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Know the West

Restoring our future


Note: This essay appears in the print edition of this issue as a sidebar to a feature story.

Moments of affirmation are rare in Washington, D.C. So I was pleased to run into a friend, living now in Los Angeles, whom I last saw in college, and to hear her excitement about the Forest Service's effort to protect 50 million acres of roadless areas. She said when she was a child, her father took her camping in national forests of the Sierras until he grew disgusted with clear-cuts. Now, she and her husband planned to renew her family's tradition, camping out with their children in the Angeles National Forest.

The next morning, a logger I met in northern Idaho last year sent a note denouncing the roadless initiative. I wrote back, leaving my phone numbers, and asked if we could talk. His response: "As far as the phone call, I'll pass. I am the fifth generation of my family raised close to Clearwater National Forest. How could I begin to explain what that means to me and the other people who live here? What could you tell me that could possibly make me feel better about what the future holds for us here in Idaho?"

Whose argument has more merit: one from the largest city in the country, or another from rural northern Idaho? This debate is the daily bread of politics, the media and interest groups. Is there a way to manage forests in a manner that doesn't pit the city dweller against the logger in a battle to the political death? If so, perhaps it begins by recognizing we all want healthy forests.

But while most of our forests are in good condition, many are sick. Some mountainsides are covered with bug-killed trees and eroding soils, and biological diversity is vanishing. The Forest Service estimates that 24 million acres of national forest face unusually high levels of tree mortality within the next 15 years because of insect and disease infestation, and more than 40 million acres of national forest will risk severe fires.

Although it's true we are no longer plagued by wildfires that raged through cut-over lands and killed hundreds of people in the early 20th century, Smokey Bear's crusade against fire did inhibit essential ecological processes. Periodic fires renewed forests, regulating insects and disease, and thinning vegetation that grew beneath older trees. Timber cutting and grazing further altered land health, and increasing global trade exacerbated the spread of exotic pests and diseases.

Altered and unhealthy forests resist quick fixes. Ignoring them is no solution either. These complex problems require the experience and insights of those closest to the land, including loggers, to help restore the forests that my friend from LA cherishes. Building a constituency for active restoration based on ecologically conservative principles can help to heal our forests and restore a sense of community in our dialogue and our relationship with the land. Here are a few ideas.

See the forest, not just the trees. Restoring forest ecosystems involves a variety of disciplines, including hydrology, soil science, biology, and silviculture, and a suite of treatments, such as road decommissioning, prescribed and natural fire, thinning, and sometimes simply leaving an area alone to heal. Previous short-term fixes that focused on the trees without considering the overall health of the forest, such as the Timber Salvage Rider of 1995, engendered controversy with little benefit to the forest.

Invest in land and community health. Considering land health apart from community health makes people less inclined to support species conservation, cleaner water and open-space preservation. We've taken a lot from our national forests. Timber harvest helped sustain immense growth in the housing market following World War II. Today's stewardship methods should be designed to attract entrepreneurs and involve communities in new stewardship industries. Tremendous potential exists to restore watersheds and in the process provide a predictable supply of small-diameter trees that provide jobs and encourage people to invest in businesses and technologies based on restoration. Why must people pay $100 for a cord of firewood when they live adjacent to overly dense monocultures of lodgepole pine that pose a recognized fire risk?

Engage people and share information in a way that makes us better land stewards. Often, we neglect all but the perceived best approach, only to discover in hindsight that it served us poorly. We can be surprised at on-the-ground results, often bitterly. The next time a simple engineering solution is proposed for a complex natural resource problem, recall the dams we placed in the middle of our rivers, the hatcheries and fish ladders we built, the predictions we made about a secure future for salmon.

Lost in the political furor ignited over protecting roadless areas is the fact that less than 5 percent of the Forest Service's planned timber volume is projected from these lands. Why are we fighting so bitterly over 5 percent when so many million acres require restoration? As the different views of a Los Angeleno and an Idaho logger make clear, forest debates are more about values than science.

Our challenge is to move forward with patience and humility, without getting mired in acrimony. If we choose to do nothing, or to treat symptoms without addressing causes that made forests sick, recovery may be delayed or worsened. Successful restoration will focus on repairing the processes, diversity, resiliency and productivity of our watersheds while reconnecting our communities to the landscapes that sustain us all.

Chris Wood works for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are the author's own.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Chris Wood