Everyone agrees timber lands are valuable. But as civilization encroaches and resources dwindle, which forest assets can we afford to save? A Puget Sound professor and five alumni, representing the gamut of opinion, help sort out the contentious debate.
By Andy Dappen
John Muir, the 19th-century conservationist most responsible for creating the American national park system, once said, "We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men." While humans are apt to position themselves before the rest of nature’s creation, Muir had it right in ranking trees first: It is the aggregate of trees–the forests–that transformed our sterile rock floating through the black lifelessness of space into a habitable green oasis.
The miracle of the forests lies in the breadth of their functions. They are lungs that create much of the oxygen we breathe, loins that spawned 90 percent of all terrestrial lifeforms, kidneys purifying the water upon which all life depends and skin anchoring the planet’s fertile topsoil.
The same forests that maintain the health of the planet provide humans with immediately tangible benefits: food, medicine, building materials, weaponry, fuel, paper. But they also supply important intangibles: recreation and relaxation, and perspective that borders on spiritualism.
Historically, the rise of Old World civilizations was directly linked to the availability of timber for ships and for the vast fuel supply needed to founder metals. Once the forests of one power were depleted, upstart civilizations with fresh forest resources vanquished them. In fact, until modern times it was a well understood principle of war that capturing or destroying an enemy’s forests rendered a crippling blow.
In the New World, timber became fundamental to trade, and many settlers found their salvation in the production of wood for staves and ships. By the late 1600s, according to John Perlin, author of Forest Journey, anyone who built a sawmill made a considerable profit by the woods.
The earliest colonists discovered the land not only teemed with moose, bear, turkey, ungulates, waterfowl, fish and beaver, it sponged up, then metered out, so much water there was no need for wells. The vastness and plenitude of this wilderness etched itself into the American ethos. It defined the people who migrated here. Even now, though our forests are greatly diminished and our tracts of wild land no longer boundless, this resource continues to mold our national identity.
Tragically, conflicting beliefs over forest values arrived with the first settlers. Says Perlin, "Encroachment upon the forest by the colonists [deprived] the mammals, birds, and fish of their habitat, robbing the Native Americans of their age-old means of subsistence." It was over the forests and all they represented that the first of many Indian wars erupted.
Some 300 years later, the wars continue. Today’s stakeholders are sociologically more homogenized, but the beliefs over what the forests represent are as diverse as ever. Within the Puget Sound family alone are environmentalists like Janice Thomson ’85, working to keep federal lands ecologically healthy; researchers like Kylie Kramer ’96, helping define new fire-management policy, and Erica Cline ’92, who hopes her work will help find common ground so that forests aren’t lost to development; industry advocates like Julie Dieu ’87, who know forests represent jobs to the community and products even environmentalists need; policymakers like state senator Debbie Regala ’68, working to balance conflicting demands on the forests; and professors like Karin Sable, who believe the growing field of ecological economics offers new hope.
Contrary to popular belief, most mainstream conservation groups like The Wilderness Society are not no-cut organizations. They recognize the jobs created as well as the need for wood products, and provide guidelines for sustainable forest practices on federal lands. In the case of the Wilderness Society, however, the prevailing land ethic underpinning such use is captured in the words of the society’s founder, Aldo Leopold, who said, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community. And it is wrong when it tends otherwise."
Unfortunately, the history of logging on federal lands has been one of transformation–a rich, biologically complex tapestry of life has been replaced by a monoculture of trees supporting a weak web of life. Based upon this history, The Wilderness Society and many conservationists like Janice Gardiner Thomson ’85 believe people can now derive greater ecological, economic and social benefits by removing portions of federal lands (namely, those areas that are still roadless) from timber production. Many politicos are prone to argue such forestlands are economic black holes, but Thomson says they’re dead wrong.
Working at the Seattle office of The Wilderness Society, Thomson uses science to define the condition of our forests, threats to those lands, and tactics to manage and protect them. She is working on a satellite-image analysis monitoring the loss of forest habitat in the central Cascades of Washington. "The information shows the speed and pattern of development," she says. "It will help conservation groups and government agencies strategize over what’s to be done and how fast we must work."
