The Los Utes Case: Forestry Seeks Its Soul; Frank Talk about a Bungled Timber Sale Stirs Up Ghosts of Pinchot and Leopold and Poses Haunting Questions about Environmental Ethics

By Wolf, Tom | American Forests, November-December 1990 | Go to article overview

The Los Utes Case: Forestry Seeks Its Soul; Frank Talk about a Bungled Timber Sale Stirs Up Ghosts of Pinchot and Leopold and Poses Haunting Questions about Environmental Ethics


Wolf, Tom, American Forests


Everyone knows that timber harvesting is a mess business a messy business, hard on sensitive soils and sensitive souls. A badly botched recent timber sale on the Santa Fe National Forest raised questions in my mind about where the ethical soul resides in today's practice of forestry. Can there-and should there-be an environmental ethic for foresters?

The father of the land ethic, Aldo Leopold, started his career here in New Mexico. In Leopold's day New Mexicans knew foresters as heros. They were responsible for the successful rehabilitation of our watersheds from the tragic 19th-century grazing and timbering frenzy that devastated our state. Since the days of Leopold, however, the Forest Service seems to have squandered its heroic stature. For example, last year the agency blundered on the 900-acre Los Utes timber sale in the Santa Fe Forest-and blew it in a fashion that has left everyone disturbed.

The logging began in the winter of 1989 near Los Utes Spring in the headwaters of Capulin Canyon, in the national forest's Jemez (pronounced Hay-muz") District about three miles upstream from the boundary of Bandelier National Monument. To complicate the picture, the Jemez Mountains are administratively fragmented. In addition to the naSkid trails made to access Los Utes oldgrowth timber head up 60-degree slopes to ridge tops and canyon walls.

National forest and a 100,000-acre private inholding, the 30,000-acre Bandelier is administered by the National Park Service.

The ethical aspects of the Los Utes sale troubled me enough to arrange visits with Maynard Rost, supervisor of Santa Fe National Forest; Bud Stephenson, district ranger; Mike Morrison, timber staff officer; and Craig Allen, ecologist for nearby Bandelier.

None of the horror stories I had heard from environmentalists prepared me for the sight of a logging road punched straight up a "protected" watercourse. Skid trails headed off at right angles up 60-degree slopes to provide access to oldgrowth timber along the narrow canyon walls and ridge tops. Nothing I had seen anywhere compared to the way these skid trails had broken the thin organic soil mantle, leaving four-foot-deep channels ground down into the soft pumice.

Mike Morrison said, "There were some old skid trails and roads in here from a previous entry. Those had healed up pretty good, so they figured they could do it again. A new road higher upslope would have done even more damage. We should have required a skyline cable system if we were to log here at all."

Supervisor Rost said, "We won't defend what we did here. Looks like the skidder operator had to use his blade to brake himself while he hauled logs down to the deck below. Those skid roads are dangerous. We shouldn't have allowed him to take that chance. We messed up."

He added, "I asked for the regional forester to appoint a review team, because there was concern about an internal coverup."

Sitting beside sediment-clogged Capulin Creek, we tried to discuss the ethical aspects of Los Utes, but we constantly bogged down in the political, technical, and administrative details that dominate a forester's thinking these days.

Earlier loggers, for example, were guided by a silvicultural prescription called large tree selection. "But then," said Rost, "our silviculturist told us that it would be better for the forest if we managed smaller areas more intensively under what we call integrated stand management. And now we find that the public won't stand for that level of intensity, no matter what we say."

It seems that the decision-making world of today's forester results in political and administrative tunnel vision to the point where ethical questions of individual responsibility can become obscured. Though everyone present said they felt bad about Los Utes, no one could or would take individual responsibility, not just for this particular sale but also for its contribution to possible districtwide cumulative effects.

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