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Woodlot world: January thinning; winter slows a woodsworker down and prunes his ponderings to the essentials.

The winter woods have a feeling one hour after dawn. it is one of hiatus, a cushioning between night and legitimate day. Growth rings have been chilled to a standstill, sap is in underground exile, squirrels are buried in their tails. The woodlot says January but speaks through chattering teeth.

An early breeze brings motion, but the movement seems inanimate. Branch tips jostle in a canopy of oak and pignut hickory. Clickity-clack they murmur, rubbing out of synch. The wind kicks up, and tree bones creak. Their trunks are groggy torsos, stiff after long hours asleep.

It's time to walk these woods and wake them slowly. What do I see when I walk here after daybreak? What thoughts are born of nearness to oak trees that split from acorns before I existed and will outlive my days on this land? Thoughts of kinship emerge; thoughts of knowing what lives and grows here; thoughts of shaping, using, and guarding, too.

One thing I do is count species. How many kinds of trees grow here? Red oak, white oak, hophornbeam, hickory, hemlock, white pine-I make note of their abundance, the soil types they prefer, and the relative enthusiasm with which they reproduce. I look for new species, too, first-timers that may have blown here as seeds on the wind. A chestnut oak sapling appeared several years ago. I thinned around it, pleased to offer preferred inmmigrant status.

There is much to do before heavy snow falls. The time is right for doing it, without deer flies, gnats, or sweat.

One job is to thin hardwood saplings. If left unattended, these inch-thick adolescents will grow malnourished in a country that can't feed them all. In their present crowded state, they are so many hardwood weeds, fighting for sun, fighting for sod, fighting each other. I look for the tall and the straight, for the white ash beauties of four decades from now. Others I cut green for garden stakes, or tent ridgepoles, or for firewood when a big log would smother young flames.

Bigger trees I also thin. If two grow close together, I ask these questions: Which is ramrod straight and could yield timber someday down the road? Which has a forked trunk or a fire scar or some sign of disease? If it's a clearcut case, I cull the weaker one for firewood, cutting it green, then stacking it for summer sun to check and peel.

Dead trees, if they're standing, are left that way. I've made a deal with the woodpeckers, screech owls, flickers, and flying squirrels in my woods. They're not aware of it, but this is how it works: As long as a dead tree is standing, they can use it as a den or nesting tree. It also can harbor insects for brown creepers to pry from hiding. If it is blown over, however, it is mine. I will swoop upon it with saw in hand before fungi spread softening tentacles.

Sometimes, if I come upon a tree freshly fallen, I peel back strips of bark and walk away. I know chickadees will like me for this, combing shaggy remnants for insect eggs I can't even see.

Other jobs await while chickadees feast. There are ski trails to cut and tent platforms to build. I must fashion a split-log bench that will invite woodland revery.

I run the chainsaw, trading quiet for a job quickly done. I turn it off to let the birds filter back. It doesn't take long, just five minutes or so of sitting in one spot, counting annual rings.

Evening grosbeaks wing overhead, their bodies dark on an afternoon sky that is pink at the southwest horizon. A winter day has dawned, thawed, warmed, and refrozen in nine short hours, all while I worked in these woods.

Smoke scent rides the wind as daylight fails and porch lights intensify. Can I come back here tomorrow? That's what I think as I roll a wood-filled cart down a narrow forest path.

I turn at the house and stare back one last time. The forest is dark. All is quiet, save the creak of stiffening bones. O@@070131929 1016Hhj058WSRD

We stand at the threshold of what could be a new era in the management of America's National Forests. The 12-year, multi-miliion dollar effort to develop land and resource management plans for the 156 National Forests is nearing completion. Finally, the 1976 National Forest Management Act (NFMA), itself an historic watershed in the management of federally-owned forest resources, is actually being implemented.

The waters ahead are largely uncharted, however. The NFMA and its accompanying federal regulations provide a great deal more guidance on the development of National Forest plans than on their implementation. Despite a dedicated effort by the Forest Service, past planning efforts-notably the 1974 Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA)-have had questionable impacts on actual National Forest resource management.

Given this past experience, what can we expect for the implementation of NFMA planning?

To understand what the Forest Service will and will not be able to do in the years ahead, one must look at the agency in the context of the larger federal governmental system of which it is only one small part. What the Forest Service will be able to accomplish on the National Forests will depend largely on the budgets the agency receives, in terms of both overall funding and the balance of funding among the different resource programs.

There are governmental organizations outside the Forest Service that strongly influence both aspects of the agency's funding. This obviously includes the Congress. Perhaps less evident, it also includes the Secretary of Agriculture and the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), both of which have a significant impact on which National Forest resource programs are funded adequately with respect to Forest Service resource management plans.

To understand how these other factors are likely to affect the funding for National Forest programs in the future, it is useful to examine the impacts they have had in the recent past. Figures 1 and 2 (not shown) illustrate how the the Forest Service budget proposal for two particular National Forest resource programs have been revised by other players in the budget process over the past decade.

Support for this program from the Secretary's office has been a good deal stronger under the current administration than under the previous administration (i.e., prior to fiscal year [FY] 1982). Congressional support has also been consistently strong up until the last three years shown, when Congress reacted first to the unprecedented drop in timber demand in fiscal years 198485 and then to concerns over below-cost timber sales on the National Forests beginning in fiscal year 1986.

