IN a calculated effort to deflect criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United States Forest Service announced that it would reduce clear-cutting in the national forests by as much as 70 percent. Greeted warmly by much of the environmental establishment, this policy is the cornerstone in the USFS's attempt to adopt "a more ecological approach to management of the Forest Service's 191-million-acre national forest system." Unfortunately, the policy is le ss a considered ecological step than it is an attempt to curry favor with the environmental establishment and mitigate criticism of the president.
Clear-cutting is typically viewed as an unmitigated ecological disaster. Outdoor enthusiasts, in particular, object to the practice, dismayed by the creation of checkerboard clearings. Film clips of clear-cuts, barren save for scattered stumps, have become a staple of environmental news.
While such pictures may be aesthetically unappealing, however, clear-cuts are hardly a major environmental threat. Clear-cuts, like many other attempts to utilize the wealth of America's natural resources, entail both costs and benefits. Indeed, environmental benefits can even accrue from clear-cutting, if its done properly.
While clear-cutting was portrayed as the enemy of endangered species during the recent owl flap in the Pacific Northwest, many animals and plant species rely for their survival on the conditions that a clear-cut generates.
The canopy of older forests often prevents sufficient sunlight from reaching the forest floor, thereby inhibiting the growth of many plant species. For shade-intolerant trees, such as the southern yellow pine and Douglas fir, this means that no new trees will grow to replace the old until the area is cleared.
Absent periodic clear-cutting every few decades, only forest fires, storms, or disease and insect infestations can clear the areas needed for these species' regeneration. Before the advent of clear-cutting, only such natural disasters led to younger generations of these trees.
Many animal species, moreover, prefer the habitat offered by younger stands of trees. For instance, songbirds and rodents typically thrive in new forest growth. Various ungulates, particularly deer, also benefit from the presence of younger trees. These animals in turn are prey for various predators, including snakes, wolves, and even owls. If environmentalists are concerned with encouraging biodiversity, moderate clear-cut rotations should actually be encouraged. Through such careful management, which p rovides for a wide range of tree ages, a given region can sustain a tremendous diversity of animal and plant species without sacrificing the economic benefits that clear-cutting provides.
In fact, the new policy lists several environmental exemptions to the new clear-cut policy. These include the establishment and maintenance of habitat for endangered or threatened species and the encouragement of growth for "vegetative species that are shade-intolerant."
In its announcement to limit clear-cutting, the administration felt pressured by public opinion to adopt an ostensibly environmental policy for its aesthetic appeal. The result will be a 10 percent reduction in USFS timber yields and presumably a corresponding increase in the price of lumber. Despite the press-release claims, it is unlikely that the new limitations on clear-cutting will result in a net benefit for the environment.
Because the national forests are publicly managed, the pressures for politically, rather than environmentally or even economically oriented policies recur time and again. On the other hand, private owners are developing the means of providing for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation while still increasing timber harvests. This can be seen in the actions of International Paper and other timber companies in the Southeastern US.
Other private stewards preserve older forests for their scenic beauty. Michigan's Huron Mountain Club, for instance, privately maintains thousands of acres of old-growth forest.
Under federal management, national forest timber yields are declining and the environmental quality of federal lands is not improving. This is primarily the result of various political pressures that are inexorably linked to government ownership. The way to release these pressures is to remove precious natural resources from the political arena. Under private management, policies can be developed that serve the needs of the environment, and not the whims of politics.