'New Forestry': A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Logging

A Seattle-based timber company adopts selective tree-cutting method to preserve wildlife habitat and biodiversity

For more than 100 years, the competition between humans and wildlife over the forests of the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest usually has ended up bad news for the animals. As loggers toppled trees to fill the nation's appetite for lumber, plywood, and paper, the grizzly bears, wolves, native trout, and many other critters were pushed out - some to near-extinction.

But that is changing here as public attitudes and political priorities shift. As big timber companies feel pressure to protect the environment, and also as a younger generation of executives and managers takes over, they are adopting innovative management practices loosely termed "new forestry." Like "ecosystem management," new forestry is a buzzword without official meaning.

Guiding a four-wheel-drive vehicle up the valley between the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains Wilderness areas in northwestern Montana, wildlife biologist Lorin Hicks offers his definition: "The structural retention of elements of the forest that are good for habitat and biodiversity."

What this translates to on the ground, adds Dr. Hicks, director of fish and wildlife resources for the Plum Creek Timber Company, is three things: "green tree retention," or leaving behind trees of each species present before a timber harvest rather than clear-cutting everything; leaving standing dead trees, which support more than 60 species of wildlife in this region; and leaving what forest ecologists call "coarse woody debris" on the ground to provide habitat and soil nutrients.

Neil Sampson, a forest ecology expert for the conservation group American Forests, uses the phrase "light-handed manipulation" to describe this approach.

"What most people are trying to accomplish with ecosystem management is to focus as much on the processes and functions and structures that keep the [forest] system functional as they are on the outcome and the products," he says. "The forester that goes in with a production approach concentrates on what he takes out. The forester that goes in with an ecosystem management approach concentrates on what he leaves behind."

Five years ago, Plum Creek had a reputation for intensively managing its land with a lot of clear-cutting. "We were in that regime in the 1980s, and it got us in a lot of trouble," concedes Charles Grenier, executive vice president of the Seattle-based company that owns more than 2 million forested acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

In a highly critical article in the Wall Street Journal, former congressman Rod Chandler (R) of Washington called Plum Creek "the Darth Vader" of the industry in his state. Environmentalists had even less-flattering things to say.

It was about this time that Jerry Franklin, University of Washington professor of ecosystem analysis, was developing the ideas that have come to be known as new forestry, or what he called "a kinder, gentler forestry." (Several years later Dr. Franklin would present those ideas to President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and much of the White House cabinet at the 1993 "timber summit" in Portland, Oregon.)

Franklin began advising Plum Creek as the company developed a program it calls "environmental forestry." This includes selective logging, buffers along streams to protect water quality and fish habitat, minimizing soil disturbance during timber harvest, and being sensitive to the aesthetic value of forests near communities and along highways.

Touring Plum Creek land in the Swan River Valley less than 100 miles south of the United States-Canadian border, William Parson, the company's director of operations for the Rocky Mountain region, points out a 162-acre site that was selectively logged last winter. Helicopters were used to hoist logs out so that a sensitive riparian zone would not be damaged.

This is not to say that big timber companies have sworn off clear-cutting. But this traditional logging practice, which leaves a forest looking like a bombed-out war zone, is used less often these days. Plum Creek officials say it's down to about 15 percent of their overall operations in the northwest, less than 10 percent in the Rockies.

Plum Creek has also been recognized for working to head off what US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls "train wrecks" over endangered species. Earlier this year, the company worked out an agreement with the Montana Department of State Lands, the US Forest Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide "linkage zones" for grizzly bears, which are on the endangered species list. This allows bears to move through the Swan Valley between wilderness areas by limiting commercial harvest of timber, protecting stream banks, and closing backwoods roads on Plum Creek land.

The goal is to reduce bear-human encounters, most of which come not from the logging operations themselves but from the roads cut into logging sites. Such roads open backwoods areas to hunters, hikers, and others - some of whom may want to shoot grizzlies for sport or profit.

"For many people, road closures are like taking away their backyard," Mr. Grenier says. "They've hunted and fished there for years."

Adds Hicks: "We have a biological and a social experiment going on in the Swan Valley, and we're not going to succeed unless we make progress on both."

Together with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agencies that oversee the Endangered Species Act), the company also is developing a habitat-conservation plan covering 170,000 acres of Plum Creek lands in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State.

Such plans are allowed under the Endangered Species Act as a way for companies to predictably and flexibly manage resources - perhaps even altering habitat - while protecting threatened species. In this case, the land includes 103 nesting sites for the northern spotted owl, as well as habitat for grizzly bears, the northern goshawk, bull trout, and such ocean-migrating fish as the chinook salmon. The habitat-conservation plan is expected to be ready for public review in September.

Secretary Babbitt (who used to head the League of Conservation Voters) said the company "has emerged as one of the really progressive and important players" in developing such plans.

In March, Plum Creek was recognized for having the highest rate of compliance with Montana's voluntary "best management practices" for maintaining water quality. This official audit covered all major landowners in the state, including the US Forest Service.

While new forestry involves an emphasis on the science of plants and animals, water and soils, many experts see it as a shift in attitude as much as anything else.

Franklin uses the word "humility" in describing the approach he launched as a researcher for universities and the US Forest Service.

"If you go in to control the ecosystem, then every surprise represents failure, and the environment has a tendency to deal surprises," says Mr. Sampson of American Forests. "But if you go in with the idea that your management is adaptive and experimental, then every surprise is a learning experience."

Sampson has studied the evolution of forest management by humans in North America from pre-Columbian times when Indians used fire as a tool to manipulate growth patterns up to the highly mechanized industrial forestry of today.

In the process of moving to new forestry, Sampson predicts, "many of the understandings of the early ecologists - native Americans - will be 'rediscovered' and incorporated into modern practice."

All this brings challenges for those who manage forests in the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. "The public's expectations for forests are changing, and we need to come up with different approaches," Hicks says. "I've never seen a time when success with the public is so contingent on good scientific data and interpretation." Still, he adds, "I've never worked at a more exciting time."

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