Groups like The Wilderness Society are quantifying the economic benefit of old-growth forests and forested wilderness. And the numbers are proving that ecological management of federal lands is good business. Mature forests sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. Carbon credits are beginning to develop in the world trading market and, in the near future, climate control policies could easily value these credits at $300 to $600 per acre per year. Water purity and water runoff will also represent big dollars in the future. Last year, logging was banned in the Cedar River watershed, which supplies Seattle with half of its water, when regulatory agencies realized the gain from logging would be a pittance compared to the cost of a water treatment plant if the purification qualities of the watershed were compromised. And in 1998 the Washington State Department of Natural Resources reported it will cost $2.4 billion to build stormwater systems to adequately handle the runoff caused by forests lost over the past decade.
Furthermore, the recreational benefits of federal forests have eclipsed the timber value of these same stands. According to the Wilderness Society, 75 percent of all jobs within our National Forests are connected to recreational activities. Spin-off jobs related to recreation on federal lands are created at a ratio of about one job for every 550 acres of wilderness. The Forest Service itself reported that the estimated national contribution to the Gross Domestic Product of recreating on Forest Service lands was $97.8 billion last year: Timber taken from these same lands only contributed $3.5 billion to the GDP.
"There’s also a spiritual value transcending dollar signs and scientific rationales that many people experience in wilderness like old-growth forests," says Thomson. "Wild places maintain not just the vitality and richness of our environment, they maintain human vitality and richness. We can grow food, produce timber, build houses on lands we’ve already disturbed. But we can’t substitute or reproduce our wilderness."
When the Forest Service, which administers more forest lands than any other federal agency, was established in 1905, its prime directives were to provide timber to a growing nation, protect important watersheds and suppress the massive wildfires that sometimes raged through forestlands. In the 1960s, the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act broadened the Forest Service’s mission to include the management of recreation, forage and wildlife on our public lands. Nonetheless, strict and quick suppression remained the agency’s operative fire strategy. From 1930 to 1970, an average of only 268,000 acres of Forest Service land burned each year–figures that were 10 to 100 times lower than the fire damage sustained on other federal and non-federal lands.
But 70 years of fire suppression left our public lands dangerously fuel rich, and panic over this unnatural condition surfaced after the Yellowstone fires of 1988, a season that saw the charring of more than 7 million federal acres. A change in fire management allowed for some fires to burn themselves out and encouraged the prescribed burning of fuel-rich stands during periods of low fire hazard. All of this, combined with drought conditions that exacerbated both controlled and accidental fires, resulted in three bad fire years during the 1990s, each seeing the ignition of more than 5 million acres.
Still, it was the summer of 2000 that instigated a political knee jerk. Trouble started in May when a prescribed burn, managed by the National Park Service, went AWOL and eventually obliterated 235 homes in New Mexico. This was followed by fires throughout the West that left 7.3 million acres smoking–which prompted the Clinton Administration to appropriate $1.6 billion dollars to the 2001 budget for wildfire management. Now serious consideration is being given to the General Accounting Office’s recommendations that $12 billion be budgeted over the next 15 years to reduce fuel on dangerously loaded lands.
Kylie Kramer ’96 worked for six years as a Forest Service firefighter and is now performing fire-behavior research at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont. She believes future fire-control management will encourage less suppression in remote forests, but will use a combination of selective logging and prescribed burning to reduce fuel loads in areas where wild fires on public lands threaten communities, private homes or private timberlands.
Kramer says this urban-wildland interface is a particularly potent political ember. Letting fires burn themselves out near this interface (which, ecologically, may be good for forests) threatens private property, and no one wants to see their homes or timber assets evaporate in smoke. Meanwhile, attempting to reduce fuel loads near the interface through prescribed burns runs some risk that the fire will escape and turn into a New-Mexico-style calamity. Even the use of selective logging to reduce fuel loads near the interface will have nearby residents and communities protesting over mangled aesthetics. So whether or not it’s the best policy, a considerable amount of suppression continues.
The pressure to contain fires, however, goes beyond private property issues. Says Kramer, "Many people’s livelihoods within the Forest Service depend on fighting fires–that gives suppression an awful lot of inertia." Kramer says suppression probably is necessary to protect private property, but that extensive use of it may be contradictory to the future goals of the Forest Service. "We hope more fire crews will be retrained and channeled into fuel reduction."
