Can't See Forest for Lack of Trees: Will Legislation to Reform Forest Management Satisfy Timber Cutters and Conservationists?

Article excerpt

Twenty years of reforms have failed to form a consensus on the future of national forests. The essence of the debate is simple: The timber industry wants to cut more trees; environmentalists want to preserve them.

The 123 national forests encompass 10 percent of the land in the United States. Twice as many people visit national forests than any other federal land holding, including the national parks. They provide about 12 percent of the nation's timber and, with a friendly Republican Congress about to convene, the timber industry hopes to increase that production.

The National Forest Management Act, or NFMA, was passed in 1976 to oversee inevitable conflicts between conservationists and lumber companies. By preparing extensive management plans, the U.S. Forest Service was to announce its intentions for the use of the federal land in advance and proceed with measured development.

Unfortunately, the law created only regulatory gridlock, say timber cutters. "The Forest Service consumed over 19 years and expended over $250 million to prepare 123 resource-management plans," Steven Quarles, a lawyer for the American Forest and Paper Association, tells Insight. "After all of this effort, however, it is managing the forests with little or no regard to the plans' guidance."

Indeed, the General Accounting Office reports that the Forest Service receives 1,200 administrative appeals of management decisions annually and is hit with 20 to 30 lawsuits a year. The environmentalists say these appeals are necessary because the reforms haven't gone far enough. "It is the desire of the industry to rewrite the NFMA so that it allows timber to be the dominant use of the national forest," says Mike Francis of the Wilderness Society.

Timber harvest on federal lands began to skyrocket after World War II, incresing dramatically to a high of 12.7 billion board feet in 1987. Since then, sales have fallen. Industry officials note that the Forest Service allowed for the cutting of 5.6 billion board feet in 1996, but fewer than 3.6 billion - 65 percent - were actually auctioned. Industry blames the slump on bureaucratic intransigence. Environmentalists say 50 years of overcutting have left too few salable trees.

Both sides in the debate are right - and wrong. Most experts outside the forest-products industry agree that the national forests cannot cut 12.7 billion board feet annually and maintain sustainable forests. On the other hand, the industry is correct when it argues that mandated reductions in harvesting are more severe than they seem on paper.

But the deeper battle lies over the issue of national priorities - production vs. preservation. Americans consistently have paid hp service to environmental protection in public-opinion polls, but the current battle over the forests will make them pay cash for their commitment - more expensive lumber, fewer well-paid timber jobs, lost tax revenues. …