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Federal forests.

As the 1980s dawned, the furor over clearcutting-the issue of the 1970s-was dying out, but murmurings were already starting over what was to become the federal forest management issue of the new decade-below-cost timber sales. Now, as the 1980s draw to a close, a small and secretive owl has seized the country's attention.

The controversy over the northern spotted owl and, by implication, the preservation of large areas of old-growth in the Pacific Northwest suggest the kinds of National Forest issues likely to dominate the 1990s. Environmental organizations are already pressing for management of large areas of federal forests as relatively natural ecosystems. Emphasizing nonconsumptive uses and minimal development, they take the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as the prototype. Biodiversity is the new watchword.

Global environmental and economic issues also will exert a much greater influence on federal forest management in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the nearly 29,000 men and women who manage the National Forests must address the sticky problem of how to satisfy growing demands for virtually everything the National Forests produce.

The National Forest System encompasses 191 million acres of publicly owned forests and grasslands from the Chugach National Forest surrounding Alaska's Prince William Sound to the Caribbean National Forest in Puerto Rico's Luquillo Mountains.

Although units of the National Forest System are found in 42 states and Puerto Rico, the bulk of the system-more than 165 million acres-is located in the 11 westernmost contiguous states and Alaska. East of the Rockies, National Forests appear on the map as relatively small flecks of green.

The system includes millions of acres devoted to special uses-32.4 million acres of Wilderness (one National Forest acre in every six, as Forest Service officials point out), 3.3 million acres in National Monuments (including Mount St. Helens), 1.9 million acres in 13 congressionally designated National Recreation Areas, and 3,331 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The purposes of the National Forests, as set forth in the Organic Act of 1897, are to protect watersheds and ensure a continuing supply of timber. The Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960 made it clear, however, that the forests are to be managed for a variety of resources-outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and fish and wildlife (and, through other laws, minerals).

Most of the attention paid to the National Forests is given to them because they provide sources of timber and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

About 13 percent of the timber cut each year in the U.S. comes from the National Forests. Moreover, they contain nearly 50 percent of all the nation's softwood sawtimber, which is primarily used for building homes. In 1988, 20 of the 122 forest-administrative units (which may include two or more National Forests) accounted for approximately half of the 10.5 billion board-feet of timber harvested from the National Forests that year. Most of the big timber producers lie west of the crest of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, and in the mountains of northern California.

Though most of the land managed by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management tends more toward range than timber, BLM does manage about eight million acres of highly valuable multiple-use forestland, most of it in Oregon, northern California, and Idaho. The Oregon and California (O&C) lands -a railroad grant reclaimed by the federal government -are checkerboarded along the Coast Range and Cascade foothills bordering Oregon's Willamette Valley and include some of the most productive forestland in the country.

In 1988 some 1. I billion board-feet of timber worth $152 million was harvested from BLM lands, with 947 million board-feet valued at $146 million cut from BLM's lands in western Oregon alone. As might be expected, BLM's lands are subject to much the same pressures and issues as the Ntionnal Forests in the Pacific Northwest.

Less than one-third of the National Forest System-about 56.4 million acres-is classed as economically and environmentally suitable for growing timber. Environmentalists and timber interests usually find no particular reason to squabble over the remaining two-thirds. The real battlegrounds are those potential timber-producing areas that remain without roads-and thus are candidates for Wilderness status so long as they are left in an unroaded state. Many of these pristine acres are in the mature forests of the Cascades and the central and northern Rockies.

The National Forests also are popular with the public as places to play. In 1988, the National Forests accommodated more than 242 million recreational-use visitor days (RVDs)-about twice that of the National Parks. That figure of 242 million RVDs is roughly equal to every person in the United States spending one 12-hour day in a National Forest. After a decline in recreational use in the mid-1980s, the 1988 figure was nearly 10 million RVDs above the 1980 total.

As population centers have grown and expanded (and highways improved), the National Forests have become less and less remote. Few of them are more than a day's drive from a major metropolitan center, and most are within half a day.

Others have become the backyards of the nation's growing metropolises. Several of these urbanized forests-the Tonto (Phoenix), Angeles (Los Angeles), Wasach-Cache (Salt Lake City), and Mount Hood (Portland, Oregon) are among the top 10 recreational-use forests in the nation. But some popular forests are more distant from urban centers -the Inyo, Tahoe, and Shasta-Trinity in California, and the White River in Colorado, for example.