Debates over the ultimate goal of fire control is an even larger issue. Those who view trees primarily as dollars are loathe to see timber turned to ash when fires are allowed to burn. However, conservationists who see fire as a necessary component in a forest’s health talk about establishing a new paradigm for federal lands, and managing not for timber (in Washington 95 percent of all forest products are harvested from private and state-owned lands) but for the biodiversity, purification, recreation and aesthetic qualities private lands cannot supply.
Under this paradigm, the goal of fire control would be to return the landscape to its historical stand type and restore the associated ecological services. This would be no easy task and, given the condition of our changed forests, would be expensive. But ultimately the goal would be to let nature reclaim the role of fire control in remote areas. This policy won’t eliminate wildfires, especially if climate change continues to bring warming and drying, but the fires that do start will be far less likely to kill all the trees in their path.
Regardless of the paradigm chosen, the need to define the goal of fire-control management is paramount. Private enterprises exist to maximize profits, but history teaches that bureaucracies exist to maximize funding. For decades, the mindset of the Forest Service has been to "cut X acres to fund the organization." Timber production has been on the skids since the late 1980s but now fire promises an intravenous source of funding and, whether or not fire-control is warranted, the need to "burn Y acres to fund the organization," could become the mantra of the modern agency.
Kramer is a beneficiary of such thinking. Her research facility is tapped into the flash flood of dollars flowing out of the 2000 fire season. She admits, however, there’s reason to worry over the political knee-jerk. To Kramer’s knowledge, the agency is nowhere near having a cogent plan defining the fire-management policy of the future. That means the billions spent on an ill-defined goal could be a waste of money so colossal it could only be called governmental. "Money is being thrown our way to create the illusion that a change is taking place. Measures must be taken to ensure this really does create healthier forests."
To private land owners, says Julie Dieu ’87, an earth scientist for Rayonier, an international forest products company, increased funds to manage fires on federal lands is anything but a waste of money. In fact, "suppressing fires sounds just fine."
Rayonier, the seventh largest private landholder in the U.S., with 2.2 million acres of timberland, including 379,000 acres in Washington State, maintains its own fire-fighting fleet to dowse flames started on its lands and Dieu says the industry is definitely touchy about fires spreading from public holdings to their own. "We don’t want our economic assets ruined."
Fire is but one problem plaguing forestland holders. With suburbia spreading, there’s also the matter of maintaining a good image with nearby residents, many of whom object to the not-so-pristine aesthetics of just-harvested land. There’s the pressure of remaining competitive in an increasingly global market, where foreign competitors benefit from the uneven playing field of fewer regulations. And then there’s the big daddy: complying with the Bible-thick body of rules outlined in Washington state’s new Forests and Fish Plan.
Industries following the letter of these regulations are exempt from litigation over salmon damages arising out of the Endangered Species Act. Dieu, a scientist who simplifies her job description as one that "prevents landslides and keeps dirt out of streams," played an active role in the creation of the Forests and Fish Plan by co-authoring 21 of its technical appendixes.
Much of the environmental community has gone on record pronouncing the plan flawed because the stream buffers (100 to 200 feet per side) and the residual tree guidelines (five trees per acre) are inadequate. However, Dieu maintains, "The plan used the best science available to find a balance between environmental and economic needs. The guidelines are supported by what we know and should provide good environmental protection."
Dieu says that when she talks to members of the environmental community privately, many agree that the Forests and FishPlan is well-grounded on the research available. "But publicly, and perhaps for political reasons, many environmental organizations are demanding more."
Such demands create ongoing friction and polarization between the different camps. In 1999 the Washington Department of Ecology awarded Rayonier the Environmental Excellence Award, only one such award is issued to industry each year. Despite such progress toward responsible and sustainable practices, Dieu feels the industry is still unfairly portrayed as a gang of chainsaw murderers.
Rather than a bane, Dieu believes the industry deserves more credit as a boon to the state. The forest-products industry is the second largest manufacturing industry in Washington. It directly hires about 54,500 employees and government studies estimate that each forest job indirectly supports an additional 2.64 jobs, meaning the industry provides for nearly 200,000 people throughout the state. Additionally, the affiliated taxes on forestlands and timber sales contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local communities and state infrastructure.
