Forest Service must cure its ‘timber-itch’



Aldo Leopold, the iconic American conservationist, spoke of once watching “a fierce green fire” dying in the eyes of a wolf he killed, noting “there was something new to me in those eyes.” The she-wolf was not just a varmint, and he came to regret his youthful “trigger-itch.”

Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service must overcome its long-established “timber-itch.” With the agency creating new rules for the vast acreage under its management, and the way we use these valuable resources changing dramatically, we now have no choice but to be concerned. The division of the Department of Agriculture that once responded mostly to the timber industry now needs to measure its mission not in harvesting trees, but in recreation visits, sheltered wildlife and protected water resources.

But old habits die hard. The agency had long suffered from such a timber-itch when Hubert Humphrey, as a senator and before he was vice president, fought to pass the 1976 National Forest Management Act. It was time to rein in overly aggressive cutting, and elevate consideration of other bedrock values like water and wildlife.

Yet, incredibly, timber harvesting continued to climb, peaking in 1990 at 12 billion board feet (it’s about 2 billion today), until a federal judge intervened, finding that agency officials had “willfully violated the law.” It was the low point for a once-proud agency with a high calling.

Now the Forest Service is in the final stages of crafting a planning framework for some 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands — 193 million acres or 8 percent of the entire U.S. These areas provide habitat for more than 5,000 species of fish and wildlife and more than 10,000 plant species, hundreds of them listed as threatened or endangered.

Furthermore, 125 million people depend on forests for clean water supplies. And according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, outdoor recreation has become an $18 billion industry, with the Forest Service estimating over 173 million recreational visits to national forests each year, plus an additional 300 million to nearby scenic byways and other routes.

Progressive plan needed

Today the agency faces a strong residual to cut timber, plus the added challenges of urbanization, energy development, climate change and off-road vehicle abuses. What’s needed now is a progressive planning framework that charts a clear path towards sustainability, water and wildlife protection, and diverse recreational values of the natural landscape as the greatest assets of national forests.

Unfortunately, the proposed planning formula hints at, but does not squarely embrace such a vision. The regulation seeks to protect agency discretion where, instead, clear commitments and accountability are needed. The danger is that the new rule won’t give Forest Service managers the tools to make the vision real. Clarity and specifics are required to do what’s right. While some flexibility is inherently necessary, too much elasticity could snap the agency back to old behaviors that would threaten to give away too much and protect too little.

The agency was not bashful about pursuing aggressive timber harvesting for many decades, stopping only when required by lawsuits. And it should not be bashful about declaring — firmly and convincingly — that those days are over. It is time to embrace conservation and lead the country into the 21st century with this vision in mind. Rather than asking for more discretion, the Forest Service needs to build trust with strong commitments and then keep them.

Americans should look for something new — evidence of a fierce green fire, a passion for exemplary land stewardship. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has spoken with urgency about restoring and protecting water and wildlife values, and the Forest Service needs to deliver the goods.

Jim Furnish is a former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service.