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.

"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.

"It's a heck of an emotional issue," acknowledges Rich Lindell, a public information officer for the Forest Service here. "And there are several lively antagonists around here who love to talk a lot about it."

These antagonists include Ned Fritz, chairman of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, who in 1976 got an injunction to stop clear-cutting in designated areas (this injunction was oveturned by a higher court in 1978; John Henry Falk, a colorful local figure who is probably the dean of Texas liberals and who bitterly opposes clear-cutting, comparing it to strip mining; and Mr. Russell, whom Mr. Lindell considers "a very emotional young man."

"Then there is a lot of congressional, political infighting," Mr. Lindell adds, a fact confirmed by Representative Wilson, who growls, "I don't compromise with [pro-wilderness opponents like] Bob Eckhardt, I fight them. And he hasn't won a battle yet."

Rep. Robert C. Eckhardt is a Democratic congressman from a neighboring district who is generally on the conservationists' side of the battle. He points out that what is happening here in East Texas is a microcosm of a national problem.

"There is a terrific drive to commercialize everything," he complains. "It's the kind of thing that leads to dredging oyster beds to get the shells to make concrete [thus destroying fishing, as well as the marine ecology]. All the same kind of thing.

"We're entering a frugal era when there is not enough money set aside for parks. At the same time, there never has been more pressure to fund parks close to pupulation centers. But the Forest Service takes it as their duty to treat the national forest just as the cotton farmers did cotton crops when they made tenant farmers on their land grow cotton right up to the front porch, to the exclusion of a garden.

"The thing that worries me is that we are cutting these places down already, and although we will wake up to their loss, by the time we do, they'll be lost to erosion, development, and a lack of planning. People who live in Houston are only a generation removed from country folks. They are used to hunting in the forest, fishing the streams, camping out under the trees. What we are doing is destroying these people's heritage."

Mr. Russell, an outgoing, friendly fellow with longish hair and the slightest whisper of an East Texas drawl, shows me this heritage during an hour-long hike back into the Four- Notch wilderness area, pointing out colonies of tree species , delicate spider webs, all the incredible, inexhaustible detail of the forest.

"We're a primitive culture living in an advanced technology," he says, making his way back along Briar Creek Walk, an offshoot of the Lone Star Hiking Trail. "The sad truth is that we have the power to destroy what we do not yet understand. I mean, it doesn't take much education to turn a bulldozer into an instrument of destruction and kill an entire forest. But that's the kind of power we've got. And it's in the hands of people who just don't understand the beauty, complexity, and fragility of what they're destroying.

"How can those people in New York City make decisions about this great multitude of plants and animals when they haven't even seen them?"

New York, headquarters for many companies that practice clear-cutting in the nation's forests, seems far away indeed from the midst of this majestic forest. The upper reaches of the arching treetops fragment the light, filtering it green and creating the feeling of another world, serene and cloistered.

Suddenly, however, we come upon a massive clear-cut, baked in untempered afternoon sun and filled with dead tree stumps, an ugly gouge in the wilderness, which Mr. Russell says was leveled over a single weekend on a $40,000 contract. Those revenues, according to George Landrum, district ranger in the western half of the Sam Houston forest, go into the general fund of the US Treasury and are appropriated by the Congress for a multitude of uses. "What we turn in might go on to buy a bomb," he says.

Mr. Russell contends that clear-cuts like these make the price of bombs too high. Wildlife is disrupted, and turtles and other slow-moving creatures are frequently killed.

"Anything you do, you're going to kill a bug or two," comments Billy B. Mazza , a resource forester on the timber staff of the Forest Service. But he also maintains that careful searches conducted after clear-cuts have found no traces of dead wildlife.

Whether animals are killed in the cutting process may be a moot point, anyway , if there is merit in the conservationists' argument that a gradual upheaval is taking place in the forests as clear-cutting tears steadily at the ecological fabric of the wilderness.

"This is a whole intricate mosaic, an infinitely complex web of life," Mr. Russell argues. "When you break one of the strands, you interfere with the purpose of the creator, and mankind suffers a great loss. Dogwood, for instance , acts as a mineral pump. It pulls up minerals into the top soil to make them more accessible to other trees. There are so many symbiotic relationships like these that we ignore and many more that we don't even know about.

"The Forest Service says they have to cut out big areas because many of the trees are dead. But 80 percent of the birds in this area need dead trees to poke for insects in."

Other critics see more permanent effects of clear-cutting, such as the destruction of creek bottoms which, suddenly exposed to the intense heat of summer sunlight, dry up.

"I'm not quite as worried about the highlands, which are full of renewable pines, as I am about some of those bottoms, where the pines have gotten longer [ and give shelter to sun- sensitive growth]," comments Representative Eckhardt, adding that it is in these bottoms where one finds the most complex infrastructure of forest life.

R. (Max) Peterson, chief of the National Forest Service, counters this by saying, "You might ask yourself what happened in history when [these creak bottoms were] burned."

Boswell Creek is just such a bottom. Sitting on its banks, above still waters dappled with milky-white patches of filtered sunlight on a bed of rippled sand, Mr. Russell points out the daubed mud homes of crayfish and the other water-sustained life that would be immediately dried up if this area were clear-cut.

