But the American people were asserting broader values of the public forests, as Theodore Roosevelt had done in founding them. He insisted on water supply as being their first and most important use, since “forest protection alone can maintain the stream flow necessary for irrigation in the West and prevent floods destructive to agriculture and manufactures in the East.”
Preservation of timber supply a “second reason,” Roosevelt held preservation of our biological heritage to be among their other, essential purposes, insisting that the forests also “afford perpetual protection to the native fauna and flora” and be “safe havens of refuge” for species at risk of extinction. They would also be “free camping grounds for the men and women who have learned to find rest, health, and recreation in them,” and their ownership by the public, for these varied purposes, would reflect our “essential democracy.”
An editorial in the Elizabethton Star on Sept. 3, 1998, commented on area citizens’ demand for stronger consideration of the forests’ non-timber values. It remarked on “protesters at the Watauga District Office of the Cherokee National Forest — there to protest the cutting of timber on forest service land in Carter County.” It also urged an end to taxpayer subsidization of logging, which meant, then, that “logging in the Cherokee National Forest produces just 39 cents return for each dollar the government spent.”
Revenue loss from timber harvesting had been persistent. Of 122 national forests logged in 1995, 117 returned less money to the treasury than the concessions’ cost to the Forest Service, and federal-lands timber sales had turned a profit in only three of the preceding 100 years.
A 2002 study by the Forest Service Southern Research Station acknowledged the scale of public opposition to continued large-scale logging. Its recommendations for stronger focus on the “amenity values,” coupled with enactment of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule a decade later, helped to bring about a lessening of industrial timber harvesting on federal lands.
Legislation now in the Congress would reverse this conservation trend. Appealing to people’s justified fear of wildfires, and with tragic loss of lives and property in fires recently in California, H.R. 2936 states as its purpose “to return resilience to … fire-prone forested lands.” To do so, it would expedite timber “management activities” through exempting them from public process, the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws. Involved would be the national and Bureau of Land Management and Tribal lands forests.
But contrary to helping end the fire problem, logging has long been known to increase it. Commercial-type timber cutting damages forest-interior areas through wind exposure and dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. Insect pests and diseases find easy access through the network of logging roads, with extensive tree mortality and related wildfire risk often the result. “As forests are opened up by roads and logging,” notes Janet Abramovits in the State of the World report (1998), “they become drier and more prone to fire.”
Much scientific evidence attests to climate change as a strong factor in the growth of forest fires in recent years. A National Academy of Sciences study has revealed average temperatures in western forest parts to have gone up about 2.5° F since 1970. The greater warmth drives fires by drying out the land and sucking moisture out of plants and trees, with result that the area burnt there has more than doubled and the fire season grown longer by 2.5 months, over the last three decades. And as seen even in eastern forests last year — around Lake Lure and Gatlinburg — increasingly hot, dry conditions coupled with extremely high winds makes wildfires in the climate-change era weather driven and less able to be predicted or controlled.
The 2014 US National Climate Assessment documented additional climate impacts related to fire vulnerability and health of our forests. They include up to 87 percent mortality among western conifers because of warming-induced increases in pests, pathogens and drought stress and “decreased seedling survival for nearly 20 species of trees” in the Southern Appalachians due to lower rainfall here.
Misleadingly named the “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017,” the H.R. 2936 bill would allow intensive logging projects of 10,000-30,000 acres each, including in old-growth forest areas that are now off limits through the Roadless Area Rule. Through exemption from applicable environmental laws, they could be done without the agencies having to perform a thorough review of their impacts on watersheds or clean air, scenic beauty and recreation, plant and animal species, climate change and loss of the carbon-storing function of the forests.
Just 21 such giant logging projects, if adjacent to each other, could wipe out forest areas of vast size, such as the entire Cherokee National Forest.
Theodore Roosevelt characterized it as suicidal policy “to secure cheapness of timber and fuel for the moment, at the cost of ruin to our own children.”
Likewise, the H.R. 2936 logging bill, and a similar bill (S. 1731) in the U.S. Senate would be bad forest policy. It should be rejected by the Congress.
Frances Lamberts is coordinator of Ardinna Woods Arboretum in Jonesborough.