In most respects, the National Forests are in reasonably good shape. Systemwide, more wood is grown than is being cut, game animals are increasing in numbers, water quality overall is in good condition. But it is difficult and risky to try to generalize. For every good example, someone can point to a bad one. Judgments about the condition of the forests, especially where timber, scenery, and wildlife are concerned, are tinted by the values one considers to be most important.

To many casual visitors, the most apparent problem is overcrowding at some of the more popular recreational areas. On occasion, members of the public may also notice that some recreation facilities are poorly maintained. With many campgrounds, visitor centers, picnic areas, trails, and boat ramps built 20 years ago or more, the need for maintenance is acute.

In recent years, however, money for maintaining facilities has fallen far behind need. The Forest Service estimates that at least $284 million is required to eliminate the maintenance backlog and prevent the loss of a valuable capital investment.

The forests did not escape what was arguably the most visible social issue of the 1980s-drugs. Virtually every National Forest has some problem with illegal marijuana growing. In 1988, approximately 500,000 plants were uprooted and 500 persons arrested. At one time, some 960,000 acres (by comparison, the Mount Hood National Forest has 1,061,381 acres, the Monongahela 895,221 acres) were "constrained" to Forest Service management because of the danger posed by growers defending their plots.

Naturally, the National Forests are afflicted by the same problems that affect forests throughout the United States. Visitors now find vast expanses defoliated by pests-the gypsy moth in the eastern hardwoods and the pine bark beetle in the Rocky Mountains' conifers. National Forest users also see the short-term effects of wildfires, including nature's recovery, following two severe fire seasons.

Meanwhile, scientists are concerned about more subtle and long-term threats to the health of all forests-acid rain and global warming caused by a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Cutbacks in funding for resources management throughout the 1980s also raised questions about the future of resources in the National Forests. If the trends of the 1980s continue, according to the Forest Service's draft 1990 Resources Planning Act Program, we can expect to see reductions in watershed, recreation, and range quality as well as a decline in the long-term sustained yield of timber.

While below-cost timber sales dominated news space and Congressional hearings during the 1980s, the decade also saw the birth of the Forest Service's recreation initiative, renewed attention to the fate of remaining old-growth on the National Forests in the West, and a deeper public recognition of some pervasive, long-term threats to forest health. And, more than 10 years after enactment of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), forest plans came to fruition.


Though the issue of below-cost sales (timber sales in which the Forest Service receives less for the sale than the costs of building access roads and cutting the timber) was raised in the 1970s, environmental organizations hammered the issue home to the press and public in the 1980s. The result is likely to be long-term changes in the way the Forest Service does business.

The Timber Sale Program Information Reporting System (TSPIRS) generated new information on costs and returns from National Forest timber sales. The Forest Service is now looking closely at sales that lose money with little or no benefit to other resources, and the agency is seeking to reduce the overall costs of selling timber. Moreover, the General Accounting Office and Forest Service are working on a reporting system for all resource programs. The cost-effectiveness of recreation, wildlife, range, and other nontimber programs is likely to come under scrutiny in the 1990s.


Old-growth timber is both an ecological and an economic asset. Virtually all the remaining old-growth in the West is on National Forest land. Undeniably, old-growth forest ecosystems continue to decline in the National Forests of the West, but the Forest Service and Wilderness Society are in sharp disagreement over just how much remains.

Forest Service officials are now working to develop a definition of old-growth that they hope will win broad public acceptance. At the same time, the agency is collecting information on old-growth in the National Forests to help with management of these ecosystems. Since the Forest Service has promised to maintain a base of old-growth, how much exists and where it is located is essential information.

Preservation of old-growth is a key element in the controversy over the northern spotted owl, which seems to prefer old-growth and mature forests. About half of the timber harvested from the National Forests in Washington and Oregon is old-growth. Critics assert that this level of harvest, dependent on the continued cutting of remaining old-growth, is not sustainable over the long term. Indeed, the forest plans in Washington and Oregon (the Forest Service's Region 6) call for a significant decrease in timber sales over the next four decades. This has raised concerns not only about the future of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest but also about the fate of many small communities that traditionally have depended on timber for their economic base.


