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Clear-cut benefits timber harvests helps wildlife. So why aren't we cutting?

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LOOKING FOR A good place to hunt small game on your local national forest? You'll have to search pretty hard these days. Timber harvest on federal land has dipped to record lows, and the high-quality habitat created by it has followed.

Throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, timber harvest on all U.S. Forest Service lands averaged about 11 billion board-feet per year. In 2002, however, foresters cut just over 1.7 billion board-feet, the lowest level since 1940. Game and nongame wildlife have suffered, and so has hunting.

The Forest Service's five-year strategic plan, released last October, addresses a number of issues, including an objective to sustain and enhance outdoor recreation opportunities. Nowhere, however, does that plan mention hunting as one of those recreational opportunities.

Ironically, hunting is the third most popular activity on national forest lands, according to a report released in 2004. Only downhill skiing and hiking rank higher. Hunting is slightly more popular than fishing, and it ranks above "relaxing" and viewing natural features.

So why is hunting and wildlife management short-changed? Bryan Burhans, National Wild Turkey Federation director of land management programs, says the blame doesn't fall on the Forest Service.

"The Forest Service understands the importance of hunting and timber management for wildlife, and they would certainly like to cut more on national forest lands, but their hands are tied," he says.

Instead, the blame falls directly on the environmental movement and the general public that cries foul whenever the notion of cutting trees on public land is mentioned. Few topics are as polarizing as timber harvest, especially when that logging activity takes place on federal lands.

"The general public is grossly misinformed about timber harvest and timber management. If you ask most people about the biggest threats to wildlife, they'll probably say logging or clear-cutting," says Burhans. "We've been told over and over that logging is bad for the environment, and that's just not the case:'

No doubt, clear-cutting and other timber-harvest activity suffer from an image problem, one that is hard to disguise. Look at the website or magazine of any environmental group with an anti-logging agenda and you'll see aerial photos of denuded hillsides, usually taken soon after the chainsaws and skidders have left. Even a web site run by NASA called "Earth Observatory" shows a photo of a clear-cut with a caption that reads "Unfortunately, clearcutting destroys the diversity of the forest ... " It's a sentiment shared by the public. A 2002 visitor use survey conducted by the Forest Service found that scenery, condition of the environment and attractiveness of the scenery ranked highest in terms of importance to all visitors. Logging activity certainly doesn't win any points for beauty. However, a clear-cut is hardly the ecological disaster environmentalists portray it as.

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"The bigger the area that has been cut, the more public outrage you'll see. One hundred acres is a big hole, and a lot of people react negatively to that. They think you've destroyed the forest," says Dan Dessecker, Ruffed Grouse Society director of conservation policy, "but what they don't see is that same clear-cut five, ten or twenty years later and all the wildlife that thrives in it, wildlife that relies on forest disturbances that timber harvest duplicates."

Despite the science that clearly shows the benefits of clear-cuts, the environmentalists continue to prevent timber harvest on public lands, and a wide variety of game and nongame birds and animals are paying the price. According to Mark Banker, a regional biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society, woodcock, which also rely on early successional habitat for nesting and feeding cover, have declined by roughly 60 percent in the northeastern United States since 1968. According to the National Audubon Society, ruffed grouse numbers are half what they were forty years ago, when there were an estimated 15 million throughout their range.

Burhans says wild turkeys also need a diverse forest. "Early-successional forests provide nesting cover and brood-rearing cover," he explains. "It also provides a wide variety of food sources throughout the year."

Turkey numbers are fairly stable on most national forest land, but they could be higher if beneficial management practices were allowed.

Unfortunately, hunter numbers have followed the same downward trend as grouse and woodcock. Nationwide, the number of small-game hunters has dropped 12 percent in just the last five years according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In Pennsylvania, 512,000 grouse hunters took to the woods in 1979. Two decades later, that number dipped to just 161,000. The trend follows the amount of quality grouse habitat--young forests created by logging activity--found in the state.

In 1979, there were about 3.3 million acres of early-successional forests; in 1999, the amount of good forest habitat dropped to just over 2 million acres. The amount of suitable habitat on Virginia's 1.6 million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest is just 1 percent of the total acreage, adds Banker, and the success of grouse hunters has followed. Virginia grouse hunters bagged an estimated 70,000 birds in 1994. Just seven years later that number fell to less than 40,000.

"There's no question that number has fallen largely due to the reduction of good grouse habitat," says Banker. "Grouse numbers fluctuate as a result of weather-related factors as well, but the loss of suitable habitat plays a major role."

It's not just grouse, woodcock, turkeys and other game species that depend on regenerated forests. Banker says that a variety of songbirds that rely on forest disturbance and regrowth are also in serious decline. According to the Audubon Society, seventy-six of 164 woodland bird species are in trouble. Burhans adds there are pages of data to support the benefits of timber management for all types of wildlife.

"Managed forests are far more diverse than even-aged forests with no management activity," he says. "It's very obvious that we need to increase the amount of young forests on federal land to help game and nongame."

That's unlikely to happen anytime soon, but there is hope, agree Banker and Burhans. There is more forested land now than there was 100 years ago, so it's not impossible for quality game and nongame habitat to return.

"It's going to take effort on the part of hunters, not just from a public policy standpoint but from public education, as well," says Burhans. "Hunters have to work to educate the nonhunting public about the benefits of timber management. Hunters also have to educate other hunters who may not understand how timber harvest actually benefits wildlife."
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Title Annotation:THE Outfitter: HUNTING NEWS, TIPS & INSIGHT
Author:Hart, David
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Words:1094
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