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Improving on nature.

The United States Forest Service is the steward of more than 8 percent of the country's landmass: 191 million acres in 156 national forests. The nature of its stewardship was the subject of a famous dispute in the first decade of this century between Sierra Club founder John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, first head of the Forest Service. Muir saw the national forests as a wild counterweight to the spread of industry: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that wildness is a necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." The utilitarian Pinchot saw the forests as mines providing the raw materials for industry. Pinchot won, and the doctrine of "multiple use" of the national forests by all interests, from logging to grazing to recreation, has in- formed the agency's actions ever since.

While its official mission is to be all things to all people, the Forest Service has, especially since World War 11, functioned as an adjunct to the timber industry, with the overriding objective to @'get the cut out. " Vast amounts of taxpayer money subsidize this effort: $614 million in 1993 alone. Even now that the agency has officially embraced the "Ecosystem Management" (EM to the acronym-mad bureaucrats) advocated by new chief Jack Ward Thomas, careers still depend on how expeditiously timber targets are met.

In fact, the agency's financial incentives actually encourage destructive forestry practices. The 1930 Knutson-Vandenberg Act (KV, of course) allows national forests to keep a portion of the proceeds from timber sales to patch up the damage the sales cause. Originally meant to fund replanting, KV now pays for a large portion of many districts' budgets, and forests easily become hooked on its perverse incentives: "The more destructive their activities," explains the Sierra Club's regional representative Beth Johnson, "the more money they can keep."

The most obvious (but by no means the only) way to destroy a forest is to clearcut it. "There are many ways to harvest trees and grow new ones," explains Weyerhaeuser on the back of its excellent map of the Ouachita (pronounced Wash-i-tah). "For the kinds of trees Weyerhaeuser grows, the best harvest method is one called `clearcutting.' Blocks of trees are harvested all at the same time, so the land can be prepared and new timber stands grown in blocks. To most people, a fresh clearcut is ugly. The land looks barren and abandoned. But a clearcut is still productive land. And to us it is still a forest."

"They make a desert," the ancient Briton chief Calgacus said of the invading Roman legions, "and they call it peace." When the Forest Service makes a clearcut, they call it "even-age management," a euphemism that includes slightly less brutal forms like the "seed-tree cut," in which a handful of trees per acre are left standing until they've reproduced. Ecosystem Management has allowed the agency's talent for obfuscation to shine. In Wayne National Forest in Ohio, for example, clearcuts now are called "wildlife openings"; in Siskiyou National Forest on the California/Oregon border, "meadow restoration.' A clearcut in Oregon's Willamette National Forest that runs along a ski trail becomes "cross-country ski trail enhancement"; in Alaska's Tongass National Forest they call it "patch cutting." In the Ouachita, says Arkansas activist Sherry Balkenhol, the same thinning of "undesirable" tree species that used to be called "timber stand improvement" is now dubbed "wildlife stand improvement." A "linear wildlife opening" is another name for a road.

"Since I started fighting the Forest Service," says an exasperated Balkenhol, "I've had to learn timberspeak, acronyms, and doublespeak. Everything they say is an attempt to justify what they already want to do."

What the Forest Service wanted to do on the Ouachita in 1986 was crank out 200 million board-feet a year, almost entirely by clearcutting. The plan galvanized grassroots activists from the Sierra Club (of which Balkenhol is Arkansas conservation chair), the Ouachita Watch League, OWL (of which she is past president), and John Dennington's Sportman Association. By August of 1990, their pressure caused Senator David Pryor (D) to take a "walk in the woods" with F. Dale Robertson, then-chief of the Forest Service (and fellow Arkansan from Bald Knob), who agreed to stop classic scorched-earth clearcutting in the Ouachita.

There are more ways to destroy an ecosystem, however, than by shaving it clean. The Ouachita Mountains, which stretch from eastern Oklahoma through central Arkansas, are distinguished by their mix of softwoods like shortleaf pine with a profusion of hardwood species: oak, hickory, dogwood - 35 varieties in all. While this makes for a forest biological diversity, it is inconvenient for the timber industry, which prefers fast-growing softwoods and nothing but.

