Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Forest Service's Catch 22; It's Hard to See the Forest When You've Cut Down All the Trees

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Forest Service's Catch 22; It's Hard to See the Forest When You've Cut Down All the Trees

Article excerpt


At the end of a Forest Service road in the middle of California's Sequoia National Forest, I found ground zero. Nearly all the trees on a 30-acre hillside had been "clear-cut" and dragged away. Stumps as large as dinner tables littered the landscape; soil eroded into a stream, which, newly exposed to the sun, was filling with thick green algae that smothered other aquatic life. Though the trees had been cut two years before my visit, almost no new plants were growing in the parched dirt.

But not all the trees were gone. Scattered among the stumps stood a few lonely giants, some larger at the base than an average-size living room and taller than a 20-story building. Many of these sequoia trees were over 2,000 years old. They looked strangely vulnerable in that scarred brown wasteland.

That was the environmental impact of the "Longsaddle" timber sale. Its financial impact? It cost the taxpayers $101,000. The Forest Service supervisor in charge of the sale told me he was "particularly proud" of it. Why? Under the laws governing the Forest Service budget, losing money by destroying the landscape is the surest way to earn money to improve the landscape. A bias in the law toward timber sales encourages managers to sell off acres of their trees to bring in revenue for other forest programs. Simply put, the supervisor felt that he had to destroy Longsaddle in order to save it.

Although the most famous giant sequoia trees stand in Sequoia National Park, the Forest Service actually has more acres of sequoia groves in the Sequoia National Forest. There, 2,000 trees meet the Forest Service's definition of "museum-quality" - more than eight feet in diameter near the base. It is a longstanding forest policy to preserve those trees.

But in the 1980s "preservation" took on new meaning - as did some other words. In a practice called "sequoia grove enhancement," forest managers began selling off all non-museum-quality trees in the giant sequoia groves. When the Sierra Club objected to enhancement, the Forest Service pointed out that in a natural setting, sequoias "are virtually hidden from sight by other trees." The Service argued that Sierra Club members were "simply imposing their values on others" in objecting to turning sequoias groves into moonscapes.

Though a 1988 court injunction has temporarily barred them from doing so, Forest Service officials say they want eventually to "enhance" 70 percent of the groves in the Sequoia National Forest. They argue that the procedure protects old giant sequoia trees from fire and promotes growth of new ones. It just so happens that it will also bolster the forest budget.

Nathan Stephenson, a National Park Service ecologist who received his Ph.D. studying giant sequoias, says there's no reason we should be missing whole forests for a handful of trees. He argues that protection from fire "is almost certainly unnecessary." In fact, fire is vital to the life cycle of sequoias and actually promotes reforestation. The thick bark of the sequoia protects it from fire, enabling it to live for thousands of years. And most sequoia cones release their seeds only after a blaze.

In 1987, a year after the Longsaddle timber sale, Stephenson compared the sale's enhanced groves with a grove burned by a wildfire at about the same time. Seedlings in the burned region were "so dense in areas that I could not avoid trampling several with each step." By comparison, he says, "I observed only a single sequoia seedling" in the Longsaddle cutover zone. Lonely sequoias - like the enhanced trees left standing at Longsaddle - are also more vulnerable to wind: though a single tree may weigh as much as a long freight train, its roots reach only about three feet into the ground.

To add economic insult to ecologic injury, all of the sequoia grove timber sales to date have drained far more from the U.S. Treasury than they have returned; many have cost even more than Longsaddle. …

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