Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Reallocating the Forest Service Budget

By Andy Kerr

Column #14 - Go to next column

Length: 745 words

Published: 1/30/97 Wallowa County Chieftain

What do the terms "forest health," "world peace," "national security," and "strong America" all have in common? While everybody is for them, they don't agree on what they mean.

To the Forest Service "forest health" too often means individual tree health, while to the timber industry "forest health" means individual log health.

To scientists and environmentalists, "forest health" tends to mean the integrity of the forests and watersheds, across the landscape and over time."

We do seem to have agreement that at least some of our forests are not "healthy." But we don't have agreement as to why, how much and where—or what to do about it.

A better concept is forest ecosystem health. It takes a broader and longer view, which is the context in which Americans should consider their forests.

A forest in not unhealthy because it burns. The forests of the arid interior West co-evolved with fire. Some species of trees can't reproduce except after a fire.

Or because it has some dead trees. A healthy forest has dead trees. It's an inevitable part of nature.

Logging, roading, grazing, and fire suppression have been the major unnatural forces that have disrupted forest ecosystem health. In general, the solution is to reduce, or eliminate the activities that caused the problem.

We need to concentrate of those lands that are actually the most un-"healthy." A variety of forest types in the West are not seriously out of balance with nature. Others are. Of most concern are the ponderosa pine forests which have been heavily roaded, logged, grazed and in which periodic fire has been delayed (not "prevented").

The solution that the timber industry and the Forest Service most often propose for these sites is more logging. The modern timber sale is gussied up to be for the purpose of forest "health" but in fact does more harm than good. The kind of chainsaw work that actually is desirable in certain limited cases, isn't profitable in most cases. Ponderosa pine stands are out of balance because there are too many small-diameter trees, which cause a variety of problems.

Because of archaic funding mechanisms, when the Forest Service wants to do something good, it can't because it doesn't have the money—unless it does a timber sale. But it's not profitable to thin the small trees that ecologically need it. To make the timber sale pay for the purchaser (in all cases, it's still a loser to the taxpayer), big old growth trees are tossed in. We have a severe shortage of big trees in the West, and can't afford to lose anymore.

A new ecological ethic is very slowly taking hold in the Forest Service. An ethic that knows that the most important values of forests is not logs. The biggest impediment to its implementation is money. Not a shortage of it, but how it is spent.

Due to an effective propaganda campaign that distorts the magnitude, reasons and solutions to the forest "health" crisis, funded by the timber industry, the pressure is building for Congress to do something. The risk to the timber industry's strategy is that as Congress does take up the issue, it will look at the entire picture: ecological, economic and fiscal.

It's possible to convert the Forest Service back into land stewards, provide local governments with revenues for roads and schools, provide jobs in the woods doing needed ecological restoration work, restore the health of our forest ecosystems (and, for example, the salmon runs that depend on it), and complete a just and orderly transition of the economy of the rural West from natural resource exploitation to the new multi-faceted, rapidly changing, faster-growing one.

And on less tax money than the government is spending now.

Rep. Bob Smith noted recently: "firefighting is a bottomless pit." We agree on something! (Actually, we also both support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.)

The Forest Service timber and firefighting budgets should be redirected toward:

(1) Scientifically based forest ecosystem health projects which include road obliteration, livestock grazing reduction, prescribed fire and cutting small unprofitable trees that are truly a problem. These ecologically desirable projects create jobs in the woods and start us on the road to forest ecosystem health.

(2) Fair compensation in lieu of taxes for local governments.

(3) Assistance to local community efforts to complete the economic transition already underway.

And the rest of the money should go to pay down the federal debt.

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