Magazine article Sierra

New Forestry, New Hype?

Magazine article Sierra

New Forestry, New Hype?

Article excerpt

The drive to turn trees into two-by-fours is sabotaging scientists' best-laid plans.

Forest Service ecologist Art McKee seems a little sheepish as we graze across the canyon, where an ancient forest in the heart of the Oregon Cascades was clearcut more than a decade ago. The hillside resembles a Christmas-tree farm, its Douglas firs as uniform as a battalion of recruits.

* Farther up this fork of Tidbits Creek is a more recent cut that shows how far the science of forestry has come. Clusters of live trees dot the site, cut logs are strewn on the ground, and several snags--dead trees--are still standing. The idea, McKee explains, is to offer varied habitats for wildlife: Birds nest in the snags, small mammals den under logs, and insects and fungi chow down on the dead wood. With his help, I imagine the live trees towering over the seedlings that will be planted next year.

* This part of Willamette National Forest offers a showcase example of New Forestry--an approach to logging that aims to preserve ecological processes, plant and animal species, and soil productivity. Its techniques were developed in the Pacific Northwest, where dwindling primeval forests are home to more than 100 species of wildlife--including the osprey, the tailed frog, and the northern spotted owl--that depend on the groves.

* New Forestry is the keystone of a larger initiative within the Forest Service called New Perspectives. "New Perspectives first focuses on providing for a healthy, vibrant ecosystem, and then delivers sustainable products in the process of maintaining that healthy state," says Charles "Chip" Cartwright, assistant director of the program. According to Cartwright, Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson adopted the new approach in 1990 after surveying the long list of conflicts the agency was facing--litigation, an increasingly militant public, and a Congress simultaneously demanding forest protection and timber. Where the agency attempted to balance logging with diligent protection of the rest of the forest's resources, he noted, it encountered less hostility and was sued less often.

* Working in the gray area between preservation and all-out logging, New Forestry was devised to satisfy demands both for healthy forests and for an adequate wood supply. That is precisely its seductive appeal--and its gravest threat. "New Forestry is dangerous because it tells politicians they can have their owls and their timber, too," says Jeffrey St. Clair, former editor of Forest Watch magazine. "That's a great message if it's true, a risky one if it isn't."

* "New Forestry requires managers to think in terms of whole watersheds and landscapes--hundreds of thousands of acres, not just the dozens in a typical logging unit. Its goal is management that mimics nature, allowing enough time for the placid progression of growth, decay, and rebirth to occur, even as it simulates natural disturbances. In the Cascades, the most significant of these is fire. Although a chainsaw can never replicate the soils and landscape left by an erratic thousand-degree blaze, it can leave the forest in a similar condition. The number of cut trees can approximate the amount that would have been burned, and live trees, downed logs, and snags can be left in post-fire proportions.

Across the creek from where McKee and I stand, a ragged carpet of trees covers a hill, evidence of fires that spread across the land in decades gone by, creeping through gullies, charging in fingers up hillsides, and roaring over ridgetops. As a result of these blazes, high places are brushy and young, large trees populate the stream bottoms, and the mid-slope is a mosaic of young and old.

McKee says that researchers have studied scars on tree rings to compile an 800-year history of the frequency and intensity of fires on 150,000 acres in the Cascades. The patterns that emerged serve as guidelines for logging: If 10 percent of a valley used to burn every 50 years or so, an equivalent 10 percent might be loggable over the same period. …

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