Keep the Forests Thick
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
On August 22, 2002, President Bush went to Oregon and declared a new policy on the national forests. The plan is to thin out the foliage. Forests naturally develop dead branches and decayed tree trunks on the forest floor. These add to the fuel of forest fires, making them blaze more powerfully. This makes it more difficult to put out forest fires.
So what's wrong with clearing this undergrowth and deadwood? The problem is that this dead wood provides a habitat for a lot of wildlife. Many insects and other tiny creatures burrow in the decaying wood, whereas they cannot do this in living wood. Birds, lizards, and other small animals then eat the insects, and then the big animals area able to feast on these.
Over millions of years, forests have evolved this pattern. The decaying wood is part of the ecology. Eliminate this vital component, and we will still have the living trees, but the forest will be silent, not just in the spring, but in all seasons, as much of the wildlife will be gone.
We may not even have the trees, as the President's plan includes letting timber companies chop down more of the forests. In some places, the forests can be cut sustainably, but in the past, vast areas have been clear cut, leaving a sad wasteland of stumps. Birds, squirrels, deer, and bobcat then leave or die, their habitat destroyed. Rains then come and wash away the unprotected soil.
The President exclaimed that wildfires have been destructive, and need to be better controlled. Environmentalists favor thinning the forests near human habitation. We should indeed protect the towns and villages in the forest. But the forest beyond the vicinity should be kept thick.
The past forestry policy has led to the disastrous forests. In nature, an occasional fire will burn out the deadwood along with the living trees. This cleans out all the decay and brush, and the ground then is exposed to the sun. Young new plants then provide food for many species that cannot live in the dark old forests. But the policy of the federal government was to prevent forest fires. The government should let naturally occurring fires burn.
The U.S. government has been subsidizing the timber industry for over a century. The government builds the roads, and then the lumber companies come in and chop down the trees. In national forests, these are the people's trees. The timber companies should at least pay for the roads and the market value of the wood.
The cry in timber land is jobs, jobs, jobs! It is unfortunate that in some places, the structure of production has factored in subsidies, which if now cut, uncreate the subsidized employment. Theses workers should be aided to move to other jobs and areas.
The US federal government has been a bad forest manager. Perhaps the task should be contracted to private firms and conservation organizations. Wilderness groups could contract with the government to manage the forests. They would have an incentive, both economic and emotional, to care for the forest, letting nature take its course where appropriate and protecting the human habitat as well. Eco-tourism and camping could provide revenue, and sustainable logging could also take place. The forest can provide for all, provided we are not too greedy.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2002 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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