TCS Daily

Rethinking and Repairing America's National Forests

By Karl Hess - May 8, 2001 12:00 AM

President Bush made a sound conservation choice by letting stand President Clinton's ban on new road building on 58.5 million acres of national forest lands, while reserving the option to make needed amendments later.

The decision is right politically. Bush desperately needs to stake out his own conservation territory, not fight battles over a past president's legacy. By letting Clinton's roadless rule pass and by keeping options for change open, the president can take the conservation offensive and build upon, not destroy, the positive parts of his predecessor's forest plan.

The decision is right scientifically, too. America's public forests are in poor condition. Years of fire suppression have left western forests exposed to catastrophic fire, and allowed them to expand at the expense of meadows, shrub lands, aspen groves, and wetlands. This has meant loss of habitat for wildlife, irreparable harm to species on the brink of extinction, imminent danger to towns lying at the forest edge, and loss of local jobs. Roads are often needed if corrective actions are to be taken - such as setting controlled fires, thinning overgrown forests, and rehabilitating or re-creating lost wildlife habitat. Bush's choice will allow that option.

Above all, Bush's decision is good policy. Clinton's single prescription of no more roads and no more logging for one-third of all national forest lands makes no more sense than the prescription of massive clearcuts did a half-century earlier. Wildlife, streams, and forest soils have suffered as much under the multiple use mantra that spawned below-cost timber sales as they have under current no-use policies.

The trick for Bush is to do what Clinton didn't: transform the debate on our national forests beyond roadless areas and take it to all Americans concerned with the health and welfare of those lands. In doing so, he needs to permit options that are more conservation worthy than either roping national forests off or returning them to the past. An open and fair process must allow for differences between national forests, diversity of conservation values among forest users, and ranges of conservation needs within paved and roadless areas.

Some national forests, such as the Bridger-Teton in Wyoming, will have strong community preference for preservation and no more roads. Other national forests, such as the Carson in New Mexico, will have strong community support for sustaining historic forest product industries, which in some cases may translate to more roads.

The key for good public policy and good forest conservation lies not in parceling out roadless areas here and "roaded" areas there, but in finding ways in which local communities can play a more significant role in both preservation and extractive-use stewardship. No matter what changes are made to Clinton's ban for the sake of local needs, the reality of poor forest health must be tackled nationwide.

A good example is the Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico. Like most national forests, it has seen more than a century of abusive land practices. By the early 20th Century, most of its old-growth ponderosa pine had been felled to fuel railroads, support mines, and construct homesteads. As trees disappeared, so too did large native mammals such as elk. Next came enormous flocks of sheep and, later, herds of cattle, both hammering away at fragile arid watersheds. Between livestock consuming ground fuels and the Forest Service extinguishing the slightest flame, a new forest emerged - one that was uniform in age and densely packed with saplings. More trees, in turn, meant fewer grasslands for both cattle and wildlife. Making matters worse, the Forest Service allowed cultivation of mountain meadows until the end of World War II.

Today, the Lincoln National Forest is a shadow of its former self. Towering stands of open ponderosa pine forest - naturally immune to catastrophic fires because of the natural frequency of small surface fires - have been replaced by closed stands of mixed evergreens, themselves now tinder boxes awaiting catastrophic ignition. Mountain meadows are weedy and hardly productive for man or beast. Streams are degraded, fisheries are near extinction, and serious erosion is ubiquitous. And elk, reintroduced in the 1960s, have become so numerous that they, not cattle, are rapidly becoming the scourge of what little grass remains on the Lincoln.

To worry about roads in the Lincoln when the entire forest is in jeopardy is to miss the ecological point - and the conservation opportunity. What happened there has happened to some degree in every national forest from Virginia to California. This destructive legacy, not the question of more or less roads, is the proper starting point for revisiting and revising Clinton's forest initiative. The Lincoln doesn't need fewer roads -- although it probably has too many -- what it needs is healing. Putting a fence up and saving what few areas are roadless won't help the forest's endangered Mexican spotted owl or restore the richness and complexity of its wildlife habitats lost to decades of callous misuse. At the same time, re-opening the Lincoln to full-scale logging (largely shut down in the aftermath of the spotted owl) won't fix what's broken. Still, there is a solution, one that could serve as a model for forests as disparate as the Bridger-Teton and Carson and one that fits in with Bush's readiness to revisit Clinton's rule on a forest-by-forest basis.

Bush could take the current Forest Service Land Stewardship Contract Program and turn it into a nationwide program for community hands-on ecological restoration of national forests. Until now, the program has been used to contract out, increasingly to local businesses, site-specific projects ranging from reforestation to wildlife habitat improvement to development of dispersed recreation. The program could go much further.

Consider the program's potential for a forest like the Lincoln. Local governments in partnership with conservation and extractive groups could form a forest restoration trust. The trust, in turn, would enter into a sweeping conservation stewardship contract with the Forest Service based on a range of identified and measurable conservation outcomes - outcomes such as reclamation of weedy forest meadows, thinning of overgrown forests, restoration of historic open ponderosa pine stands, improvement and expansion of habitat for elk as well as spotted owls, and repair and restoration of streams, fisheries, and wetlands. Monitoring by the Forest Service would be geared to assessing and verifying the trust's success in meeting those outcomes.

Apart from protecting threatened and endangered species, the stewardship contract could turn conservation into a moneymaking proposition for the communities of the Lincoln, so long as the trust had the authority to raise and keep revenues from conservation-friendly forest activities.

Forest thinning and restoration would take years to complete and infinite years to maintain. Modest logging could again become an integral and sustainable part of the local economy. Ranchers, with Forest Service blessing and Game Department approval, could voluntarily swap livestock grazing for elk hunting licenses. This could resolve many endangered species conflicts and, in the process, generate higher levels of income for stockmen and greater satisfaction for hunters, recreationists and environmentalists. And fee-based access to the national forest and its developed and dispersed recreation - all provided in a fashion consistent with the stewardship contract - could turn forest visitors into the cornerstone of community economy and forest ecology.

Any national forest restored to ecological health would mean more wildlife and better conservation. It could also mean sustainable logging and livestock ranching. The solitude of nature might not be there to the extent some purists demand, but the knowledge that nature is alive and well would. It's an opportunity knocking at the White House door. It's conservation change that counts national forests by factoring local communities into the environmental equation.


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