A new world in the woods

With some help from Congress, forest restoration may be gathering steam

  • Cece Headley

 

EUGENE, Ore. - Cece Headley was 27 when she launched her career in the woods. A philosophy major at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., Headley and a crew of happy-go-lucky hippies spent week after week, season after season, planting seedlings on mountain slopes ravaged by U.S. Forest Service clear-cutting.

"It was good for my body and it was good for my mind and my spirit. I found my bliss in the woods," Headley says.

But she also knew that the work was only the last step in a process that was devastating national forests. When federal court orders and shifts in public policy forced an end to most clear-cutting on public land, Headley knew large-tract tree planting would follow. She welcomed the change.

"I had the opportunity to morph from industrial forestry to restoration. If there was going to be one job out there, I was going to get it," she says.

Now 50, Headley supports her family of five by bidding on wildlife inventories and vegetation surveys, which index plants in permanent plots on federal land throughout the West. Unlike traditional timber-sale or tree-planting contracts, these contracts are awarded for the quality of the work, not the lowest bid. That's good for Headley, who has always taken pride in completing her assignments carefully and thoroughly. She earns around $50,000 a year inventorying game forage, fungi and red tree voles.

"It's heaven out there looking at the forest as a forest - actually looking at trees as trees, not board-feet," Headley says.

Headley is one of about 10,000 Western forest workers who, during a decade of plummeting timber harvests on public lands, have quietly converted their skills from industrial logging to forest restoration. Boosters say this fledgling industry could benefit both the forests and the communities within them * if it can provide reliable jobs and still remain small, flexible and light on the land.

"We've all heard the sustainability hoo-ha, but some of us actually buy it. We're showing that it can work * for people and for ecosystems," Headley says.

A steep curve

Restoration workers total around half the number of traditional loggers and are gradually replacing them throughout the West, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In Oregon, more than 3,000 people are employed in improving the forest ecosystem; in contrast, the number of logging jobs has crashed from a high of around 13,000 in 1988 to 8,000 in 1999, says Cassandra Moseley, research and policy director with the Ecosystem Workforce Program at University of Oregon.

Not all of these forest workers make as much money as Cece Headley. Many earn an average of $10,000 working six months or less each year, says Moseley. Part of the problem is that large-scale restoration projects aren't yet economically self-sufficient, and federal funding is unpredictable. Many projects, such as thinning to reduce forest fuels, are short-term. Others, including over 50 stewardship projects authorized by Congress to test new management techniques, are one-time enterprises with specific goals and single-purpose funding.

Reliable work would attract more professionals to the field and provide more stability to former logging towns, but it would require a strong financial commitment from Congress. That commitment may finally be on its way: After the 2000 fire season, Congress appropriated $250 million for forest and watershed restoration through the National Fire Plan. The 2002 funding includes an additional $12.5 million to the Forest Service for community assistance programs.

Communities across the West are working together removing small trees and brush with Fire Plan funds. In Durango, Colo., the Southwest Youth Corps has branched out from traditional conservation work like trail construction and maintenance to forest fuels reduction. Several recent Corps graduates now work with a local contractor who does mechanical thinning to reduce wildfire hazard and create defensible space for private landowners. Ron Porter of Hamilton, Mont., is using National Fire Plan funds to turn small-diameter timber into furniture and small structures, including a kiosk displayed at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

The Forest Service wants to support the restoration workforce with permanent staff and funding, says Susan Odell, the agency's national coordinator for rural community assistance. But the evolution will take time. "It's a steep curve to get up. We're still learning what works on the land and how to work with one another," says Odell.

Some national environmental organizations fear this fledging movement could evolve into a large-scale, destructive industry. The Sierra Club and National Audubon Society generally oppose any commercial logging on public lands, including small-scale community-based projects. Other groups, including the American Lands Alliance, worry that programs designed to meet ecological goals will be co-opted into projects driven by conventional timber targets.

But environmental organizations are beginning to recognize the need for ecologically sound restoration projects on national forests. American Lands recently joined with American Forests and the National Network of Forest Practitioners to urge Congress to provide increased and continued funding for fuel reduction and watershed restoration projects that could create job opportunities and develop small businesses in rural communities.

"Communities with good quality of life will attract new businesses. If old growth and roadless areas are protected, we see potential for cooperation in many areas," says Steve Holmer, American Lands campaign coordinator.

Success stories

Forest workers believe they can win the trust of the Forest Service and national environmentalists through their accomplishments on the ground. They cite dozens of examples of their successes.

Jim Wilcox, a former faller from northeastern California, can point to dramatic increases in fish populations in the creeks he has restored. A partnership in Wallowa County, Ore., has seen a return of native plants after it removed noxious plants on private and public land in the Lower Grand Ronde watershed. On the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico, a 16-acre thinning project reduced forest fuels and provided firewood and fencing materials - as well as jobs - for members of Las Humanas, a cooperative of land-grant villages.

"If people can't tell the difference between Georgia Pacific and Las Humanas, we've got some serious problems," says Headley.

Thomas Brendler, executive director of the National Network of Forest Practitioners, believes workers should stick with this "garden approach" to forest management. "That's the scale that ties us to the land. If we start treating the land at the human scale, we can start rebuilding our communities," says Brendler, whose network represents 500 people in 48 states.

Over the last 10 years, the number of communities involved in restoration forestry has grown from a handful to hundreds, says Odell, the Forest Service rural assistance coordinator. The agency recognizes that the work needed - and the people who can do it - have changed, but shifting to a different scale and type of forest management will be a slow and gradual process, she says.

Meanwhile, as society sorts out these fundamental issues, veterans of industrial forestry continue to repair meadows, mountainsides and forest glades * and, they hope, their own small towns.

"We are the small, the rural, the workforce," says Headley. "We're here where the work is. We know how to do it. And we're not going to go away."

Jane Braxton Little is a freelance journalist based in Plumas County, California.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Carol Daly, Seventh American Forest Congress Communities Committee, 406/892-8155,
  • www.communitiescommittee.org;
  • Thomas Brendler, National Network of Forest Practitioners, 401/273-6507, www.nnfp.org

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Jane Braxton Little

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