Debate over forests is a difference in priorities



The Bush administration's chief steward of national forests called yesterday for environmentalists to stop worrying so much about logging and instead focus on what he called larger issues confronting the health of national forests.

Fine, replied a prominent University of Washington forest researcher -- just promise to stop cutting old growth and keep loggers out of the tracts where no roads have been built yet. The UW researcher agreed, though, that invasive species, creeping suburbanization of the forests and the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires deserve a lot of attention fast.

Mark Rey said that finding consensus on the definition of "old growth" is too hard. Environmentalists say that is just an excuse.

The exchange between Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey and UW professor Jerry Franklin at a UW seminar highlighted how the U.S. Forest Service is facing ever more difficult problems and disagreements while its budget and work force are whittled.

"The issue is, how do we as resource managers gain the charter from society, the trust of society, to be able to go and do what needs to be done?" asked Franklin, an architect of the "new forestry" approach that emphasizes long-term environmental values of forests. "I'm terrified that we're not going to gain that trust."

He said it's clear that decades of suppressing fires has left many forests with a buildup of small trees and underbrush that must be reduced to head off catastrophic wildfires. The issue is currently being debated in Congress, where environmentalists fear the Bush administration will use it as cover for increased logging in national forests.

Franklin recalled recently walking through a stand of large, old trees in Oregon invaded by small firs that could easily carry flames into the crown of the larger trees.

"They're dead meat if we don't get in there and remove the fire ladder," Franklin said. "We have created dense stands where they don't belong, and done it not on thousands of acres but on hundreds of thousands."

His solution is for Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who works for Rey, to declare that the Forest Service will, by and large, avoid cutting old-growth and keep loggers out of roadless areas. "That would remove probably 90 percent of any environmental objection" to plans to thin forests, Franklin said.

Rey, though, told the gathering of professors, students, environmentalists and others that he couldn't agree. For one thing, it's too hard to get everyone to sign off on a definition of "old growth," he said.

And some of the forests that need to be thinned, near homes that could burn up, are by roadless tracts of trees.

"What I've come to appreciate is that it's possible for people to agree in principle for several decades before they learn to agree in practice on what exactly that principle translates out to mean," Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry, explained later.

Paul Joseph Brown / P-I
Andy Renud, Juliana Petterson (the tree) and Tony Van Getel traveled from Whatcom County to protest Mark Rey at a UW forum on forest practices.
Environmentalists who heard the speech said that's not an excuse.

"These areas probably aren't as difficult to define as Mark Rey would have you believe," said Seth Cool of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.

Franklin said he agreed that forests will be need to be actively managed, not just left to nature, to survive the other threats cited by Rey.

Rey decried the "breathtaking rate" at which Americans are moving into the forests and estimated that some 30 acres of forest would be converted to other uses in just the space of the three-hour forum. The Internet makes it increasingly possible for people to move out into the woods -- "the dark side" of people's love for forests, Rey said.

"It compromises some of the best wildlife habitat," Rey said. He added after the forum was that he hopes to "force people to confront the fact that what they love most is what they're jeopardizing quickly in the way they decide where they're going to live."

He called for state and local governments to deal with the problem through zoning ordinances.

Perhaps the most underappreciated problem affecting national forests, Rey said, is the spread of invasive plants and foreign diseases. Imported from overseas, these organisms arrive on these shores without the natural enemies that kept them in check in their homelands.

For example, the Eurasian variety of reed canary grass can overtake and even block the flow of water in streams in national forests.

"This is a problem that is crying out for public attention," Rey said. "It's a rapidly spreading problem that is not in any way competing for public attention."

Franklin said the solution, although it would be difficult under rules governing international trade drawn up by the World Trade Organization, is at its heart simple: "It's time to stop moving green plants and raw wood between continents. ... What if instead of sudden oak death, we had sudden Douglas fir death? ... It's a potential disaster for us in North America."

Rey agreed, saying that's why invasive species need just as much attention as the debate over logging in national forests.

"What is left to do, in a word," Rey said, "is everything."


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