Roots of West's wildfires: conservation or logging?

Conflagration highlights the ongoing tension between the Old West and new.

Traffic along the two-lane roads paralleling the Umpqua River tells the story of much of the rural West these days.

Rumbling down the river drainages out of the national forests of central Oregon are the log trucks carrying loads of Douglas fir toward the mills. Headed upstream into the mass of green are the hunters and fishermen, the hikers and campers looking for peace and quiet and maybe a bit of game for the freezer back home.

The question is: Which group represents the best - the sustainable - interests of the country?

This summer's conflagration across the West - the worst in 50 years - raises fundamental questions about the stewardship of nearly 200 million acres of national forest. Critics say environmental restrictions on logging made the place a tinderbox just waiting for a lightning strike or careless match.

But congressional researchers who've studied recent fire and logging patterns conclude that it's just as likely that timber harvesting practices contributed to the number and size of the fires - most of which have been on land that had been logged in the past.

At the same time, a recent report shows that intact forests are worth up to 10 times as much to regional economies in the form of recreation, wildlife, and water quality than they are as stacks of logs - a classic Old West/new West development involving conflicting economic and social values.

"Leaving trees standing in most cases can contribute far more to local and national economies than logging," says Ernie Niemi, vice president and project manager of ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm with offices in Oregon and Washington State.

ECONorthwest, which has done work for timber companies, electric utilities, and the EPA, reported last week that national forests now are worth an estimated $234 billion and generate 2.9 million jobs. At the same time, according to this study commissioned by the Sierra Club, logging on national forests contributes just 76,000 jobs and $4 billion to the economy.

These are debatable figures. The dollar value of clean water - as critical as that is to ecological soundness and community well-being - is difficult to calculate. Industry supporters say the economic benefit of resource extraction is much wider, particularly in small communities that for generations have relied on forests for their income and now find themselves struggling.

Logging's loosening hold

But there is no doubt that the economy of the West - particularly the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies - is evolving rapidly.

As a result of environmental lawsuits and growing public opposition to industrial logging on public land, timber harvests on national forests fell 77 percent during the 1990s. Yet total employment in the region grew by more than 1 million jobs, and per capita annual income rose about $6,000 as high-tech companies created a "silicon forest" around Portland, Ore., and other cities.

Recreation, too, has added to a vibrant economy here.

"The number of Americans visiting our national forests every year is skyrocketing," says Dan Glickman, head of the US Agriculture Department, which oversees 155 national forests totaling 192 million acres around the US.

Most of those visitors use the 380,000-mile system of unpaved roads in national forests to get to trailheads, rivers, roadless wilderness areas, and more than 18,000 campgrounds, picnic areas, and boat ramps.

Those roads were bulldozed on behalf of the timber industry. But such roads also cause erosion that leads to landslides in and around national forests. They fragment the habitat of endangered species such as grizzly bears. And they provide a forest entry for poachers and careless visitors who cause wildfires.

Putting up roadblocks

As the debate continues, the US Forest Service - that historic booster of timber and mineral extraction - is quietly shutting down more forests than it is opening up to commercial interests.

Some 25,000 miles of forest roads were erased in the 1990s, and thousands more miles are slated for return to a natural state. At the same time, the Clinton administration plans to prevent road-building on some 43 million acres in the national forest system.

The Northwest Forestry Association, a timber-industry group in Portland, calls that plan "a politically motivated action that ignores the need for healthy forests, the will of the people, the impact on rural communities, and the laws of our land."

The Clinton administration this week will present its plan for dealing with the national forest land most vulnerable to fire. It's expected to include some tree and brush thinning, as well as controlled burns.

Beyond that, the trend toward fewer logging roads and chain saws in national forests is likely to continue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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