistakes along the lessons learned so tar in our quest to make forestlands truly sustainable.

IN A WAY "sustainable forestry" comes at an odd time in our history. "In the early 1800s one traveler from New York to Boston reported that he passed through only 20 miles of woodlands in 12 small tracts. Now you drive much of the trip through forests," says Doug MacCleery, an avid amateur historian who works in timber management at the USDA Forest Service.

In the eastern United States, which holds two-thirds of our forests, yellow poplars (tuliptrees) once again stand like giant masts in the woods, hickories and oaks shade the earth, and some red maples have grown old enough to seem like characters from early American folk tales with their shaggy bark and ghoulish trunk knots. Wildlife has returned, especially whitetail deer, wild turkeys, beavers, herons, egrets, and other animals once hunted for meat or feathers. A scraggly coyote was recently found living in a cemetery in the Bronx, fed pet chow and leftover Chinese food by a couple who figured that he was an abandoned dog.

Our nation's forests really hit bottom in 1920, after 70 years of clearing the land to feed an exploding population as well as livestock. (A third of the farmland--some 70 million acres--once raised animal feed.) The forests also fueled the industrial revolution, from factories to locomotives, steamboats to homes. And every year fires ravaged 30 to 50 million acres, compared to three to five million acres today. The owners of those destroyed acres simply gave up on their land, much as slumlords now abandon the burned hulks of ghetto real estate.

By the turn of the 20th century, says MacCleery, "The `timber famine' was just over the horizon, it was widely believed, and it would bankrupt the country." So "sustained-yield" forestry took hold as an enlightened idea. Coupled with better agriculture and the rise of fossil fuels, it has turned the 19th century rout into a 20th century victory parade. "Since 1950, timber value has increased by one-third on all of our national forest land," he says. "In the East and South, it has almost doubled."

Yet "sustained-yield" forestry is a dying paradigm that is now being replaced by "sustainable forestry." The silviculture techniques that developed in this century were aimed largely at raising commercial tree species faster, better, and stronger to reassure us of a steady supply of timber over the long course of time: a "sustained yield." But those techniques don't answer much of what we need to know to maintain complete and diverse forest ecosystems full of wildlife, clean water, and plants and animals with no commercial value except for their part in the diversity of life on the planet. Sustainable forestry, on that all of these elements survive and prosper.

MacCleery believes that this shift stems from the transformation of our agricultural nation to an urban one that simply wants different things from forests. But many ecologists have a less sanguine view. Though trees have spread in the Northeast and the southern Piedmont, says Reed Noss, a conservation biologist at Oregon State University, "These second-growth forests are nothing like the original old-growth forests in their structure and species complexity. No one knows how long these forests will take to regain their full biodiversity. Some estimate that it may take centuries, particularly for invertebrates and herbaceous wildflowers." Sure, the country looks greener, says Mike Scott of the National Biological Survey, but "Much of our forest cover is not native to the area, and a lot is in monoculture. Self-sustaining, natural systems" aren't the same thing as trees.

Scott and Noss recently collaborated on a survey of our nation's threatened ecosystems which noted that some forest types have all but vanished. The longleaf pine has disappeared from 98 percent of its original swath across the South, replaced by commercial plantations of slash and loblolly pine. The great sea of red and white pines across the north-central states has become tiny islands among the hardwoods. Ponderosa pine that once grew in open, parklike stands across millions of acres in the inland West have been swallowed up by thick forests of firs. In stamping out the grass fires that once pruned the ponderosa pine community every few years, Smokey Bear may have inadvertently sentenced an ecosystem to disappear.

"If you take a telescope up to the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon, you can't see far enough to spot a live tree," says Robert Hendricks, an international policy analyst at the Forest Service. All of the ponderosa and lodgepole pines have died from an invasion of insects. The ridgetops of the Great Smokies in the South hold miles upon miles of gray, weathered spikes, the dead red spruce trees and fraser firs that may have succumbed to acid fog. In fact, there are troubling stories all around the country. And the wildlife species that have prospered are the "generalists" that have adapted to our changing forests, not the "specialists" that are losing their particular habitats. The spotted owl in the ancient forests of the Northwest is only the most famous example. As Mike Scott says, "Only 10 percent of the original old-growth acreage in the Pacific Northwest still exists."

In the 1990s, "sustainable forestry" has been approaching on many fronts. Inspired by green consumerism, independent certifiers such as Smart Wood and Scientific Certification Systems have established standards for wood harvested from "sustainably managed" forests and offered their seals of approval. But as Richard Donovan of Smart Wood says, these groups may wind up serving a role more like independent financial auditors than like Good Housekeeping. The public may pay extra for some green products, like fancy furniture, but basically they want to know that the companies are environmentally sound. (See the article, "Certification: Pinpointing Good Wood," on page 16)

From a global standpoint, nations participating in the Earth Summit in 1992 signed a document of "Forestry Principles" and devoted one chapter of Agenda 21 to "Combating Deforestation."