The long-term health of all America's forests is a matter of grave concern, and the National Forests are no exception. Some areas of the South have experienced a significant slowing of radial growth in natural pine stands. Among the prime suspects are acid deposition, drought, and loss of soil fertility in old farm fields. Whatever the causes, the situation raises questions about the long-term health of valuable forests in the region. For some years, scientists have been studying the death of trees at high elevations in the National Forests of the southern Appalachians and in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. Again, acid precipitation is believed to play a part. For the longer-term, global climate change caused by the accumulation of trace gases in the atmosphere could have severe implications for the National Forests as regional climates and forest environments change.


The current focus on recreation in the National Forests could also have an enduring impact on how the Forest Service perceives its job. Aggressively building on the 1987 report of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, the present initiative promotes the National Forests as "America's Great Outdoors. "

The strategy is unabashed entrepreneurship. The plan: enlist users of National Forest recreational opportunities as partners in doing the work that needs to be done. The benefits: the strategy saves tax money and expands the National Forest constituency. The most visible accomplishment to date: the designation of 51 National Forest Scenic Byways in 27 states totaling 2,700 miles. The private sector has pledged to pay for signs and improvements to enhance the most popular National Forest recreational activity-driving for pleasure.


The 1980s were the decade in which forest planning matured, and foresters learned a great deal about the resources in their care-and themselves. Forest plans provided interest groups with effective handles to tug on when trying to change policy direction. The Forest Service found itself besieged by battalions of experts employed by those interest groups. And the plans generated tensions between what some see as democracy gone wild and the trust-us-we-know-what's-best school of management.

Forest plans, with all their alternatives, showed that there are many ways to manage a forest and that the choices are as much political as technical.

As we enter the 1990s, the major issues are likely to revolve around the role the National Forests are to play in a regional land-use context, global environmental and economic developments, and the changing social context in which the National Forests are managed.

Increasingly, the National Forests are being perceived not as self-contained units but as components of a larger land-use mosaic. Typically, in addition to National Forests, the regional mosaic includes private lands in a variety of ownerships, state lands, and other federal lands, all managed for different objectives.

Wilderness advocates are shifting their focus from the preservation of distinct, well-defined parcels to the coordinated management of large eco-systems with lands held by many owners, public and private. The challenge will be to devise management practices and patterns that blend preservation with different levels of management and development to satisfy environmental, economic, and social objectives.

The environmental effects of loss of tropical forests and the prospect of global climate change have captured the public's attention as shown by the response to the American Forestry Association's Global ReLeaf campaign. just how this might affect management of the National Forests is still a matter for conjecture. One might expect to see the public's growing interest in tree planting reflected in support for accelerated reforestation of National Forest lands, and possibly an interest in deliberate management of highly productive acres to enhance the forests' capacity to sequester carbon dioxide.

The globalization of the economy and concerns about American competitiveness also will influence how National Forests are managed. We see manifestations today, ranging from increased numbers of foreign tourists at National Forest resort and recreation sites to Brazilian eucalyptus logs being unloaded at Great Lakes ports in competition with timber from National Forests (and other forests) in the Northeast. International economic pressures can be expected to complicate tensions between national policy for the forests and local desires. The National Forests will be called upon to respond to changes in our society-a population growing older; smaller households, with increasing numbers headed by single women; the continuing rise of women in the workforce; increased numbers of immigrants that both enrich and challenge our society; and telecommunications technologies that can only be imagined.

These developments will challenge a Forest Service that itself is changing swiftly. Women are moving into ever higher positions in the agency. The Forest Service has initiated an aggressive program to recruit blacks and other minorities. Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson is determined to change the agency's "corporate culture" and seems to be achieving some success.

One can be sure that the Forest Service of the year 2000 will be considerably different from that of today. Because of retirements and turnover, fully half the people who will be staffing the Forest Service 10 years from now have not yet been hired! The challenges of anticipating problems, responding to new demands, working with an increasingly complex society and workforce will be formidable. In the 1990s, we will see an even greater premium on managers who can work with diverse publics, build consensus on policy and program direction, motivate people, and otherwise accomplish all that needs to be done to manage these priceless public resources.
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Title Annotation:The State of Our Forests
Author:Shands, William E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Previous Article:Budget battleground.
Next Article:Private nonindustrial forests.

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