Obligingly, the Forest Service is assisting in the conversion of the Ouachita to a monocultural pine plantation. Already 320,000 acres of what was once called its "inaccessible burning and bleeding wilderness" have been converted to tedious tree farms, monochrome slabs of evergreen against the autumn riot of the surrounding hardwoods. And it isn't even indigenous evergreen. Weyerhaeuser prefers the non-native loblolly, even though this pine's wild profusion of limbs makes it useless for saw timber unless it receives a laborious poodle-cut pruning every 15 to 20 years.

A new excuse for eradicating hardwoods on the Ouachita is to restore the forest to a "pre-settlement condition," the way it supposedly was before European colonization. Conveniently, the Forest Service has determined this to be a predominantly pine forest periodically swept by fire. Ouachita Supervisor Mike Curran admits that the evidence for this theory is "still somewhat controversial," but that does not prevent him from removing hardwoods and conducting controlled burns to make sure that they do not come back, all in the name of historical verisimilitude. (A similar dodge is being employed on Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, where two recent environmental assessments justified clearcuts as restoring the imagined "savannahs of pre-settlement times.")

Another somewhat controversial Forest Service belief is that hardwoods are deleterious to the endangered red cockaded woodpecker (you guessed it, RCW), which nests almost exclusively in pines over 75 years old. Its numbers on the Ouachita are 38 and dropping. The Forest Service blames the species' plight not on the lack of big old pines (which it considers "decadent" and eminently cutable) or the lack of decaying trees on the forest floor (which nourish the insects the woodpeckers eat), but on a midstory of hardwoods that supposedly impede the birds' entry into their nests.

Sherry Balkenhol took me to an "RCW Management Area" adjacent to a 170-acre clearcut. Since none of its pines were old enough to be naturally colonized, Forest Service carpenters had cut holes in the biggest they could find and inserted artificial nests. These have proven popular with other varieties of woodpeckers and with flying squirrels, but the RCWs are unimpressed; 13 of 18 birds imported to the site have vanished.

Hardwoods are also systematically exterminated in the Ouachita's logging experiments. At the "low-impact single-tree tree selection" demonstration cut in the "Ecosystem Management Area" Dennington took me to visit, the only "low impact" was to pines, while the single trees selected for cutting were almost exclusively healthy cherries, oaks, and other hardwoods.

The official results of this demonstration, however, will tell a different story. Dennington points out the blazes marking a handsome stand of mixed pines and hardwoods whose numbers will be tallied as representative of the project. They stand by themselves across the road, well removed from the hardwood holocaust up the hill.

"So what are you gonna believe?" he drawls. "The scientific data or your own lyin' eyes?"

Other techniques of selective deforestation are periodic burning (which wipes out the hardwood understory in the name of fire management and wildlife enhancement) and herbicide application. Up until 1983 this was done by aerial bombardment; today the chemicals are applied at ground level, again in the name of assisting wildlife. Instead of leaving enough mature hardwoods for some to die and turn into nestable snags, for example, ecosystem managers girdle healthy hardwoods and inject them with herbicide. The Sierra Club and the Ouachita Watch League are suing the Forest Service to stop Ouachita herbicide use entirely.

Ouachita activists are bitter and frustrated. "We've tried every possible means to change the way the Forest Service operates," says Balkenhol as we bump along a logging road. "They're required to allow public participation, but they just go through the motions. When they received 11,000 comments on the 1990 Forest Plan, 7,000 of which were opposed to even-age management, they went ahead and did it anyway. In my opinion, the biggest possible waste of time is talking to the Forest Service."

"You know what I think Ecosystem Management's about?" asks Dennington. "I think it's about how to grow the most pine and fool the most people."

The broad autonomy given individual national forests allows their supervisors a lot of latitude in interpreting the vague dictates of Ecosystem Management. In central Idaho's Payette National Forest, scarred by the worst forest fires in 80 years, it may result in genuine reform.