The battle to keep this particular stretch of creek -- with its green, translucent canopy over the waters and preserving the life here -- from being clear-cut has been a fierce one, with charges of dirty tricks and prevarication on both sides.

Mr. Landrum argues that the Forest Service maintains "a balanced, multiple-use program, directly within the law and congressional guidelines," adding that the entire Four-Notch enclave is already protected until a study is completed in 1983.

Conservationists like Mr. Fritz, a red-haired, lean activist who lives on an overgrown piece of property in otherwise carefully manicured North Dallas, charges that the Forest Service has repeatedly violated protected areas and the important buffer zones surrounding them, in direct defiance of Congress and the instructions of the secretary of agriculture.

Mr. Fritz also disputes the Forest Service's contention that most of the Piney Woods came from abandoned cotton farms which the government had bought the replanted during the depression. "Maybe there were some cotton farms," he argues, "but a lot of that forest was 40 years old in 1936 when the Forest Service bought it."

The point is important, because the Piney Woods, like much of the national forest, are being clear-cut on a rotation basis, during 40- to 80-year cycles; and the whole dispute among conservationists and Forest Service officials pivots on the question of how long, if ever, it will take these woods to replenish themselves and return to their natural beauty.

The conservationists argue that the woods here have taken as long as a hundred years to grow to their present level. The Forest Service says that the woods replenish themselves far more quickly, with clear-cut lands growing back in as little as 40 years.

"That's all right, if you want to visit a forest whose maximum age is 40," observes Mr. Eckhardt. "But you will mostly see immature trees. I visited a park here in Washington, D.C., the other day which had trees several feet in diameter. They were three hundred or more years old. The point is that a beautiful forest takes time to grow. It has to come about naturally in the course of time."

What you wind up with the short-cycle clear-cutting of the nation's forests, conservationists argue, are "tree plantations" and not forests.

The difference between the two becomes obvious when you sit on the damp, sandy banks of Briar Creek and look across at a huge, spreading magnolia with three trunks splitting off from a tangle of veneralble roots, which clutch the creek bank like a blanket of arms. This tree provides a chaotic contrast to the orderly, managed growth of clear-cut forests, and it probably has taken decades of preliminary forest growth to bring it into existence at all.

Such elderly forest citizens have been preserved in a program of selective harvesting, once the standard method of harvesting trees here and elsewhere. Now they are threatened by the development of new forest-shearing technology and the consuming need for paper by companies like Time Inc., which does most of its cutting on its own land and has bought out major forest owners, such as Arthur Temple, in recent years.

According to several sources, Arthur Temple used to practice selective harvesting in the area but gave in to the economic logic of Time, which showed the enormous savings accruing from clear-cutting.)

"The times have changed," Mr. Eckhardt laments. "They used to go in there and pull out trees for lumber. Today, they want the whole shebang. They're going in to get trees for paper pulp. It makes your heart bleed to see a magnificent sweet gum carried into a Champion paper mill. And the magnolias. I've got magnolias on my place 70 feet tall. They've leen around for over one hundred years."

Magnolias like the one on the banks of Boswell Creek are not likely to be around in the nation's forests much longer, unless the government adopts a more selective harvesting program. Many observers consider that unlikely, although there has been some movement in this direction.

In a surprise move Mr. Wilson, ordinarily an opponent of wilderness drives, has proposed a compromise: that the Forest Service abandon clear-cutting here, and only harvest selectively. This, he says, would preserve the beauty of the forests and still maintain jobs and the revenue of the commercial timber companies. But he acknowledges that it would require "a radical bureaucratic departure from the Forest Service to adopt a policy of selective harvesting in Texas."

In the meantime, the battle over clear-cutting rages.

"Anyone who tells you there is a diminishing controversy over clear-cutting is trying to lead you astray," one Forest Service official confided privately. "There is a groundswell of controvery. The movement is tremendous. Even when the pot stops boiling, it is simmering. The Forest Service just will not face it. People are upset about clear-cuts. The people out there in the boonies really care. That's what is eating our lunch over this thing. They care. They want to know those trees are still going to be there the next time they come to the forest."

The trees may not be there.

Indian Mound, an area designated for wilderness study in the East Texas national forests, was mistakenly made the site of an advertised bid for commercial usage before Congress discovered what was going on. Since the bid had been let, the House Interior committee sent a letter, signed by its chairman , Morris K. Udall, John F. Seiberling, and other committee members, instructing Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland to go ahead with the contract because of the "advanced stage of sale," but to "keep activity to a minimum," not cutting within a hundred feet of stream courses, cutting any new logging roads, or engaging in site preparation (burning cut land to control returning growth), "so that Congress can still consider it for wilderness."

Even with these precautions, conservationists argue, something will be lost when the bulldozers move in. "It's a shocking thing," John Henry Falk, who is a neighbor of the Piney Wood, says, "to destroy the whole rhythm and the harmony of nature. You have a feeling that there's a contempt for the earth. Such a shortsighted thing! It's very much like strip mining where they turn the earth upside down. I guess strip mining and clear-cutting epitomize the almost brutal indifference of man to the planet Earth. Total, and absolute, and callous indifference."

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