Fritz vs. the Feds

Fritz vs. the Feds – Edward C. Fritz

Tom Wolf

In 1943, a young Naval Air cadet headed for Texas. In early March, the greenhorn was given his first flight lessons by Ensign Edward C. “Ned” Fritz. A hard man to please, Fritz’s report reads: “Student serious and learns well. Has difficulty in maintaining altitude. Tends to make all turns in a slight skid. Took off several times with right wing low. Judged his first emergency well. Did not have the knack of setting three wheels on the ground at the same time. Bounced on his takeoffs. Safe for solo.”

Ensign Fritz’s fitness report for Cadet George Bush ranks the future President relatively low. Fritz concluded, “Bush is an upstanding lad with great self-confidence. It appears, however, that he may be somewhat eccentric.”

Cadet Bush’s flying problems would not have imperiled red-cockaded woodpeckers; for by then few members of this endangered species were airborne in the state’s loblolly and shortleaf pine forests. The birds had retreated east or into remaining pockets of old-growth pine. In fact, the population of the red-cockaded woodpecker was plummeting throughout the South, where pine plantations with short rotations of 40 to 60 years had become the rule.

One of our endangered bird species, the red-cockaded woodpecker has very specific habitat requirements. It only colonizes pine forests that are at least 60 years old, and it forages only in the upper canopy of those forests. If and when a hardwood understory begins to take over, the red-cockaded woodpeckers move on in the face of competition from their cousins–pileated woodpeckers. Perhaps 500 red-cockaded woodpeckers remain in Texas, where a strange and bitter civil war rages over their fate. The leader of one side is Ned Fritz, relentless and judgmental. On the other side stands the U.S. Forest Service–outmanned, outgunned, and outraged. In Dallas, along the Trinity River, Ned Fritz and his wife Genie live in a defiantly modest house in an opulent neighborhood. While their neighbors’ idea of landscaping runs to high gloss, the Fritz’s three acres of bottomland feature a riot of hardwood vegetation thriving under 40 years of selection management directed by one of the toughest tree huggers around. Cedar elm dominates, along with Shumard red oak, chinkapin, Osage-orange, and the Texas state champion green hawthorne.

Unimpressed, Fritz’s wealthy neighbors took him to court over his approach to urban landscaping. They should have known better. Fritz won hands down.

The Dallas Morning News calls Fritz “Nature’s Angry Advocate.” His fellow wilderness warrior, George Russell of Huntsville, told me, “Ned is like an old-growth tree, gnarled and sinewy, tenacious and dedicated.”

Some are less sure of Fritz’s virtues. A lobbyist for a national environmental group said, “Ned is not a team player.” One of Fritz’s bitterest enemies in the Forest Service told me, “Ned Fritz is a gentleman. I cuss him. I admire his pit-bull tenacity. He gets his teeth into things we can’t control, like our timber-harvest quota, and he won’t let go.”

Others are less respectful: “What motivates Ned Fritz? Ego. He wants to be remembered as the father of wilderness in Texas. He’ll use that end to justify and means.”

But Dallas Congressman John Bryant says, “Ned Fritz is the father of Texas wilderness.”

Fritz remembers growing up near a hardwood hollow in Oklahoma, where he “learned to love Jesus and John Muir,” not necessarily in that order. Fritz speaks in a soft drawl. A lawyer, he is the kind of trial attorney who forgets little and forgives less, as Cadet Bush learned. He entered the law because “I am argumentative. I can ask a lot of questions pretty easily, especially about three-dimensional or environmental law.”

Major conservation awards from sources as diverse as Chevron and The Nature Conservancy testify to Fritz’s achievements. In the history of modern forest-related legislation and litigation, he has played a major role through his favorite organization, the Texas Committee on Natural Resources (TCONR).

At the time Ned Fritz was teaching George Bush to fly, the Sam Houston National Forest–which lies between Dallas and Houston–was only a decade old. Known locally as “the piney woods,” the Sam Houston had been cut over by the 1940s, but it regenerated more or less naturally. Then one day the piney woods reached what the Forest Service regarded as rotation age–time to cut–and the Forest Service accelerated its clearcutting. All hell has been breaking loose, Texas-style, ever since.