My guide to the Payette was Forest Supervisor Dave Alexander, a Paul Bunyanesque man both in stature (6' 8") and experience: As ranger on Willamette National Forest in Oregon, he says, he "probably cut about as much timber as gets cut." We took off from a military-style firecamp outside McCall, Idaho, where up to 5,000 firefighters had gathered to battle the still out-of-control blaze. Alexander was videotaping the scene for later study, so the chopper's doors were left wide open; the effect was similar to speeding in a convertible without a windshield. Our hotdog pilot also had the disconcerting habit of aiming directly at ridgetops, only lifting over the treeline at the last possible moment. And then there was the Inferno below.

Huge swaths of forest were still smoldering. Three days earlier, the fire had threatened the town of McCall itself; locals sat on the deck of the town brewpub watching a 30,000-foot tower of smoke only a few miles away. Alexander pointed out how densely packed stands of Englemann spruce, protected for the better part of the century Smokey Bear fire suppression and weakened by drought and disease, had provided tinder for the firestorm.

"Some days the fires would make tremendous runs, three to four miles in an afternoon, with 300-foot flame lengths and firestorms tipping trees over hundreds of yards in advance," he said. "This was fire behavior that we have not seen in this century in this part of the country."

By the next afternoon, the weather had turned cold, with - finally - a hint of precipitation. I wanted to see French Creek, a huge roadless area slated for a timber sale, and asked a ranger which logging road would best lead me there. He smirked. "This guy from the Sierra Club wants to know how he can drive out to a roadless area," he announced to the general amusement of the office.

Chastened, I drove to the end of the appointed road, French Creek filling the valley above me, and hiked a ridge to the west, through ghostly carbon forests highlighted now by a dusting of snow on the blackened ground, with little nubs of beargrass already poking through. Sometimes all that remained of a charred tree was a long concave indentation in the duff where it had fallen, burned to ash, and blown away. This was a "stand-replacement" fire, burning groves that have withstood centuries of lesser blazes. Yet its path was capricious; one dense stand of spruce would be immolated, while a neighboring, equally flammable stand would be spared for the fire next time.

The Payette fire was followed, as surely as fireweed, by a call for "salvage" logging. "Everyone agrees we need to move quickly so the burnt timber does not rot," announced Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). On November 4, only days before House Speaker Tom Foley and Representative Larry LaRocco faced tough re-election battles, the Clinton administration announced a "Western Forest Health Initiative" to restore "fire-damaged lands and watersheds" by allowing salvage logging and thinning on more than 100,000 acres of currently roadless land throughout the Northwest. The initiative (which failed, by the way, to salvage either Foley or LaRocco) defines a healthy forest as a place "where biotic and abiotic influences do not threaten management objectives now or in the future." This obviously has more to do with bureaucracy than with conservation biology, which sees fire, death, and decay as natural, indeed crucial elements of a well-functioning ecosystem. Lodgepole pine, for example, actually depends on fire to open its cones. Standing dead trees, or snags, make essential wildlife habitat, while those that fall return nutrients to the soil and nourish the ants, beetles, bacteria, and fungi that form the floor of the food chain. To paraphrase Weyerhaeuser, a freshly burned forest may be ugly, but it is still a forest.

A possible obstacle to getting out salvage cuts on 100,000 acres of roadless wilds is the Forest Service's own Ecosystem Management propaganda, which decrees a "watershed" approach to planning. In the Northwest, the agency has initiated ambitious "Ecosystem Management projects" on the east side of the Cascades and the Upper Columbia Basin, which includes the Payette. Rick Johnson, director of the Idaho Conservation League (and former northwest representative for the Sierra Club), thinks that such projects, properly grounded in science, have the potential to preserve far more wilderness than environmentalists could ever win from the current hostile Congress.

"Cuts will shrink in almost any scenario," he says. "There is simply no way real scientific analysis could recommend anything different." In the best case, the studies could open the door for a new round of wilderness designations in a region that has the fewest roads in the Lower 48.