Will Nixon--is an editor-at-large for E Magazine and a contributor to other environmental publications. He lives in New York City. These early statements didn't venture much beyond endorsing "God and motherhood," says one observer, but European countries are negotiating through the "Helsinki Process" to agree to more concrete guidelines. The United States has joined the "Montreal Process" with nine other countries that hold much of the world's temperate and boreal forests, including China, the Russian Federation, Chile, Australia, and Japan. In February 1995 the group issued a "Santiago Declaration" that calls upon each country to gather the varied data that may reveal how sustainably their forests are doing.

In the U.S. the Forest Service's timber inventory, produced every 10 years, may be transformed into a sustainability review, says Hendricks. Ultimately this information could contribute to a "sustainability index," now being studied by the President's Council on Sustainable Development, that would be an environmental version of the Gross National Product.

In June 1992 the Forest Service announced that the concepts of Ecosystem Management would guide its plans, and one year later the U.S. announced that our forests would be sustainably managed by the year 2000. ("The President says that," clarifies Chris Risbrudt, the agency's acting director of ecosystem management. "I don't know what he means." People in the field realize that true sustainability won't be proven for many years.) The Bureau of Land Management has adopted the policy, and President Clinton may sign an executive order to require all federal agencies to use it.

In some ways, ecosystem management repackages rules from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which required the agency to study the environmental and human impacts of its actions across a landscape, not just in individual timber stands, and the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which asked it to protect biodiversity, including key species like the spotted owl, and promote the efficient economic use of its land. But in the past, the Forest Service performed these duties in the service of its major goal, "maximum timber production," says Risbrudt, while the new mission is "to keep the ecosystem functioning."

And what is a functioning ecosystem? "For the last 100 years we thought that if forests were left to themselves, they would grow into a steady state of old-growth," says Chad Oliver, a forestry professor at the University of Washington. No more. Ecologists now view forests as dynamic systems, patchworks of old and new growth, closed canopies and open meadows. Over time, fires, blights, and windstorms reweave these components of an ecosystem over the broad landscape. (In the early 1800s, for example, old-growth covered only 40 to 50 percent of the forest land on the Oregon and Washington coasts.)

Humans have also been shaping forest ecosystems for thousands of years: Native Americans burned tens of millions of acres of land across the United States to clear farm land, sprout new vegetation for game animals, or raise wild berries.

But ecosystems oscillate within limits. "There are thresholds," says Neil Sampson, executive vice president of American Forests. "If a system passes through one, it won't recover, or at least not in the same way." He offers a vivid example of a dry forest in the West that grew much too crowded from years without fire, until a blight swept through to kill every tree in sight. (Dry forests are the most vulnerable to catastrophe.) "We know from clearcuts in places that are too hot, that the forest doesn't grow back," he says, because the soil changes in the direct sunlight. "This dead forest might become something else for 1,000 years."

Ecologists don't really know the ecosystem thresholds, but they have a surprisingly good idea of the ranges of ecosystems over the past 10,000 years, taking cues from ancient pollen found in bogs and charcoal layers underground that reveal early fires. So experts like Risbrudt judge the "functioning" of an ecosystem by how well things match up with their historic patterns.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Risbrudt was a deputy regional forester for the Forest Service in Montana. Throughout the Inland West, Smokey Bear's success has changed forests, all of which relied on fires. Some tree communities like grand fir and whitebark pine that saw fires only every 80 to 200 years haven't yet felt the impact of our fire-exclusion policy, but those that historically burned more often have changed dramatically, especially the ponderosa pine. So many fir trees have crowded among them and so much dead wood has collected on the ground that a fire today would leap into the crowns and kill the pines. "We have one-third more biomass there today than in the last 10,000 years," Risbrudt says. "It's not a practical alternative to let things be. They will disappear."

The Forest Service uses a new kind of timber sale to help these troubled forests. The cuts are larger and lighter, as loggers thin out the understory trees, cutting, say, 25 percent of the timber rather than the 95 percent of traditional sales.

"We calculate the number, size, and species of trees that we want to leave behind," Risbrudt says, "rather than how much volume we want to remove."

Clearcuts in the northern Rockies have dropped from 55 percent of the timber sales five years ago to about 10 percent today, and the cuts mostly remove stands hit by disease.

Loggers also drive new machines with long arms that snip trees 30 feet away, then strip the branches in front of the harvester to make a carpet so that the tires won't chew up the soil. They also can travel 2,000 feet from a road before needing to return, unlike the older ones that range 500 to 700 feet. "They'll reduce the number of roads by two-thirds or three-fourths," Risbrudt says. After a logging or two, the Forest Service can safely set an old-fashioned small fire on the site. And he adds that the managers are thinking this way around the country, especially in the Southeast, where they're setting fires to restore the longleaf pines.

