Problems in the urbanized forest

THERE'S something new on the American scene these days: the rural forest is becoming urbanized. In every part of the United States, the massive move of people from cities to the countryside in recent years has produced a great population of exurbanites living in hundreds of thousands of homes and summer cabins scattered through our rural forests.

These people bring with them an urban perception of the forest world that often clashes with that of the tree farmers who own those woods.

It's causing tough political problems that will require hard work and understanding to resolve.

The newcomers frequently see forestry operations, especially timber harvests, as despoiling the very scenery that attracted them to the area. So they organize to pressure their local counties and municipalities to regulate -- or even prevent -- those operations.

Let me cite some examples:

When an industrial tree farmer in the Great Lakes states began an aspen harvest on land near a small resort town in Wisconsin, a group of residents put pressure on local authorities to ``do something.''

The township responded by posting the road which was being used and closing it to trucks. But the rule was enforced against log trucks only. The company had to use a longer, more expensive roundabout way to get its logs out.

Another Wisconsin township used the same technique to foreclose use of roads from additional logging sites owned by the same company in another nearby county. That effectively shut down operations in its forest there.

Reports coming from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania reveal a growing similar harassment of forest landowners under a variety of local harvesting ordinances.

In my own state, California, we see it happening in exurbanite communities stretching through the coastal forests north and south of the San Francisco Bay area. In spite of our existing state forest practice laws, perhaps the toughest in the nation, local regulators are imposing their own objectives on forest owners.

The situation presents a growing dilemma for tree farmers, some of whom are being forced out of business. When this happens, the exurbanites sometimes suddenly find the forest land around them sold to developers who convert the land to housing tracts.

A second influence of forest urbanization is the impact of settlement on the land itself. The effects can be seen in Lake Arrowhead near Los Angeles, where an urban community has exploded through forests around the lake.

In spite of the large settlement, Lake Arrowhead remains a forest -- still subject to fire, insects, and disease as before, but threatened now by the effects of urbanization as well.

The large spreading, shallow root systems of pine trees are being cut by graders, compacted, and paved over. Native dryland trees are adversely affected by watering of lawns and nonnative shrubbery, and in some areas around the lake 50 percent of the native trees in irrigated yards are so weakened that they are under attack by bark beetles.

The greatest threat of all is the danger of forest fire. The nonharvest of old, declining trees and the addition of houses and other buildings to the list of combustibles in the forest is developing a growing load of fuel. Few people realize that periodic wildfires have been part of nature's process of forest renewal for eons of time.

Lake Arrowhead is just one example of the critical need for people in urbanizing forests to look with more understanding eyes at the forest environment. The land has its own natural rhythms of birth, growth, decay, and renewal, and we must know them if we are to work successfully with nature to shape her gently to our ends.

Foresters are trained to do just this, and the management practices being pursued on privately owned forests are almost everywhere governed by state forestpractice rules.

Though timber cutting may indeed mar the scenery at times,those who choose to dwell in forested environments should study what they see being carried out around them so that they may better understand how the long-term preservation and health of the forest is being maintained.

Most of all, let's remember that we're growing nearly 1.5 times more sawtimber than we harvest or lose to natural causes in the US.

It's a record that tree farmers can be proud of. It's also one that should reassure their neighbors that our forests are a renewable resource and that we're by and large doing a pretty good job of managing them.

Harold R. Walt is chairman of the California State Board of Forestry.

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