And the worst case? That comes if scientific concerns are (as sadly usual) subordinated to politics - a likely result of last November's election. While the Sierra Club often disagreed with Larry LaRocco over the size of the wilderness bills he authored, his replacement, Helen Chenoweth (R), flatly declares that she is "opposed to one more new acre of congressionally designated wilderness." Nor can the endangered Chinook salmon, whose spawning grounds could be further damaged by salvage logging on the Payette, expect any sympathy from her. Last summer, while attending a fund-raising "Endangered Salmon Bake," Chenoweth was asked why she didn't take the salmon's endangered status more seriously. "How can I," she replied, "when you can go and buy a can of salmon off the shelf in Albertsons?"

With the broad-brush Ecosystem Management plans still some years off, forest supervisors are under great pressure to allow large-scale salvage logging. Given Dave Alexander's resume in intensive logging, many Idaho forest activists feared the worst for the Payette - and have thus far been pleasantly surprised at his apparent conversion from timber beast to Ranger Rick. "I have no problem with capturing some economic gain from timber that was going to be dead anyway, but only above and beyond what the biological needs of the site are," he says. "We need to leave a certain amount of timber standing, need to leave a certain amount of timber on the ground, need to protect the watersheds, need not to compound the problem. It's fairly easy to do things in salvage logging that are much more damaging than the fires themselves."

Local environmentalists, like Mike Medberry of the Idaho Conservation League, are guardedly optimistic. "At least they're using the best available information," he says. "They're doing the best ecosystem assessments, lots of computer mapping, remote-sensing data, landscape analysis, the works. We're hopeful that the agency is really changing its way of doing business, and basing decisions on good biological science."

Science, of course, is only as good as its data - a small portion of which I can personally vouch for, having collected it under the supervision of Medberry and Forest Service employee Marilyn Olsen on Cuddy Mountain, a roadless area on the western boundary of the Payette. We hiked through stands of vanilla-scented, 300-year-old ponderosa pine, retrieving little plastic cups full of dead beetles, lured to a fatal tumble by antifreeze bait. The point of the study was to compare the number and variety of bugs in an ancient forest with those after an even-age cut. If, as seems likely there turn out to be fewer beetles in a cut-over area, agency scientists will be able to infer that beetle-dependent flammulated owls need a forest with trees in it to survive. Science is often devoted to proving the obvious.

Conveniently for the science, the "after" count could be conducted in exactly this same location, as the Forest Service has sold 18 million board-feet of Cuddy Mountain to Boise Cascade. Our trail, in fact, was soon to become a logging road, part of the 18 miles of new road the sale will involve. The fate of each ancient tree had already been decided: a yellow blaze meant save; red indicated the boundary of a sale area; everything else was doomed. The marking was incredibly clumsy. Sometimes trees were blazed yellow outside of the boundaries, and one grandfather pine sported both a yellow stripe and the word "cut" written in red. "Now what do you suppose a logger is going to do when he gets to this one?" asked Medberry.

Forest activists in Idaho are still holding their breath on the salvage issue, and preparing for possible civil disobedience at Cuddy Mountain. The decisions Dave Alexander makes this spring here and elsewhere on the Payette will show whether Ecosystem Management can be more than talk and acronyms. "We had committed ourselves on this forest to an ecosystem approach before these fires came," he told me. "They're just pushing us more rapidly." Now his commitment is being put to the test.

One longtime activist not won over by the glib supervisor is 86-year-old Nelle Tobias, who has lived in McCall since 1938. Like Sherry Balkenhol on the Ouachita, experience has made her a skeptic. "I've often said that visiting a supervisor is like punching a marshmallow," she told me over coffee and fruitcake in her home outside of town. "They're so nice, and you feel like you've had such a good time, and then they just go right on the way they've been going all these many years, and it doesn't make one bit of difference."

Tobias has learned, however, never to give up. She gazes out her window toward the still-forested slopes of the distant mountains. "I have friends who say, `I can't change things, I'm going to die and be gone, so what?'" she says. "But as long as I'm here and able to, I'd like to take care of my Idaho."

As radical a departure from rape `n' scrape as Ecosystem Management may be on some forests, it still relies on very active human intervention. In northern Wisconsin's Chequamegon National Forest, scientists and environmentalists are suggesting a simpler way to ecosystem health: just leave it alone.

