The fires that have darkened vast stretches of the American West this summer have sparked a national debate over forest management. That debate will grow hotter as the Clinton administration issues a plan that includes timber thinning and prescribed burns.
Fundamental differences between those who emphasize preserving the scenic and recreational value of national-forest land, and those who want increased industrial access to that land, will be highlighted (see story, page 2). A balanced approach, allowing some added logging where thinning is clearly needed, should emerge.
But the policy debate in Washington is only part of a larger picture. As the trend toward less timber removal from US forests continues, its effect is felt in places far removed from Montana, Idaho, or New Mexico. The world demand for wood products is vigorous. Fewer board feet of pine or fir from the American West means heightened forest harvests in Indonesia or Brazil - and heightened environmental problems as well.
Preserving forests and the ecological benefits they provide - from wildlife habitat to cleaner air - is a matter of international concern. It has to be addressed, however, at all levels of society.
Wood pulp for paper and board feet for building are not irreplaceable. Synthetic and other natural fibers can do much of the same work. "Engineered" building materials can provide more strength at greatly reduced costs in lost trees.
Recycling and reuse are other keys to cutting back on wood consumption. Wooden industrial pallets, which account for two-fifths of the hardwood cut in the US, can be recycled into furniture. Offices can learn to reduce the paper flow and rely more on electronic communications.
All this, of course, is already happening. But it should be further encouraged by international agreements, national policies, business decisions, and the choices of individual consumers.
Thus, we can look forward to a time when the world's forests are shaped as much by the forces of nature as by the forces of the market.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society