Throughout Washington only 1.1 percent of all the state’s commercial forest lands are harvested each year. That means the bulk of those lands are in forests that are holding and purifying water, creating oxygen, locking up carbon dioxide and providing recreation. (Rayonier keeps its lands open to the public.)
All of which has Dieu saying she’s genuinely perplexed by the environmental community’s tactics in relentlessly "driving engineering costs up, harvestable landbase down and making regulations so restrictive that industry is increasingly reaching that threshold where they can’t operate profitably." She mentions Pope and Talbot, another timber company which owned considerable holdings on the Kitsap Peninsula and which recently crossed that threshold. Much of their land was sold to developers.
Dieu says it’s shortsighted to object to all aspects of forest management practices–like the harvest–when most of the time those lands are in forests that contribute ecological and recreational services. "The question becomes this: Do you want these lands to continue growing trees or do you want them converted into the next housing development."
Land conversion is a major concern for Erica Cline ’92, now performing forest-related doctoral research at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources. Cline says conservationists and the timber industry may harbor differences in the management of forests, in governmental regulations and over the width of stream buffers but, to her way of thinking, these camps should be allies first. Their mutual enemy: Urban growth, ubiquitous strip malls, cul-de-sac mania, sprawling tracts of junior-executive homes.
The landscape maps created by Janice Thomson at The Wilderness Society illustrate the problem graphically–in only a decade development has swallowed a massive, almost cancerous, chunk of the forested foothills surrounding the Puget Sound. Says Cline, "We can change forest-industry practices as new information comes to light, but pavement is forever."
Consequently, conservation efforts shouldn’t be strangling private landholders with tighter regulations unless those regulations are truly founded on good science. Cline is helping with that science. She works in plots using newer "retention forestry" practices that have left a percentage of large, healthy trees behind. These residuals act as "lifeboats" to the organisms of a harvested area and also give the regenerating forest a multi-storied canopy.
In particular, Cline studies the mycorrhizal fungi that create vital symbiotic relationships with the roots of many conifers–the fungi provide water and nutrients to the tree in exchange for sugars. Her research will add new information to the question of how many residual trees are needed to maintain healthy sets of mycorrhizal fungi for new growth. To date, she has found that seedlings planted within 8 meters of a residual tree have the most diverse set of fungi to partner with.
So if they’re properly spaced, 10 to 12 residual trees per acre can maintain soils with a very diverse microbiology. Furthermore, the regenerating forest will have a multi-structured canopy that supports a far more diverse set of plants and animals–spotted owl habitat, for example, is thought to require a multi-storied canopy.
"Diversity matters," says Cline. Modern forestry in the Northwest relies heavily on second-growth, monocultural stands of Douglas fir, "but what if climate changes or new diseases threaten the Douglas fir?" asks Cline. "A healthy diversity of trees and soil organisms can protect the forest structure and soil conditions, keeping the forest robust and resilient."
Cline sees considerable future in retention forestry practices. The best practices are those where small changes are highly effective, and she believes knowing how many trees to leave behind–and the optimum pattern possibilities for those trees–may go a long way toward helping conservationists and corporations find common ground over sustainable logging practices.
But more study is needed, which is one of the problems with forestry. "It’s so long-term it may take a rotation of trees (40 to 100 years) to test the effectiveness of new practices."
Acting upon the best information available to balance conflicting needs may well describe Debbie Regala’s existence in the political arena. Although recently elected to the Washington State senate, Regala, ’68, co-chaired the House’s Natural Resources Committee and, along with Julie Dieu, was active in the two-year marathon of hammering out the state’s brand new Forests and Fish Plan. The plan is a salmon-recovery effort that brought together such stakeholders as industry, state agencies, federal agencies, environmental groups and tribes to outline forestry practices that would be in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
Arguably the most important tool within the 2-inch-thick bundle of regulations is the mechanism allowing the plan to evolve as new scientific information, like Erica Cline’s work, becomes available. While Forests and Fish may be law for the next 50 years, Regala says if we discover streams need wider buffers or soil maintenance requires more residual trees, the plan will be tweaked.