The Silvecultural practice known as even-aged management or clearcutting appaled Ned Fritz. So did the site preparation that followed the clearcut–the bulldozing, the burning, the spraying, the pine-only planting. He calls clearcutting “the most destructive form of continuous logging ever devised.”

Fritz had been all over this country and even to Europe to study forests under uneven-aged or (his preferred term) “selection” management. He could not understand why even-aged management was necessary or desirable. He was not and is not against timber harvest. He was and is against clearcutting.

Fritz remembers, “I got a call from a lady who said the Forest Service was about to ruin her favorite walk. I went down there with writer Mike Frome. We inspected things with the forest supervisor. I asked that they stop clearcutting right then and give the area–Four Notch–wilderness consideration.”

When Ned Fritz “asks” you for something, you are likely to be on the received end of the kind of lawyer’s letter no one happily receives. For better or worse, Four Notch did eventually become an official wilderness. More on that later.

In the meantime, Fritz followed the Monongahela clearcutting controversy with great interest. Then he filed the case that made him famous, “TCONR v. Butz” (1976), referring to Fritz’s group, the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, and Earl Butz, then Secretary of Agriculture.

“We had a cinch case,” recalls Fritz. “There was no question that the Organic Law of 1891 forbade what the Forest Service was doing. With absolute brazen gall, they proceeded to clearcut all over the place. I filed to save Four Notch.”

Fritz lost that battle, but he continued his war against clearcutting. In retrospect, Fritz says his scorching legal briefs would have burned all the hotter if he had understood the relationship between clearcutting and Knutson-Vandenberg (K-V) Funds, which provide money for reforestation.

“Bureaucrats always have incentives to pad their budgets, he says. “So they figured out a new approach to K-V funds that would make their budgets grow. If they clearcut more, they would create more areas that needed costly and intensive site preparation and planting.”

If, one the other hand, they had stayed with selection management, then there would have been little need for reforestation, thanks to natural regeneration. “This explains one of the reasons the Forest Service is so excessively bullheaded about preferring even-aged management,” maintains Frits. “They quadrupled their K-V take when they started clearcutting in the 1960s.”

Fritz’s arguments on this subject follow those laid out by forest economist Randal O’Toole in his book Reforming the Forest Service. Thanks to Fritz and others, there are bills in Congress now to reform the Forest Service’s use of K-V funds.

TCONR v. Butz ate up three years of Fritz’s life, but he does not regret it, even though he was ultimately reversed on appeal in what he calls “the Court of Death.” But he insists he did not lose on the facts. With the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976 looming, the judge let the Forest Service off the hook by giving the agency the chance to develop forest plans that might consider alternatives to clearcutting. A disgusted Fritz says, “The Forest Service and the timber industry got a version of NFMA passed that gave them discretion over clearcutting. That was the end of it.”

Having failed to curtail clearcutting on national forest lands, Fritz turned to another remedy to save places like Four Notch. The late 1970s, in addition to being the days of NFMA, were also the time of RARE II, a nationwide review of roadless areas and their suitability for wilderness designation. At less than 5,000 acres, Fourt Notch was still the largest potential wilderness available in Texas. Fritz admits, “It had some roads in it, but roads can be closed. It also has a rich history and native biodiversity.”

To get a feel for that diversity and history firsthand, I visited General Sam Houston’s estate, called “Woodland Home.” I learned that the owner, like most cotton growers, had cut and burned some of the forests he found dominating the red clay soils. But he preserved the trees on his personal estate, where I saw huge old loblolly and shortleaf pines, mixed in with magnificent upland hardwoods like post oak, water oak, and sweetgum. Nearby grow the national champion sycamore and prickly ash. In a forested place called Four Notch, Houston had blazed trails through the fireants, cardinals, dogwood, and poison ivy by cutting four notches in tree trunks.

In spite of what eventually happened to Fourt Notch (we’ll get to that in a minute), the struggle over its wilderness designation was worthwhile to Fritz, because he says that we “now have a national consensus that clearcutting is a bad thing.”

