A forest supervisor says 'thank you'


I received a provocative and compelling book the other day called Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, published by Sierra Club (HCN, 4/4/94). If you prefer looking backward instead of forward, the impact of the images and ideas in this book can only be described as deeply disturbing. The images have an emotional power, and the ideas an intellectual power, that speak to a wrongheaded legacy wrought on the land.

In one of the book's essays, Chris Maser, a Corvallis, Ore., author and consultant on sustainable forestry, says:

"Nature designed a forest with diversity; we are trying to design a forest with simplistic uniformity. Nature designed a forest of interrelated processes; we are trying to design a forest based on isolated products.

"Nature designed a forest in which all elements are neutral; we are trying to design a forest in which we perceive some elements to be good and others bad. Nature designed a forest to be a flexible, timeless continuum of species; we are trying to design a forest to be a rigid, time-constrained monoculture.

"Nature designed a forest of long-term absolutes. Nature designed a forest to be self-sustaining and self-repairing; we are designing a forest to require increasing external subsidies - fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Nature designed forests of the Pacific Northwest to live 500 to 1,200 years; we are designing a forest that may live 100 years. Nature designed Pacific Northwest forests to be unique in the world, with 25 species of conifers, the longest lived and the largest of their genera anywhere; we are designing a forest that is largely a single species on a short rotation.

"Everything we humans have been doing to the forest is an attempt to push nature to a higher sustained yield. We fail to recognize, however, that we must have a sustainable forest before we can have a sustainable yield (harvest). In other words, we cannot have a sustainable yield until we have a sustainable forest. We must have a sustainable forest to have a sustainable yield; we must have a sustainable industry to have a sustainable economy; we must have a sustainable economy to have a sustainable society."

As a forest supervisor of a forest of which he speaks, what have I got to say about this? Three things: Uncle, thank you, and please. Let me explain.

Where I grew up, "uncle" was a term to indicate submission. The glimpse we've all had of the President's Forest Plan for the Northwest provides ample evidence that management of federal lands is forever altered. The legal system has been used very effectively to bend our arm just about to the breaking point. It's my hope that the Forest Plan serves as an overt admission that old methods were not sustainable, that we can just say "uncle," pick ourselves up off the ground and get busy finding out if new ideas achieve what we're after.

Second, "thank you," because if it were not for the dogged, unstinting efforts of the conservation community these past many years - far too many, I might add - we would not be at this threshold today. My deepest regret is that so much trust has been eroded in the struggle that it will be difficult to develop constructive and healthy working relationships for the future. But difficulty alone should not dissuade us from the task, because I believe healthy working relationships are imperative for future success.

Third, "please." I say please because it's hard to turn a big ship on a dime. I don't want this to sound like whining, but I'm asking for a little indulgence in turning Oregon's Siuslaw National Forest in a new direction.

Humility is in, smugness is out, and we'll be needing help and support from many sources - research, local government, conservation groups and industry alike.

After all, this is ultimately about managing spectacular and at-risk resources more than it is about the Forest Service. As long as we keep our eyes on the land, hopefully, old fences will come down.

In summary, I would generalize by saying that the Forest Service has been accused of practicing industrial forestry on public lands, and found guilty, although we did it as well or better than anyone. But there is no right way to do the wrong thing. Now we need to develop a new art, that of ecosystem management.

I see federal lands in the Coast Range emerging with a short-term objective of refugia, or reserves. Issues related to recovery of threatened and endangered species - owls, murrelets, and soon salmonids - are so pervasive and overwhelming as to dominate our management just as timber production did only a few years ago.

I will not presume to guess what lies beyond the next few years, but it is my hope that federal lands can effectively fill a niche of providing significant large areas of late successional forest in the Coast Range. I hope our management of these areas will make a telling difference in the recovery of species dependent on these habitats. This is a responsibility I take seriously, for I fear that the appearance, structure and function of federal and private forests are on a sharply divergent track.

Jim Furnish is the supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest on the coast of Oregon. He gave this talk at a March 29-30 symposium on "The Ecology and Management of the Oregon Coast Range Forest." Sponsors included the University of Oregon, Forest Service, timber industry and county officials from Oregon.