Forest Service is still in search of a mission

 

Perhaps Ken Burns had the right idea when he named his public-television series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Even though I worked for the Forest Service for 34 years, I’m inclined to agree with him about the importance of our nation’s parks. But the national forests are surely our second-best idea, a priceless asset despite the call from some Westerners to sell off our forests and privatize them.

It is sad to admit that the battles over logging, grazing, mining and recreation fees have never stopped. Forests go up in smoke or fall prey to insect epidemics while critics complain about how ineffective and wayward the Forest Service has become. In some ways, it is the agency’s own fault.

The Forest Service enjoyed broad support as a “can do” agency in the post-WWII logging era, but its glacial response to the environmental movement dried up a reservoir of legitimacy and trust and created huge problems, perhaps best exemplified by the spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest. I recall vividly when a federal judge determined that agency officials had willfully broken endangered species laws in their determination to protect logging interests. As Orville Daniels, the former supervisor of the Lola National Forest, put it, the Forest Service had gone over to the “dark side.”

The agency has found it difficult to right itself since then, and it still struggles to create a clear purpose and mission for the 21st century – one that resonates with the public it serves.

In my recently published memoir, Toward a Natural Forest, I talk about how the Forest Service and I have both struggled to find a way forward. The issue confronting the agency isn’t new; the question is still: “How do we get what we need from our forests without ruining them in the process?”

When I was the supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon’s Coast Range from 1992 to 1999, my work brought me into the heart of the conflicts over endangered species like the spotted owl and salmon. My approach was an abrupt turnaround that ended the old regime of clear-cutting, which ruled the Siuslaw from 1950 until 1990. I wanted the forest to be more than a tree farm, to find a way to restore what had become an artificial ecosystem. Critics denounced my approach as disastrous.

Yet today, the Siuslaw prospers, and its current management illustrates a land ethic that aims – as best I can put it – for naturalness. The old single-minded focus on timber production is gone, even though logging still occurs. The difference is that trees are cut sensibly and sustainably. The Siuslaw is managed to preserve and restore its magnificent coastal forests, productive salmon rivers, and vital wildlife habitat for imperiled species, as well as to provide timber. And as incredible as it might sound, there has been no timber sale appeal or lawsuit for over 20 years.

The Siuslaw’s remarkable transition has been accomplished with citizen involvement at every step. I believe the people concerned have begun to rediscover the deeply satisfying sense that this national forest really does belong to them, with the Forest Service serving as a valued partner and steward for all Americans.    

But throughout the nation there is still a conflict between the notion that national forests are little more than timber factories that need to earn their keep and the newer conviction that they need to thrive ecologically for their own sake as well as ours. The single-minded pursuit of economic goals has caused havoc across the nation. In the Northwest, it led to the disappearance of old-growth trees. In the Southeast, it spurred the virtual loss of entire ecosystems such as longleaf pine woodlands. In all cases, the emphasis on logging simplified landscapes, because the tree species were restricted to a few economically useful ones that were cut on short rotation.

If land managers favor ecological sustainability, however, the principle behind the existence of the national forests is kept intact, that principle being the preservation of a landscape’s essential integrity and environmental function so that it can continue to supply forest resources in abundance. Logging does not need to be eliminated, but it does need to be coupled with humility and sensible business practices. On our public lands, there is no place anymore for greed.

We have argued for generations about what, exactly, national forests are for, and whether particular forests are best suited for logging, mining, drilling or recreation. But our highest commitment should be to the land itself, allowing it to be what it needs to be, naturally.

Jim Furnish is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Maryland.

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