Magazine article American Forests

Tough Choices in Old Forests

Magazine article American Forests

Tough Choices in Old Forests

Article excerpt

In the furor over AFA's position on old-growth forests, perhaps the most difficult issue to address is the charge that conservationists are insensitive to the needs of the people most directly affected. In this case, that means the people involved in the logging communities and the industry of the Pacific Northwest. AFA's search for a new approach that would assure continued long-term management of the old-growth forests on public lands was met with a storm of criticism from that region. (See Lookout article, page 17.)

We were accused of being "Eastern Establishment Liberals, " "pontificating from the Potomac, " who had "sold out to the preservationists" and taken positions that were deliberately "anti-industry." Our proposals would result in jobs lost and lives shattered, it was asserted, and we either didn't know or didn't care. Pretty tough stuff.

And there's some truth in it, but it may not be the truth that many of our critics chose to focus upon. This is a national issue, deciding the long-term fate of forest ecosystems that belong to all Americans. But the immediate impacts of the decision in both economic and environmental terms will fall directly on a very small percentage of us. So, for a huge majority of Americans (most AFA members included), this is an issue that can be debated in cool and rational terms. For the few who are at the point of impact, no such coolness is possible, for they feel personally threatened and angry.

You don't have to deal with national forests, or old-growth, or West Coast-East Coast distance and distrust, to find yourself caught up in exactly the same kind of issue. You can get it in any neighborhood or community. Just ask anyone who's ever served on a local governing body or been involved in the siting of a proposed landfill, incinerator, or factory. Heaven help those who must consider really difficult things like a toxic-waste facility or power plant.

On the national front, we have fought for years about how to reduce air pollution without putting the high-sulfur coal miners in West Virginia out of work. Or how to reduce auto emissions in cities without affecting the profits of Detroit automakers or the jobs of auto workers. Each of those decisions pitted the national goal of improving air quality against the lives of selected people, companies, and industries. No such decision is made easily or without rancor.

This brings us back to our old-growth forest situation. There has been a very strong shift in public expectations for the public forests, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. In particular, there is now strong feeling that not just forests but old-growth forest ecosystems contain major values that should be protected. The Pacific Northwest, where most of the remaining old-growth forests exist, is caught in this sudden change. National forest managers and professional foresters, who for decades learned that old-growth forests were decadent and barren places that needed to be harvested so that they could be replaced with healthy, thriving young forests, are now getting a different message. That message has been growing in volume for almost two decades, until today it can no longer be ignored.

For a conservation organization like AFA, whose members work with, and love, trees and forests of all kinds, the intellectual debate has been fairly easy. We've long supported the concept that forests are more than trees, and should be managed for a range of values far broader than timber alone. Scientific studies illustrate the tremendous values within old-growth ecosystems, and few places are as special as a stand of "cathedral trees," whether they are western firs, midwestern walnuts, or eastern oaks. …

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