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Toward sustainable old growth.

The Reagan Administration's budget proposal contains one idea that I think is particularly bad. It would lift the export ban on sawlogs from federal lands as a way of increasing federal revenues. We have opposed the idea in testimony, but have no idea at this writing how the Bush Administration will treat this subject when its budget is unveiled. At any rate, the idea isn't likely to go too far.

For background, this is an issue that affects the West Coast, where the Pacific Rim countries provide a lively market for sawlogs. Exporting logs has always been controversial, because a lot of sawmill jobs go abroad in the process. Round logs contain a lot of waste, so one wonders why it isn't more economic to cut them into the dimensional products needed abroad and export nice square, efficient packages of semi-processed materials. Some of that, of course, is being done. But the market for logs is still strong.

For several years it has been against the law to export unprocessed logs from federal forests. As a result, logs from private lands can go abroad; those from National Forests and BLM lands go to domestic mills. Lifting the current export ban probably won't change the total sales market much. What will change is the quality of log involved and - the federal budgeteers hope - the price.

Little old-growth timber remains on the private lands of the West Coast. Most of it has been harvested, and many of the industrial forests are well into their cycle of intensive, short-rotation forestry. The timber produced is good timber, but it's not the huge, clear, straight, tight-grained wood that characterizes much of the old-growth. To craftsmen everywhere, old-growth wood is particularly valuable.

Thus, it is reasoned, if the old-growth logs from the National Forests could be offered for export sale, they could command a higher price at the dock, which should relay back into a higher stumpage bid and larger federal revenues for the same general amount of timber sold. More federal logs would move abroad, and, to the extent that the market stayed about the same size, more non-federal logs would find their way into the domestic mills. Sounds good to many.

But is it? We don't think so.

The federal estate should never be turned into a resource colony, with its dwindling stock of old-growth timber mined for export sales. No nation in history has gotten rich exporting its raw resources to be processed elsewhere, and no region in America is thriving today by doing it.

Those ever-more-valuable old-growth forests in the West should be carefully managed to produce a broad range of public benefits, including a sustained yield of old-growth timber products for centuries to come. The character and health of the people and communities of the Cascade Range are defined by the character and health of the region's forests. When the only old-growth is in parks and isolated wilderness areas, the region will be a different place than it was before. Maybe that's not all bad. But it's different, and people should approach that difference knowingly.

I've asked the AFA Board of Directors to sponsor a policy study on old-growth, because too much of today's old-growth debate is in either/or terms - either harvest the remaining inventory as fast as possible and get those lands into intensive second-growth management for top dollar return, or throw up a wilderness boundary and dont' let anyone touch the stuff. Where's the middle?

On the public lands, we exercise a public trust for both the present and the future. It goes without saying that we shouldn't liquidate the old-growth in one generation. Nor should we let it all rot without benefitting today's people. But to be responsible, we need to know what we're doing. We need to know how to define "old growth, and agree on management rotations that would allow trees to attain and hold that status for an adequate time. And we need to know how much is left, where it is, who owns it, and how it is currently managed. Forest Service studies to help answer these questions are under way now.

The real question, it seems to me, is: "Will we have old-growth Douglas-fir to harvest through the 21st Century?" If we start from the premises that most private timberlands will be managed to economic maturity and that at today's prices, economic growth cycles are much shorter than biological cycles, we can assume that private lands will produce little or no old-growth in the future.

On the public lands, longer-cycle rotations are often more consistent with the non-consumptive public benefits that flow from the National Forests. Here we can make a case for a sustained-yield old-growth management system - one designed to produce a sustained yield of old-growth timber products while optimizing the other public values that form the basis for public ownership and management. The point is this: we ought to be able to keep old-growth public forests in active forest management, including the harvest of valuable forest products, without needing to convert them mall to young second-growth or locking them in up wilderness.

Scarcity affects price. In 2090, a "plum" old-growth fir may be worth as much as a prize walnut is today, or more. And if we hope that our children's children can have a world where boat builders, timber framers, sash makers, musical-instrument craftsmen, and the like still exist, we ought to have those trees for sale. Whether or not we will - it seems certain - will depend on how we choose to manage our National Forests.
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Title Annotation:export of old-growth logs
Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:editorial
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Previous Article:Sowing the seeds of a dream; profiles of people who make a difference for trees and forests.
Next Article:A tree before breakfast.

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