The longleaf pine community depended on fires every five years or so to clear out the woody undergrowth and allow wiregrass to flourish. Otherwise, palmettos, gallberries, and scrub oaks will crowd the open forest stands, becoming tinder for hot fires on dry summer days that can reach the tree crowns and kill the pines. The understory species have no commercial value, so the Forest Service can't rely on timber sales to solve this problem. Instead, the agency will burn these areas once or twice in winter, when cooler fires simmer through the underbrush, and then return and set a safe fire in the early summer, when the longleaf pine traditionally burned.

"You can start with a woody understory that is six to 10 feet tall, and after two or three treatments you will get sea of grass," says Ron Coats, acting director for fire in the Forest Service's southern region. To maintain the longleaf pine ecosystems, of course, the agency must keep burning them.

Under ecosystem management, the Forest Service gives top billing to longleaf pine on the high, dry, sandy land where this ecosystem once flourished. Across the South, landowners have replaced this tree with slash and loblolly pines that regenerate much faster, but as the Forest Service harvests these trees on its land through timber sales, it now replants the clearcut sites with longleaf pine.

The new timber sales mentioned above aren't perfect. Environmental groups still appeal them, forcing delays. (Gerald Gray, vice president for resource policy at American Forests, suggests that the new sales be called "Stewardship Contracts" to minimize the taint of timber.) And the sales can easily lose money. In one, says Risbrudt, "We painted blue dots on 30,000 trees. That cost an arm and a leg."

But the biggest weakness with ecosystem management may be people. In theory, sustainable forestry calls upon three disciplines--silviculture, ecology, and socioeconomics--but the third often feels like the odd one out. Told of the Forest Service's new machines, Jonathan Kusel, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, groans: "That may be sustainable for machines, but it isn't for people." In his studies of rural communities in the Sierras, he finds that loggers themselves want sustainable forestry. "They are extremely upset at the Forest Service and the industry."

For "socioecosystem management" we should study human communities much the way we now study natural ones, suggests James Kent, a consultant in Aspen, Colorado, who has advised the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. What worries him is that the current approach doesn't seem to get around to communities until it considers their "reactions" to the "impacts" of the new management plans. An ecosystem that ignores a community system will ultimately be as artificial as the zoning and government boundaries that have caused so many of our environmental problems today.

In 1985 the Bridger-Teton National Forest announced that it would dramatically reduce its timber supply to DuBois, Wyoming, which had relied on the local Louisiana-Pacific mill for 65 years. Kent, who speaks much like an ecologist, said that the town suffered from poor economic diversity. So Kent helped the local people plan new businesses--finding a woman who made clocks, for instance, and stacked them in the garage because "she didn't know how to market them. Another lady sewed. As they felt more independent, they looked at the resources beyond their trailer. They were in the middle of bighorn-sheep country. So they started a museum." The Forest Service decided to cut back on the timber over the course of three years to give this new economy time to grow. "We moved from a big company and a national market to family enterprises and service markets," Kent says, a trend in these communities across the West.

In October 1994 the American Forest & Paper Association adopted a broad set of "Sustainable Forestry Principles" that had been 18 months in the making. The group was responding to a crisis that wasn't in the forests, says John Heissenbuttel, the assistant vice president for forest resources, but in the industry's public image. Try as they might to explain the sound silviculture of clearcutting, for example, industry foresters met deaf ears in focus groups and telephone surveys. "The public told us that they didn't want to hear explanations, they wanted to see changes," he says. "That was hard for a lot of our members to take." But the AF&PA, which represents 425 companies and organizations that own 90 percent of the industrial forestland in the country, set about changing its reputation.

The public picked the name of the new initiative. Heissenbuttel says, "We tested several themes--Sustained Yield, Multiple Use, Ecosystem Management, and Sustainable Forestry. The last one was far and away their favorite." (The federal government might take notice.) And the public helped set the agenda, asking for better protection of wildlife, wilderness, and waters, and greater reassurance that "future generations will enjoy the same benefits from forests that we do today." They also liked the idea of outside experts monitoring the industry's work.

Sixty senior managers from member companies drafted principles, which were discussed at regional workshops with upwards of 2,000 people and finally approved by the AF&PA board of directors. The member companies must now meet these guidelines by the end of this year or be dropped from the association. "It's a stretch, as it should be," Heissenbuttel says. "We hope to isolate the five percent who are the bad actors and highlight the 95 percent of the industry that operates in a respectable fashion."

The companies must now replant harvested sites within two years, invite outside experts to review their efforts to protect lakes and streams, and follow Oregon's "green up" rule that young trees on a former clearcut site must be three years old or five feet tall before adjacent land can be logged.

