Bulldozers in the Piney Woods
"Why don't they clear-cut their own durn land?" cries George Russell, waving his arm across this stretch of stubbly, burned earth, which looks as though General Sherman had just forged through it on his march through Georgia.Skip to next paragraph
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"They destroy the people's forest for their own greed," he complains. "Then they spend the taxpayers' money to plant trees that nature would have grown for us anyway, free, gratis, for nothing."
George Russell is a young, local conservationist. Ordinarily a nonviolent fellow, he gets worked up when he sees huge stands of trees anywhere mowed down and the earth burned after them (which is what clear-cutting of forests frequently entails). The fact that paper pulp and lumber companies are clear-cutting a national forest to make greater profits adds gall to an already bitter brew.
Across the clearing from where he is speaking is the edge of a deep, majestic forest, canopied by tall, overreaching pines and crowded with oak, dogwood, magnolia, ash, maple, sweet gum -- all echoing with mingled bird cries and undertones of silence. It's called the Four-Notch area of Sam Houston National Forest, one of the enclaves of wilderness that conservationists like Mr. Russell are trying to save from commercial clear-cutting.
This is the piece of wilderness that one government official calls "the trigger of our clear-cutting controversy in the state of Texas," but the controversy stretches beyond Texas to the rest of the United States.
Congress is considering exempting another 15 million acres of national forests across the country from this kind of clear-cut.
Texas conservationists want to exempt only a fraction of the 524,281 acres that have been earmarked for clear-cutting (out of a total of 556,458 commercially accessible acres). Altogether, they want about 60,000 acres to be designated as wilderness here -- slightly more than 10 percent of the national forest in the state. And, since national forests represent 4 percent of the timber now being cut for commercial purposes in Texas, the conservationists say they are, in effect, asking that only four-tenths of 1 percent of all the trees currently being felled here be allowed to grow into natural antiquity.
"Is that too much to ask? To save all of this from becoming dixie cups and toilet paper and McDonald's wrappers?" Mr. Russell says, as though no reasonable man could disagree.
Apparently, many reasonable men do.
The preservation of national forests is a matter of raging debate among conservationists, lumber and paper companies, the Department of Agriculture, congressmen, hunters, fishers, hikers, campers, and dozens of other groups, nationwide. And, while Texas Rep. Charles Wilson (D), whose district includes Four-Notch and other designated wilderness sites, says, "We don't have the Armageddon over this issue they have on the West Coast," the question of commercial clear-cutting in national forests is seething in this area -- the Piney woods of Texas, which includes all the national forests in East Texas.
The national forest system, unlike the nation's parks, is managed by the Department of Agriculture on what is termed a "multiple usage" basis. This means that forest not designated wilderness or earmarked just for recreation is put out to bid by the government. Lumber and paper companies then come in and harvest the leased plot.
Much of this harvesting is done by clear-cutting -- leveling an area of 50 to 80 acres by bulldozer, rather than cutting roads into the forest and choosing the most valuable trees and leaving the rest to grow into statuesque, venerable forest denizens.
The practice provokes charges that the Forest Service is the handmaiden of the lumber and paper industries, that federal land is managed for the benefit of a few companies, and that there is altogether too little concern for the ecological effects of commercial intrusions into the people's forests. On the other side, there are charges that conservationists are out to deprive local timber workers of jobs, and that wilderness designations will prevent landowners from trucking in and out of their own land.
Congressman Wilson says the controversial has become so rough that he is afraid George Russell could be hurt by local landowners. And Mr. Russell acknowledges that he has received threats from local people who have, he argues, been misled by timber interests.