No one shall escape whipping. Fritz felt environmentalists should have applied mercy killing to NFMA. “But the Sierra Clube leadership thought they could live with it.” The results, according to Fritz, have been distinctly mixed. “NFMA has been a blessing in getting facts out through the forest plans, but the Forest Service bureaucracy has used it to delay change by revising plans in the face ouf our lawsuits.” The resulting battle to exhaustion makes no one happy. “They’ll win this battle because we’re paying them, and they’re not paying us,” Fritz says.

Bogged down in lawsuits and administrative appeals, Fritz has formed the Forest Reform Network, which consists of local groups around the country that mean to “reform” the Forest Service through legislative action banning clearcutting. At the group’s recent annual Forest Reform Pow-Wow in New Mexico, 250 activists gathered to lay plans to pursue Fritz’s selection-management agenda.

Not everyone was cheering, however. Frit’z adversaries come from both sides of the fence. He is currently embroiled in a controversy pitting him against the Sierra Club, which has wavered on the anticlearcutting campaign. A letter he wrote to the club is of the kind you would expect from an attack attorney. Fritz says, “The national environmental groups have decided to save the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest and to hell with everybody else.”

Fritz is working for an anticlearcutting bill called the Forest Biodiversity and Clearcutting Act. The bill has numerous congressional cosponsors nationwide.

It is important to Fritz that the ancient forests be saved. But he insists that too many conservationists miss the point: the importance of silvicultural systems. Fritz is a 30-year member of the American Forestry Association. He says, “AFA has withdrawn from the main issue, which is sound silviculture. I don’t think they are providing enough facts on the issue of even-aged versus selection management.”

Fritz’s hatred of clearcutting is legendary. He ticks off the list of clearcutting’s faults: intensive site preparation (including bulldozing and burning) following the clearcut, single-species plantings, herbicide and pesticide applications, timber-stand “improvements,” . . . and it goes on and on.

“Clearcutting is a real evil,” he says, “for what it does to native biodiversity.”

In contrast to Forest Service practice, Fritz claims that industrial forest companies like Louisiana Pacific practice selection management throughout the South. His definition: “Select and remove the trees least likely to provide quality timber. Let the others grow until they begin to decline in productivity. Then take them, but never take more than one-third of the canopy. Manage for all ages and all species.”

Disputes about wilderness and silviculture were only the beginning. They led to another battle–over whether and how to “manage” a bug-infested wilderness for endangered species. Four Notch was declared an official wilderness, and then, says Fritz, “The regional forester sent us a supervisor determined to get even for our temporary wilderness victory.”

Everyone involved faced a common enemy, the dreaded southern pine beetle. And everyone was trying to save the red-cockaded woodpecker. The results were general disaster and confusion, with the nightmare of the Wilderness Act pitted against the Endangered Species Act.

Starting in the early 1980s, the southern pine beetle began to ignore boundaries and take whatever pines the legal battles and chainsaws had left behind. After the Firs and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued its recovery plan for the woodpecker, the Forest Service set out to create the habitat conditions the agency deemed necessary for the bird’s survival. Fritz, naturally, wanted the Forest Service to log selectively rather than clearcut. But FWS Regional Director Mike Spear declined to restrict the Forest Service’s silvicultural options.

With fusillades of flaming legal briefs punctuating the growing general darkness, the army of southern pine bettles began to move in, sending winged scouts as far as 10 miles in advance of their main force. In what may appear as total chaos, beetle infestations or “spots” generally move this way: from dead, vacated trees to trees where brood adults emerge; then on to larvae; then to eggs; then to fresh attackes in which breeding beetles release strong sexual attractants called pheromones. To make things worse, stressed trees release the substances that attract pheromone-loaded scout beetles.

As soon as the pine beetles began to hit the parts of the Four Notch Wilderness that were also habitat for colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers, the Forest Service responded with state-of-the-art treatment, including helicopters, spraying, and buffer clearcuts.

Claiming that selection management was being used in woodpecker habitat elsewhere, Fritz blew up. “Of course the buffer cuts failed!” he fumes today. “The absurdity of cutting a strip even as wide as 250 feet did not impress them. They were out there cutting, and they were selling that timber. They called it a salvage cut, even though they were taking more than 50 percent green uninfested trees. They suppressed information showing that cutting actually increased the spread of the southern pine beetle by sending tree-under-stress signals to scout beetles.”