On the other hand, support for the recreation program (Figure 2) has clearly been weak, eventually forcing the Forest Service to resign first its budget requests and then the RPA Program goals to much lower funding levels. The optimism of the 1977 Program was scaled back once in the 1980 Program (goals beginning with FY 1981) and still further in the 1985 Program (goals beginning with FY 1986).

The fish and wildlife program showed a similar pattern though, despite the shortfalls from RPA Program levels, real-term growth in the program's funding has increased substantially since fiscal year 1977. Conversely, there doesn't seem to be any resource program that has suffered from a lack of outside support more than the soil and water program, which has the responsibility for protecting the very basis for continued resource productivity on the National Forests.

Such modifications to Forest Service budget proposals have had significant impacts on the agency's priorities and what management activities actually take place on the National Forests. The Forest Service has long been criticized for placing a higher priority on its timber program than on other programs such as recreation, fish and wildlife, or soil and water protection. However, it is not at all clear that the impetus for this de facto policy lies entirely with the Forest Service. Each of the RPA programs have called for a reduction in timber's share of overall National Forest System funding and increases in the share of funding for the recreation, fish and wildlife, and soil and water programs

Congressional appropriations have taken a very different course, increasing the timber programs's share of NFS funding from 65 percent as recently as FY 1974 to over 80 percent a decade later, this despite the heavy public pressure on the Forest Service over the past 15 years to reduce the emphasis on timber production on the National Forests. As can be seen in Figure 3, the RPA budget targets have undergone "corrections" in the first year of each new Program to bring them more in line with actual budgets. This raises questions as to whether National Forest management priorities are truly being determined through the setting of long-term goals, as was the intent in the RPA, or continue to be driven primarily by shortsighted annual budget decisions.

It has been asserted that the revenue-retaining provisions of such laws and the 1916 Brush Disposal Act and the 1930 Knutson-Vandenberg ("K-V") Act have stimulated the Forest Service to aggressively pursue a larger timber program as a means of maximizing its overall budget. An examination of the agency's planning priorities and even its manifest budget priorities supports quite a different conclusion. The corporate culture of the Forest Service may indeed encourage a fond regard for timber management, but the "smoking gun" for the continued dominance of the timber program over the non-commodity resource programs on the National Forests has Congress' fingerprints all over it.

Why should Congress be so interested in timber production per se? To some extent, members of Congress from regions where the forest-products industry comprises a large portion of the local economy are, of course, interested in creating and maintaining jobs in their communities. But to a much greater extent, higher timber harvests on the National Forests are simply a means to another end-federal revenue sharing with local governments.

A law passed in 1908 to mollify western Congressmen incensed over Gifford Pinchot's and Theodore Roosevelt's late-night circumscribing of another 90 million acres of public domain for addition to the nascent National Forest System requires that 25 percent of aU National Forest receipts be returned to the counties in which the receipts were earned. Later amendments made sure that the counties also received 25 percent of deposits, such as those under the K-V Act, and of payments in kind, such as the value of roads constructed by timber purchasers.

In some counties in the Pacific Northwest, revenue sharing from federal forest timber receipts comprises nearly two-thirds of the counties' annual budgets. County governments' primary concerns are in maintaining the highest level of income possible and avoiding significant fluctuations in their income from this source. The way the laws are now written, these objectives place them in the position of lobbying their Congressional representatives for ever higher levels of timber harvesting on nearby federal lands. And among the many issues vying for the attention of Congressional appropriations committee members, none are more consistently successful in capturing that attention than those relating to federal programs that have direct and clearly visible impacts on jobs and economic development among voters in the local district.

In many cases, local governments are placed in a position of advocating for the short-term what may be against the region's economic interests in the longer run. Local economies, like a portfolio of investments, are more stable and productive when they are based on a wide diversity of activities rather than just a few. This is especially true if one of the major local industries is inherently cyclical, highly sensitive to fluctuating interest rates, or locally on a decline.

A recent governor's task force report on the economic future of Oregon, one of the nation's greatest timber producers, saw all three of these factors affecting the state's forest-products industry; it recommended reducing the state's reliance on forest-products manufacturing through a steady diversification of the economy into other areas. At the local level, however, few communities are willing to risk the near-term drop in income likely to accompany any reduction in the emphasis on timber production on nearby federal lands.

County governments deserve compensation for non-taxable federal land within their borders, but that compensation should come notwithstanding the uses to which that land is put. Breaking the link between the timber volume harvested and federal payments to the counties would make local governments less vulnerable to the vagaries of a single industry and allow them to pursue strategies to diversify and strengthen their economies.

It may also be the key to removing this unintended incentive for an overemphasis on timber harvesting on federal lands, allowing Congress to focus more directly on the balanced and integrated multiple-use management plans now emerging from a long and costly process. Indeed, as long as Congress and other governmental organizations outside the Forest Service have strong incentives to override the results of forest planning through the budget process, the now bright prospects for improving the management of our National Forests through the National Forest Management Act may quickly dim.
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Author:Marsi, Rick
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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