National Forest Protection
California is fortunate to have an extensive system of national forests—federal public lands that are administered by the U.S. Forest Service. National forests provide a wide variety of benefits. The headwaters of many rivers are located in national forests and so these forests are an essential source of clean water for Californians. National forests also home to wide variety of remarkable animals and plants, including species that depend on old-growth forests—which have largely been cut down in the areas outside of public lands. And national forests provide many favorite places for recreation by Californians. But all of these benefits are harmed by one activity—commercial logging on national forests through the Forest Service’s timber sale program, in which private timber companies pay the Forest Service to be allowed to cut down trees on public land.
However, the Forest Service spends so much money preparing these timber sales, such as through road-building and trying to repair some of the ecological damage after logging, that the Forest Service’s timber sale program is a net money loser, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year. In other words, the timber sales program functions as a particularly destructive form of government subsidy to private logging companies. This subsidy is so large that if the government ended the Forest Service timber sales program, a portion of the money saved could be used employ every timber worker that is currently involved in cutting down national forests to instead work on ecological restoration, repairing the damage that has been done to our forests, and there would still be millions of dollars remaining in taxpayers savings. At the same time, less than four percent of U.S. wood supply comes from our national forests, a tiny fraction that could easily be replaced through a bit more recycling or a little less waste. So commercial logging of our national forests is not only ecological damaging and economically wasteful, it is also unnecessary. To learn more about the Forest Service’s timber sale program, see “Ending Timber Sales on National Forests: The Facts” by the John Muir Project, a report which was reviewed and approved by the Congress Research Service, the non-partisan research arm of the U.S. Congress.
Although the Forest Service’s timber sale program is a net money loser, individual Forest Service districts are rewarded financially for completing timber sales. At the same time, the logging companies profit from taxpayer-subsidized, below-cost timber through those sales. So both the Forest Service and logging companies have a strong incentive to push for more commercial logging on national forests, even when the effect of that logging is quite harmful to our public lands. Fortunately, the environmental laws protecting our national forests were specifically written to include provisions for public oversight in the management of these lands and “citizen-suit” provisions that allow members of the public to file litigation to ask the federal courts to intervene when the Forest Service does not obey these laws. In effect, these citizen-suit provisions “deputized” the public to ensure that the laws protecting our public lands are actually enforced. And in recent decades, new grassroots “forest watch” groups have formed in communities near national forests to participate in public oversight of these forests and, when necessary, litigate to stop environmentally-damaging and illegal logging projects. Environment Now has helped support these grassroots groups. And a result of their vigilance, the level of harmful commercial logging on national forests has decreased over the past two decades.
Fire Science and Policy
In response to the changes described above, the timber industry and the Forest Service have sought to find new justifications for taxpayer-subsidized logging on public lands. In particular, they have tried to emphasize concerns over forest fire, contending that more logging should be used to prevent fire, even though logging actually often leaves forest areas more fire-prone. These calls for more logging have been tied to claims that there is too much fire in forests, but the scientific basis for these claims has been, at best, questionable. In response to these issues, Environment Now has supported greater scientific research on the role of fire in California’s forest ecosystems. In contrast to the claims of logging advocates, the best available scientific research has found that there is actually a large deficit of fire in our forests compared to the historic fire cycles. And this deficit is damaging our forests because fire is a necessary and beneficial part of ecosystem processes. In fact, high-intensity fire—which is often incorrectly called “catastrophic” fire—produces some of the most ecologically vibrant areas—known as “snag forests”— that provide key habitat for a variety of birds, mammals, and other wildlife. To learn more about the role of fire in California’s forests, see The Myth of ‘Catastrophic’ Wildfire by forest ecologist Dr. Chad Hanson.
Restoring a natural cycle of fire is crucial for the health of California’s forests. At the same time, these restoration goals do not conflict with the goal of protecting houses adjacent to forests from fire. Whether a house catches fire is reflection of the conditions immediately adjacent to the structure—known as the “defensible space”—regardless of whether nearby forests experience fire. Communities that focus on this defensible space can become “fire safe.” In contrast, efforts by logging proponents to promote more taxpayer-subsidized timber sales out in wildlands far away from communities under the pretext of reducing fire can not only cause ecological damage, but can also distract resources and attention away from managing the defensible space zone that will actually keep homes safe.
Private Forestland Protection
National forest lands offer a unique space for fully-functioning, natural forest ecosystems. These public lands are often surrounded by privately-held forestlands. It is unlikely that the logging companies that own these lands will permit the full range of natural ecosystem processes that can occur in national forests—such as trees being allowed to live to become majestic old-growth without being cut down, and the natural fire cycles being permitted to provide their benefits to forest ecosystems. Nonetheless, private forestlands can still provide some useable habitat for wildlife, as long as the trees are cut in a selective manner. However, some logging companies instead use a more intensive technique called “clearcutting,” in which they cut down most or all of the trees in an area. The damage from this approach is immediately evident, as the clearcut area is left with only stumps and torn-up soil. And while trees may grow in that area later, the ecological damage from the clearcutting continues because the natural, diverse forest has been replaced with a crop-like “tree plantation,” in which the trees are of the same age and often the same species, and plants that grow beneath the trees have often been eradicated with chemical herbicides. Although there are trees in the plantation, this place is no longer a true forest. Forests are home to a multitude of animals and plants because of the diversity of tree ages and species creates a variety of different habitat types within the forest. Clearcutting and the resulting conversion to plantation degrades this diversity and destroys the natural forest ecosystem.
The problem of clearcutting attracted widespread attention in California in the late 1980s and 1990s when the Pacific Lumber Company began intensively clearcutting ancient redwoods in Northern California, most famously in an area known as Headwaters Forest. It was during this time that Environment Now first became involved with supporting efforts to protect forests on private lands. Pacific Lumber’s clearcuts drew broad condemnation from the public. Ultimately, Pacific Lumber’s approach proved to be unsustainable and the company declared bankruptcy. And in 2008, its forestlands and mill were bought by Mendocino Redwood Company, which takes a very different approach to managing those lands and does not promote clearcutting.
Unfortunately, not all timber companies have shifted their logging practices in this manner. Today, extensive clearcutting is still being done by a logging company called Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) in the Sierra Nevada mountains and northern California. To learn more about SPI’s extensive use of clearcutting, see “The Harshest Cut” by Cecile Lepage. As with Pacific Lumber previously, SPI’s intensive logging is now drawing condemnation for communities that have to live next to SPI’s clearcuts and who do not think that SPI is behaving like a good neighbor. Environment Now continues to support these community members in protecting California’s forests from clearcutting and plantation conversion.