Fritz went to court and to the media, charging that the Forest Service was hellbent on exterminating both the red-cockaded woodpecker and the Four Notch Wilderness.

Meanwhile, the beetle marched on and on, leaving little of the Four Notch Wilderness suitable for the woodpecker. Precisely because the Forest Service manages for the 60- to 80-year-old pine that makes good habitat, 70 percent of the known woodpecker colonies in Texas are on national forest lands. In the spring of 1990, things went from bad to worse, as the beetle moved into the Little Lake Creek Wilderness.

In accordance with the recovery plan for the woodpecker, the Forest Service went to work in and around Little Lake Creek with chainsaws and Dursban, an insecticide. Then they put out plastic owls to keep the surviving woodpeckers from eating the poisoned beetles. Forest Service spokesman Carl Gidlund said, “This is the first time in Texas and perhaps in the nation that this type of activity has taken place in a wilderness area.”

Predictably, the media had a field day, replete with Fritz and friends calling the Forest Service biologists “mad scientists.” CNN ran a story that made the Forest Service look stupid. With both sides videotaping each other, an ugly shoving match ensured. Armed Forest Service law-enforcement officers appeared.

Fritz went to court for a temporary order to stop the cutting and spraying. He flew in an expert witness, Dr. Herman Heikkenen, an entomologist from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, who said that the Forest Service’s cutting tactics were worsening the situation by attracting even more beetles.

The injunction stopped the Forest Service but not the beetles. Overnight they attacked more and more trees. The net results was dead trees and a desperate need for a new home for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Someone–the Forest Service, or Fritz, or dumb luck–did save the colony. Until the next big blowdown fells their dead cavity trees, the birds are still there in the ruins of the Little Lake Creek Wilderness.

Dismayed and skeptical about such a “victory,” I went to see some of the Forest Service personnel directly involved. Tim Bigler is the district ranger on the Raven District, where Terry Slater is the wildlife biologist and Forest Oliveria is the regional entomologist. Oliveria, a Purdue Ph.D. in forest entomology and population ecology, may have been mad, but he did not seem crazy to me. Neither did the others. They told me what it is like to lock horns with Ned Fritz.

Dr. Oliveria says, “Red-cockaded woodpeckers and southern pine beetles go together in a pine forest, but if you put them in direct conflict, the beetles will win every time.”

Tim Bigler addes, “If Fritz would let us follow our forest plan, working on a rotation of 70 to 80 years, we would eventually have 150-year-old trees at harvest.” That would satisfy almost everyone–except for the beetle.

Part of the Forest Service strategy is to increase tree vigor and resistance to the southern pine beetle by reducing the number and size of trees per acre. Thanks to Ned Fritz, they can’t do that in wilderness, where they have to wait to cut until a beetle emergency arises, by which time it is probably too late. Then the circle closes. A side effect of the cutting is that Knutson-Vandenberg funds become available.

But these funds can be used as discretionary funds as well as for reforestation. Bigler says, “K-V dollars are being used to save the red-cockaded woodpecker now.”

Oliveria adds, “Our present lack of management in wilderness will lead to the eradication of the woodpecker in the wilderness in the long term.” He points out that Texas is actually at the periphery of suitable habitat for southern pine, so there will always be some degree of stress on the trees, which is one reason they are so vulnerable to the beetles.

After my visit with Fritz and some of his antagonists, I returned to the ruins of Little Lake Creek Wilderness, scene of all the fuss. Artivicial cavities were strapped to some of the standing trees. One of the felled trees bore a sign telling me that I was entering “wilderness.”

It was warm enough to start the southern pine beetle armies on the march. Though I did see pileated woodpeckers, I saw no red-cockaded woodpeckers. The piney woods and their hapless inhabitants seemed victims of human folly and of the inexorable, unpredictable, uncontrollable processes of nature.

Tom Wolf is hard at work on a book about the landscape ecology of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the San Isable and Rio Grande National Forests in Colorado.

COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests

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