ON June 4, just days before President George Bush was scheduled to fly to Brazil for the Earth Summit, the United States Forest Service announced that it was adopting a new "management philosophy." No longer would clear-cutting be the primary method of logging the public forests, Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson stated. From now on, the agency would manage the 191 million acres it holds in the public trust using an "ecological approach." "I know this is a tall order," he wrote, "but I believe we are n ow in a good position to do it."
Tall order indeed. Fifteen years ago, with the passage of the National Forest Management Act, Congress required the US Forest Service to manage lands for biological diversity. Since 1977, forest management that protects soil productivity, wildlife, fisheries, and watersheds - in short, ecosystem management - has been United States law. The Forest Service has blatantly ignored this mandate. Instead, it has followed a course of ecological destruction for our public forests, relying on large-scale clear-cut ting.
The practice of clear-cutting is tremendously destructive. By stripping away 100 percent of the forest in a given area, slopes are exposed to increased erosion, which in turn contributes to stream siltation. This jeopardizes fish populations that require cold, clear water in which to reproduce.
Other wildlife are disrupted as well. Many species, including the pine martin, the fisher, and the spotted owl, need extensive tracts of continuous forest in order to survive. Clear-cutting fragments the forest and guarantees the eventual extinction of numerous species.
Clear-cutting also leads to the establishment of tree farms - rows of replanted trees, all the same age, all the same species. Biologically rich forests are transformed into sterile monocultures. Often, slopes are so denuded and eroded that trees are unable to grow back, leaving the ugly patchwork that so many aerial photos of our forests have depicted.
Through clear-cutting, the Forest Service has not only worked at destroying biological diversity, but has mortgaged the future of timber workers in this nation. Relying heavily on mechanized logging methods, clear-cutting employs far fewer people than more sustainable forestry practices such as selection harvesting.
The recent Forest Service announcement is more than a slick, politically motivated proposal. It is a swiss cheese plan that would allow the Forest Service to continue its years of taxpayer-financed destruction of our public forests.
Although nominally restricted in the new proposal, clear-cutting would remain the primary method for harvesting timber from national forests. So-called "seed-tree" and "shelterwood" techniques, allowed by the Forest Service plan, offer clear-cutting in disguise. The seed-tree technique clears approximately 85 percent of the trees in the first cut while the shelterwood method clears about 75 percent on the first cut. By leaving a few trees standing, the Forest Service hopes to paint itself and the Bush ad ministration as having a more ecological approach to managing our national forests.
The promise to reform forest practices becomes even more suspect upon considering the Bush administration's dismal record on forest protection:
* In June of 1991, the Bush administration endorsed the Packwood Bill, which would establish timber cutting as the dominant use of our national forests and override America's environmental laws protecting fish and wildlife.
* In March of this year, the Bush administration promoted regulations eliminating the citizens appeals process, cutting the public out of forest management. The appeals process has been the public's most important tool in safeguarding our lands from illegal and destructive mining, logging, and grazing. Ironically, the new forestry plan calls for heightened public involvement in forest management. It's difficult to know exactly what to believe.
* As a final coup de grace, the Bush administration decided that it doesn't need to comply with the Endangered Species Act. On May 14, the "God Squad," chaired by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, allowed clear-cutting on 1,700 acres of ancient forest in Oregon. The Bush administration proceeded to issue a "preservation plan" for the spotted owl and the remaining ancient forests. The administration's strategy would preserve only a fraction of our ancient forests and would admittedly exterminate nearly 50 percent of the remaining owls.
With the felling of our ancient forests proceeding at a more devastating rate than the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, we need immediate and realistic action to salvage what remains of our forests. Let's see some real reform from the Forest Service and something more than phantom forest policy from the Bush administration.