"What concerns the public is the `ugly' in clearcuts," Heissenbuttel says. Companies must now limit these cuts to 120 acres, a dramatic drop from the 250- to 300-acre clearcuts that can be found in the South and the Northeast. They must also leave buffer zones along highways and quit "checker-boarding" the landscape by cutting in more varied patterns that follow the terrain.

"A lot of these practices will be new to a lot of companies," he says.

Lastly, the companies must report on their progress to the AF&PA, which will release annual reports on the industry's performance. Heissenbuttel claims that the organization has now jumped three or four steps ahead of the federal programs.

Neil Sampson agrees: "The largest companies have the best science in the land and the flexibility to make quick decisions to use new methods. The Forest Service has access to the best science and no flexibility."

One group remains absent from the sustainability equation: the seven million people who own 59 percent of our forest land, often in small woodlots of 100 or 150 acres. They are known by the acronym PNIF, for private nonindustrial forestland owners. Their very diversity may be good for ecosystems, says Neil Sampson, because they treat their property so differently. "A lot of them never even cut it," he says. "It's their birdwatching or hunting patch, or they leave it for their kids."

But people who log their land unwisely can wreck havoc. Many states have no laws controlling private-land forestry, offering voluntary guidelines instead. And professional foresters oversee less than 20 percent of the harvests from these private woodlots.

Mistakes aren't hard to find. "You see pretzel-logic skidder trails that chewed up the ground," says Richard Donovan, "and trunks scarred where the skidders banged into them." Good forestry starts as simply as walking the property beforehand to mark trees and map routes so that the skidder won't wind up playing demolition derby.

The AF&PA Principles in effect sidestep the owners and work with the loggers, who promise to be an easier-to-reach and more receptive audience than landowners. "Bad things happen out of ignorance," says Heissenbuttel. "If they know better, they'll do better."

In 1995 the Association's members will help to arrange logger-training programs to explain the Principles, the laws, and the Best Management Practices that many state foresters have established, although they're usually voluntary. These sessions will cover everything from road building to replanting to worker safety. In 1996 AF&PA will begin tracking the timber that its members buy from trained and untrained loggers. "Let's say the industry average for wood harvested by trained loggers is 75 percent," Heissenbuttel explains. "The CEO of a company with a percentage much lower than that will have some tough questions for his procurement people." This approach of education and voluntary incentives in the marketplace appeals to Gerald Gray, since new laws can be expensive to enforce. "Loggers are the people on the ground," he says. "Their practices really make the difference in how the harvest is done." Some states now certify loggers, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Extension Service offers its own Logger Education to Advance Professionalism Program (see "Loggers' LEAP of Faith," American Forests, September/October 1993).

State foresters bear the responsibility for extending good forest management to private lands, although they often have no legal authority over logging practices. So they must deploy good advice and small incentives. In Missouri, 25O,000 people own 85 percent of the state's forestland, which since 1972 has grown by one million acres to cover 14 million acres today. Many are farmers with woodlots beside their fields, while others are absentee owners. State Forester Marvin Brown reports that his agency works with 2,000 people a year on forest stewardship plans.

"They come to us after a logger has seen their property, knocked on the door, and asked to buy the trees for lumber. They call us and say, `I don't know what I've got out there--would you help me?'" Or they may want to change their woods to attract more deer and turkeys.

With the help of the Forest Service's Forest Stewardship Program, the state gives some of these owners cost-sharing grants for planting trees, building brushpiles for turkey nests, fencing out grazing cows, or placing rocks in streams for fish habitat. Brown is now toying with the idea of turning this effort into a state certification program. "I wouldn't want to guarantee that certification will increase the value of their wood, because it's not true right now," he says. "But as the notion of sustainable forestry catches on in five, 10, or 15 years their wood might have a higher value. The time to plan for it is now."

Will sustainable forestry work? The humbler ecologists offer cautions. "We don't even have a precise answer to how much dead wood and how many live trees to leave after a harvest for an ecosystem to thrive for long periods of time," says Reed Noss. We have turned away from our worst practices--clearcutting and highgrading (cutting all the best trees and removing the deformed ones that happen to be the best wildlife habitat). But Noss doesn't know if "promising experiments" in new forestry techniques will work on "the scale necessary to supply the wood products we are used to getting."

Others are anxious to get started. "We've gotten people to the moon and back on best guesses," says Chad Oliver. "The forests won't sit still and wait for us to find perfect answers. Most people in the field know enough to get going."
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Title Annotation:Closing In On Sustainable Forestry; sustainable forestry
Author:Nixon, Will
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1995
Words:3947
Previous Article:Green.
Next Article:Certification: pinpointing good wood.
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