Managing change by changing management – forest policy

Managing change by changing management – forest policy – editorial

Neil Sampson

Radio and television commercials aired in Washington, DC, recently have featured sincere western lumbering families pleading with Congress not to enact old-growth legislation that would affect their jobs and livelihoods. It is impossible not to feel empathy with these people, because they face significant disruption in their lives as the regional logging economy in the Pacific Northwest goes through significant changes. But that disruption isn’t being caused just by spotted owls, environmentalists, or the Forest Service. It is being caused by change-significant, immediate, inevitable change.

Make no mistake-Pacific Northwest forestry has a bright future. Highly productive lands, managed under forestry concepts that grow more sophisticated as time passes, assure a future in which the commercial forestlands of the West will provide a multitude of benefits, environmental as well as economic. But in most places that future is two to three decades ahead. Investments in forest productivity made since about 1960 are growing, but they are not ready to begin paying dividends today, at least not at the rate that a brisk market demands.

What is ready for harvest today are the rapidly dwindling supplies of old-growth trees on federal lands. And that is the rub. Federal foresters are given a stewardship mandate -the public expects them to manage so that the public forests are perpetually available for a wide variety of public benefits, only one of which is timber.

In recent years, rapidly growing public pressures have been exerted to prevent the elimination of the old-growth forests and the plants and animals that inhabit them. Although foresters felt strongly that clearcutting was the logical first step toward rebuilding a new forest, the public never bought that idea, and neither did a wide variety of scientists. Old-growth forests, once clearcut, may become productive again in a matter of decades, but they take much longer to become replicas of the ecosystem that occurred naturally. What the public expected-maintenance of an almost-native forest condition-wasn’t happening.

The public policy reaction, pressed by environmental organizations, was a call to remove significant portions of the federal forest from the timber base. Land placed in “reserved” status-wilderness areas, parks, or other restricted zones-would no longer be available for timber harvest and was thus protected. Those reserved areas have grown as each new withdrawal was made by the Congress.

Meanwhile, however, timber harvest continued on the unreserved” lands, and often the cutting rate was intensified as forest managers tried to meet a national timber target established by Congress, which was unwilling to cut back national harvest targets (and revenue flows) as fast as it placed limits on the land. The result was more harvesting on a smaller commercial timber base. In some places, harvest levels have been unsustainable, the forest has been exploited, and the stewardship mandate has been violated. The land looks abused to all who view it, and critics of the current situation are quick to make sure that visiting dignitaries are shown the worst-looking examples.

The result has become what many observers see as the worst possible way to manage federal forests-complete preservation on one side of an artificially drawn line, and complete exploitation on the remainder. The preserves don’t stay preserved,” because that’s not the way nature works, and the exploited lands become an embarrassment to any who believe that federal forest management should provide a model of good stewardship.

So the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and the lives of the people who live in timber-dependent towns there, are in for a period of intense change. If we continue the “harvest-as-usual” policy, change will be delayed a few years. In a decade or two, with low-elevation old-growth virtually gone, the pressure will go back onto the private and state forests. Many will be ready for harvest by then, but those new forests won’t provide old-growth wood for the special products that demand it. Inevitably, some mills will close, and some towns will dry up in the process. If we change the management of the remaining old-growth federal forests now, while there are still harvestable forests to manage, the change will be more immediate but less dramatic, and, we hope, less disruptive. Timber harvest will soon settle into a sustainable rate that can provide a more predictable rate of economic activity in the communities than any boom-and-bust strategy could provide.

The big unknown, of course, is the economy. Western forest families, reading television scripts written for them and paid for by the forest-products industry, said that people in Washington, DC, don’t understand what is happening in the West. That is certainly so-it is hard to understand another person’s situation unless you’ve been in it yourself. But we understand another reality that perhaps those families don’t encounter on a daily basis. In several fast-growing urban areas that we have polled, homebuilding is about to come to a screeching halt, judging from the precipitous drop in building-permit applications over recent months. The savings-and-loan crisis, the federal deficit, and the problems in the Middle East threaten to place a huge wet blanket on the American economy.

If the economy nosedives, and housing starts drop significantly, the profits in timber will dry up and the industry will shrink accordingly. The jobs that people begged Congress to protect cannot be assured by trying to press larger supplies of raw timber onto a reluctant market.

Yes, change is no doubt coming to the Pacific Northwest, and change is always disruptive. But the real villains aren’t spotted owls or environmentalists. The real villain is change itself, forced by the fact that our hungry demand has caught up with our shrinking supply-and by our reluctance to abandon that 100-year-old, uniquely American dream that says that in spite of a robust and growing nation, we will protect our national forest legacy so that our children, and their children, still have choices in management and stewardship like those we have enjoyed.

COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests

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