Think forests, think water

  Dear HCN,

While Andy Wiessner did many environmentally heroic deeds in the past when he was counsel for the House Interior Committee, such as making sure that the California Wilderness Bill included many key lands in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, he seems to have let the big money his consulting work brings in color his vision a little (HCN, 5/10/99). Lynne Bama's story was a little brief on details about the background and the facts in regard to Janine Blaeloch's dedicated efforts (HCN, 3/29/99). However, both Bama and Wiessner seem to have swallowed the "greater ease of management and higher efficiency argument" for land consolidation made by the Forest Service and the industry.

The original primary purpose of the national forests, then called Forest Reserves, was not for conservative timber production but for watershed protection. Forest historian Harold K. Steen quotes Congressman Lewis Payson of Illinois, one of the three members of the Conference Committee on what became the 1891 Forest Reserve Act, as follows:

"We have made a provision in this bill authorizing the President ... to make a reservation of the timber lands, principally applying it to the watersheds of the West, so that the water supply in that country may be preserved from entry ..." (USDA publ. FS-488, 1991)

The 1897 Forest Reserve Act, best discussed by forest industry attorney Robert Bassman in Natural Resources Lawyer 7:503-520, 1974, also puts water protection first, ahead of timber.

Of course, the forestry profession and the forest industry over the years have done their best to have this original intent re-interpreted to have timber made equal or superior to water. Nevertheless, the Weeks Act of 1911 (providing for the Eastern national forests) also put watershed protection first. To my knowledge, no one has yet shown that complete forest-industry ownership of a watershed's lands provides as much water-flow protection as checkerboard national forest ownership does. Despite the Railroad Land Grants, federal ownership of every other section provides more ground cover, more water infiltration and more soil erosion protection than private industry ownership, particularly some industries whose policies have meant starting at one end of their property and clearcutting to the other end with each timber age class.

Wiessner crows about having the support of environmental groups, including the Mountaineers, but in the case of the Plum Creek Exchange he doesn't tell us about his coming to Seattle and lobbying the groups with reassuring language about ownership consolidation, and without telling them of the original intent of the national forests, which U.S. Forest Service and industry propaganda has long downplayed or re-interpreted. Also, in the case of the Seattle Mountaineers' support of the Plum Creek Exchange, their letter of commitment was obtained by Wiessner via a secret persuasive lunch meeting with Mountaineer official Norm Winn, who did not clear his letter of support through the Mountaineers Forest Watch Committe (of which I am a member) nor with the other pertinent committees of the Mountaineers Conservation Division.

Despite Bama's depiction of Janine Blaeloch as a "one woman truth squad," Blaeloch asked longtime Public Forestry Foundation forester Roy Keene and his assistants from Eugene, Ore., to re-appraise Wiessner's acclaimed Huckleberry Land Exchange. Keene, who has appraised much private and stolen public timber in Oregon, said later that the Weyerhaeuser Corp. paid for and controlled the appraisal that the exchange was based on, and that the Forest Service's appraiser had little to do with it. Keene's cruises sampled all the old-growth timber obtained by Weyerhaeuser and he found that the public lost "tens of millions of dollars' in the deal. Yet these "deals' are praised by a High Country News board member with seemingly a very strong conflict of interest in at least one of them. So much for diversity in newspaper boards, I guess.

Ben W. Twight

Seattle, Washington

The writer is a retired professor of forest policy in the School of Forest Resources, Pennsylvania State University.

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