25 Feb 2010, 11:13am
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
by admin

Nicholas Dennis: Put National Forests To Work For Community

Note: This guest editorial appeared in the February 14th edition of the Redding Searchlight [here], and at Evergreen Magazine Online [here]

By Nicholas Dennis

Last August, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Seattle to deliver a speech laying out the Obama administration’s goals for conserving the national forests. Vilsack noted that polarization has long dominated the national forest agenda, but that the threats currently facing the forests make it imperative to move toward a shared vision “that conserves our forests and the vital resources important to our survival while wisely respecting the need for a forest economy that creates jobs and vibrant rural communities. Our shared vision begins with restoration. Restoration means managing forest lands first and foremost to protect our water resources, while making our forests more resilient to climate change.” Closer to home, California Regional Forester Randy Moore lists five strategic priorities for managing the state’s national forests on the region’s Web site. Unfortunately, sustaining rural communities isn’t mentioned.

Restoration forestry is not the way national forests were managed before the spotted owl listing. Restoration does not involve clear-cutting, at least not in our mixed-conifer forests. It involves selecting smaller trees from crowded patches in the forest understory, patches that if unmanaged would likely fall prey to insects, diseases or stand-replacing wildfires. Who would oppose forest restoration? Professional appellants, such as the Montana-based Conservation Congress, who make their living filing claims for legal fees have used appeals and litigation to stop or stall several local restoration projects that would otherwise have improved forest health and created dozens of well-paid jobs. These self-serving outsider legal challenges have increased unemployment, decreased revenues for schools and county governments, and undermined economic opportunities in our rural communities.

Last year, a Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman lauded the 700,000-acre addition to the federal wilderness system in California, proclaiming wilderness the “gold standard for forest protection.” Shasta-Trinity and Klamath National forests neighbors will see the irony in this statement after the fires that burned uncontrolled through the forests, including wilderness areas, in three of the past four summers, causing sickening air quality. Protecting forests takes more than Congress redrawing maps. It requires the hard work of restoration by a skilled forest work force.

Rural communities in Shasta, Siskiyou and Trinity counties are not economically vibrant today. The recent recession has only deepened a downward trend that’s continued since federal timber harvests plunged in the early 1990s. Layoffs and social service cutbacks have taken a heavy toll on families. Essential public infrastructure repairs have been postponed indefinitely. Empty storefronts are gradually dominating our main streets. The Siskiyou County district attorney recently opted not to prosecute an alleged child murderer based on fiscal considerations. But bad as things are, wait until Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funding runs out in three years, as it surely will. Then the pinched budgets for the three counties will have to absorb an additional $18 million hit and our collective belt-tightening will take on a different specter.

All conceptions of forest sustainability give social and economic resources equal priority to environmental resources. The Northwest Forest Plan was intended to restore national forests and rural communities. Yet of all the major commitments in that plan, only one has never come close to being met: the commitment to harvest enough timber to sustain reasonable levels of forest-sector employment. Over the past decade, the Shasta-Trinity and Klamath National forests have sold less than half the timber called for in their land management plans.

The need to manage our national forest assets so as to provide sustainable income sources is as valid today as ever. A 2009 economic study for the National Association of Forest Owners found that the average per-acre contribution to gross domestic product from public forests in California was only 18 percent of the average contribution from privately owned forests. When public forests don’t do their share to create wealth, they become more of a liability and less of an asset for rural communities.

The U.S. Forest Service has been doing its best to get forest management projects approved and implemented, but it’s fighting a losing battle. The ground rules are stacked against it, varying from abuses of the Equal Access to Justice Act, which rewards nearly all litigants, to planning rules addressing sensitive species that are so complex that even in-depth expert assessments can’t pass legal muster. Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth aptly described this as “analysis paralysis.”

Two things need to happen to put the national forests to work for our communities. The agency’s planning rules must be changed to make it feasible to get projects through the environmental compliance process. And we must align behind a shared vision for forest restoration and make clear to its opponents that their obstructionism is counterproductive and unwelcome.

Nicholas Dennis is chairman of the Northern California Society of American Foresters. He lives in Weed.



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