This solution will not make everyone happy - not the local Forest Service, nor those who profit by its manipulations, like the three ruffed-grouse hunters coming down the trail. "Did you flush any?" asked the alpha male in the curiously clipped, nearly Canadian accent of northern Wisconsin. "One or two," I admitted, attempting simultaneously to come up with a more accurate mental tally of the rather large, sudden explosions of wings I had detonated scuffing through the autumn leaves on this "hunter walking trail" in the Chequamegon (Sha-wha-me-gon) National Forest. Ruffed grouse favor the edges of roads, trails, meadows, or clearcuts, and so have profited greatly Prom the way the Chequamegon has been managed. So too has the nearby town of Park Falls, home to the Forest Service's district office, which proudly declares itself "Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World." Every liquor store wants to "Welcome Hunters!" and home taxidermy is a major industry.

Leaving the huntsmen to their unlikely luck, I continued past groves of aspen and birch interspersed with clearcuts and plantations of red pine. It was finally clearing after days of rain, the sun behind storm clouds bathing the scene in crepuscular light. Suddenly my path was blocked once again, this time by the Beaver Corps of Engineers, who had flooded the trail. Taking off my boots and socks and rolling up my trousers, I waded. Once on the other side, it seemed a shame to put them on again; the smooth carpet of leaves was a luxury to a western boy brought up on cactus and granite. I indulged myself thus for several miles - until I looped a bend and once more encountered my hunter friends, who stared at my pink toes, gripped their shotguns a bit tighter, and hurried on.

Organized hunters are an enormously powerful political constituency in Wisconsin. On the opening morning of deer season, some 650,000 people in orange vests and caps crouch in the Wisconsin bushes; over the year they will bag 360,000 white-tailed deer. In order to ensure their success, the Forest Service devotes 3 to 5 percent of the Chequamegon to "wildlife openings," permanent clearings - clearcuts do nicely - that simulate the meadows favored by deer, whose population is now at least two and a half times greater than it was before white settlement. (In this instance the Forest Service is unconcerned with recreating pre-colonial conditions.) This is quite literally changing the shape of the forest. est. The ravenous animals eat so many hemlock seedlings in the spring, for example, that regeneration is grinding to a halt. Another consequence has been to transform northern Wisconsin into a moose-free zone. A parasite called brainworm (you don't want to know) is pandemic among Wisconsin deer, which can tolerate it while moose cannot.

The amount of the Chequamegon dedicated to deer forage is the same as that dedicated to old growth, a low hurdle even easier to leap when you consider that in Wisconsin, the Forest Service considers 40-year-old aspen to be "old-growth." The Chequamegon is an infantile forest, maintained in a state of arrested development. About a third of it is now covered with aspen (compared with 5 to 10 percent in pre-settlement days), an "early successional" species that bounces back after being clearcut. Under natural conditions it eventually gives way to other species, but Chequamegon is managed for perpetual youth. "And of course the early successional stuff is dynamite habitat for ruffed grouse and deer," notes Supervisor Jack Troyer. "There's a big constituency for that."

The managers of the Chequamegon realize, however, that a respectable, modern, ecosystematically managed national forest ought to have some old growth. This, they argue, they can grow faster than nature can; when the old growth gets old enough, it can be logged and replaced with new old growth elsewhere in the forest.

The upshot of this silvicultural approach - Sierra Club Midwest Representative Carl Zichella calls it "Hubris-Based Management" - is a fragmented, biologically impoverished landscape, a forest trading its native diversity for a tree farm with easy hunting. "They're managing for what is plentiful and common," Zichella says, "and ignoring what's rare."

And that's against the law. The 1976 National Forest Management Act charges the Forest Service with ensuring "a diversity of plant and animal communities," not just those that are popular and profitable. The Sierra Club is now suing the Chequamegon to force it to protect that biodiversity. Should the Club prevail, the effect will be felt far beyond the Wisconsin border, possibly changing the way forests are managed all across the country.

"Agency officials' definition of diversity is a common-sense, layperson's view," says Madison attorney Walter Kuhlmann. "They think `Diversity - it should be different.' They talk about `horizontal diversity,' emphasizing areas that are as different as possible from the surrounding habitat, changing all the time as you move across the landscape.

"Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis for that. It's junk science. But since it fits so nicely with their timber approach, they've seized on it."

Kuhlmann is now representing the Sierra Club and a group of botanists from the University of Wisconsin in their suit against the Forest Service. The scientists, Stephen Solheim, Donald Waller, and William Alverson, are proposing the revolutionary common sense of letting Mother Nature preserve diversity on her own.

"A lot of the other initiatives in the last 10 to 15 years have been toward a lighter touch or `new forestry,' says Waller. "Our proposal is radically different in that we don't trust the Forest Service. We aren't presuming that all we need to do is twiddle with the way it does business. There are good scientific grounds for protecting very large areas, and the way to manage those is essentially `hands off'."

The scientists and the Club propose that a number of large blocks of carefully chosen forest in the Chequamegon, on the order of 40,000 to 100,000 acres, be declared "diversity maintenance areas" (DMAs) and left alone to return to a genuine old-growth state. These areas would differ from traditional wilderness in that they would allow all activities permitted on regular Forest Service land with the exception of logging and road-building, They would become, over time, a new species of wilderness, based not on scenic beauty or recreational values, but on biological importance.

"The Forest Service should operate from a position of knowledge," says William Alverson. "They say they can create old-growth faster, that they can mitigate loss of diversity by leaving snags and so on. Fine, that's very promising. But we won't really know for 50, 100, possibly 400 years. It's very dangerous to say that we can address all diversity concerns by simply changing our style of silviculture until we have that certainty."

"There are two main principles here," Carl Zichella says. "Science should guide the decisions, and you need to save what's rare, and that's older forests. We have lots of fragmented younger forests, but if we're going to maintain biological diversity in this region, we have to focus on preserving large blocks of older forest."

Supporting the botanists' demand for unmanaged diversity reserves are all the biggest names in conservation biology: E. O. Wilson, Michael Soule, Peter Raven, Daniel Janzen. Faced with such brainpower, the Forest Service is not even bothering to dispute the basic science. Instead, it pleads for "Ecosystem Management" to be given a chance.

"When you tell the Forest Service it should be doing something," says Kuhlmann, "they always make the same argument: "We're already doing it.'" The danger is that if Ecosystem Management turns out not to be the answer, it's too damn late for the ecosystem.

The Forest Service is a deeply troubled agency. For decades its main task was to get the cut out, and when environmentalists started raising objections, the task was to overcome the objections and still get the cut out. "I spent 34 years in the Forest Service," says former Chequamegon Supervisor Jack Wolter, "and for the first 20, the only people we ever talked to were the timber interests. No one else even wanted to talk to us."

Now a crowd of interests vies for attention: hunters, timber companies, inholders, environmentalists, scientists. All but the most obdurate accept that the frenzied cutting of the Reagan-Bush years cannot continue; opinions differ on how to proceed from here.

The approach proposed by Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas is, potentially, a wonderful tool. On the ground, Ecosystem Management often serves as a shield for conscientious Forest Service employees, who find in it official sanction for their better instincts. At worst, however, Ecosystem Management serves as a smarmy justification for the same old abusive logging, a theoretical beauty strip around the clearcut. It still tries to offer all things to all parties. "There is not enough agreement on the meaning of the concept," notes the Congressional Research Service, "to hinder its popularity."

The sad fact is that even the most intensive twiddling will not allow us to have it all. "[I]t is not always possible to maintain or restore healthy ecosystems and, at the same time, sustain historic types, levels, and mixes of human activities," says a 1994 report by the General Accounting Office. The problem, it correctly notes, is that no document or person "clearly identifies the priority to be given to the health of ecosystems relative to human activities when the two conflict."

What is Ecosystem Management? An inquiring public needs to know. If it means science first, the nation's heritage of rich and diverse living forests is on the path to salvation. If, on the other hand, it means science first except when the local congressman gets upset or the mill threatens to shut down, we're still just talking about a prettier name for a clearcut.
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Title Annotation:ecosystem management at three endangered national forests
Author:Rauber, Paul
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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