Forests and Fish has the greatest impact on the private sector, responsible for some 82 percent of the state’s timber production. Nonetheless, state-owned lands are still a major supplier of timber, contributing another 13 percent of the pie. So while federal land agencies like the Forest Service may be in search of new identities as they move away from timber production, the welfare of many individuals and communities are still tied to state forest lands.
So is the welfare of schools. Many of the Department of Natural Resource’s holdings are grant lands supporting the construction of schools–timber sales contribute $70 million to $90 million per year to the coffers. "These lands create a lot of tension–there are advocates who want to pump more into schools by cutting more, and those advocating sustainable practices for the long term, even if that reduces funding now." Another political hot point: reducing the loss of forests in the Western Washington foothills. "We need those forests for ecological and economic reasons. We need them to maintain the aesthetics and quality of life that brought people to Washington in the first place … but we don’t know how to contain growth. We’ve experimented with urban growth boundaries and impact fees, yet rapid growth continues."
Regala believes we need to do a much better job of conserving and, for the sake of the forests, we need to scale down the concept of a dream home being an ostentatious manor house surrounded by a few acres of land. "I’m a believer in small homes tightly clustered around shared open space–but most Americans aren’t there yet."
Karin Sable, assistant professor of economics at Puget Sound and formerly director of the Environmental Studies Program, blames many of the problems revolving around the forest on the inability of free markets to capture the complexity of value. The current price of sprawling suburban homes, for example, does not properly value the true depletion of forest resources nor the true damage to ecological services. "When we start valuing land and timber properly, we might see that the true cost of a 4,000-square-foot home is prohibitive."
New programs like forest-certification schemes (eco-labeling) are beginning to ensure that our forest products are coming from lands harvested in a truly sustainable fashion. If such schemes see wholesale adoption among consumers or producers, the face of the industry will change, as will the price of its products.
Mainstream economics, evolved under the old open system, assumed that the resource-producing capability of forests was unlimited. But ecological economics, a new school of thought seeking conciliation between economic practices and ecological reality, maintains that the biosphere is closed and resources like forests are limited. "Slowly these economists are changing the pre-analytic conditions–that is, the way economists perceive of the world before creating models determining efficiency or equity," says Sable. "Forests are beginning to be viewed as natural capital that depreciates with use and whose value to society can be liquidated if investments are not made in its maintenance." This shift alone will greatly influence how forests are valued and managed over the long term.
As we begin to conceive of forests in a more complex light, forest values take on new dimensions. Economics is a social science and is, by definition, about human-based values. "We can easily value timber and fiber by turning to markets and looking at prices, but forests also have non-market value (recreation and aesthetics), and ecosystem values. It takes more thought to bring these values into the equation."
New markets are emerging that are putting numbers to some of those non-market values–consider the travel industry, service industries and recreation-equipment purveyors whose existence now depends on forest-related eco-tourism and adventure sports. And while the valuing of ecosystems is a monstrous task, it is being tackled. In 1997 a seminal study conducted by economists, ecologists and geographers was published in Science magazine. It estimated the value of global ecosystems (forests being one of the more important such systems) at $33 trillion–the global GNP that year amounted to a mere $18 trillion. The study validates what ecologists have long contended: The economic worth of standing forests is enormous–far greater than the value of their cut logs.
"Ecology is about complex conditions and interactions, and economics needs to pick up on this. That’s no easy leap because economic thought has always centered around simplification and reductionism."
That there are no simple answers is the nut of the whole forest issue. But accepting that is not grounds for pessimism. In her summation of how we tackle the problems of the forest, Sable actually sums up the strengths of a liberal arts education–an education that fosters creativity and prepares us to deal with conflicting values. "We need to get comfortable with messiness. Surviving the new millennium has much to do with our willingness to embrace complexity and uncertainty."
Not only must we embrace complexity, we should learn to look anew at the virtues of the forest. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, one of the architects of our national park and national forest systems, "Like all Americans, I like big things: big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads … and everything else. But no people ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue."
Charlie Raines ’70, director of the Sierra Club’s Cascade Checkerboard Project, and Ashley Vroman ’01, summer firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management, contributed background information for this story.
Andy Dappen’s writing has appeared in Outside, Sports Illustrated, Backpacker and many other magazines. He wrote about the spiritual draw of mountaintops in the summer 2000 issue of Arches.