As I hike along a mountain ridgeline, the beauty and wildness in which I immerse myself is scarred by an abyss of clearcuts. As I mourn for the trees and their inhabitants, my sense of loss is accentuated by anger derived from the knowledge that I, as a taxpayer, contribute to the nearly one billion dollars paid annually to international logging companies to desecrate our forests.
I sometimes struggle with the relative merits of biological and economic environmental arguments. Biology certainly favors the richness of forests to the emptiness of clearcuts. As the biological justification is clearly defined, I shall present economic support for the campaign to end commercial logging in our national forests, which has become known as zero-cut. As a lover of things natural, wild, and free, I often feel that no magnitude of economic incentives would justify the destruction of forest richness. I am certainly unable to justify spending of billions of dollars to fund the destruction of wilderness. In 1996, American taxpayers funded the $791 million in losses of the federal timber program. The United States Forest Service (USFS) timber program incurred a net loss of $7.3 billion between 1980 and 1991. These losses may be attributed to the costs associated with roadbuilding and administration. A study has found that over 90 percent of timber sales in the Rocky Mountain and intermountain regions lose money. A house sub-committee report revealed that only 15 of the country’s 122 national forests have derived revenue from logging.
Reports of positive net revenue from timber sales often result from the USFS’s failure to grant value to uncut trees. Losses would be greatly accentuated if one were to consider the value of trees’ capacity to preserve water and air quality while providing habitat and flood protection. Additionally, any logging revenues are used to provide funding for other USFS programs or operating expenses. Ironically, Wyoming’s Gallatin National Forest funded road closures necessary to protect grizzly bear habitat by introducing logging and its associated roads into another prime grizzly bear habitat.
The opportunity costs of the decreased recreation potential associated with logging are substantial. According to the USFS, 74 percent of jobs within the national forests are related to recreation while only three percent are associated with logging. By the year 2000, the USFS predicts that recreation will contribute 31.4 times the income and 38.1 times the number of jobs as will logging our national forests.
According to the USFS, only 106,000 jobs nationwide, 15,000 of which are within the USFS, are associated with logging on public lands. Following the termination of logging on public lands, many of these jobs could be replaced with ecological restoration jobs funded by the saved revenue. Additional jobs would be associated with more labor-intensive sustainable logging practices on private lands. Many jobs are currently forfeited by the export of nearly raw timber.
Only 3.9 percent, or 3.87 billion board feet, of national timber consumption is harvested on public lands. The wood acquired on public lands could easily be replaced by wood from private timber companies. As the availability of cheap federal timber currently compels overcutting by competing private landowners, the increased timber value following the passage of zero-cut legislation would provide greater incentive for the private companies to log sustainably. Additionally, eliminating inefficient use of forest resources could provide more than twice the amount harvested from national forests. The one half of cut trees that are used to provide paper could be replaced by alternative pulp sources and increased recycling.
As citizens are becoming informed of the ecological and economic loses associated with logging our national forests, support for zero-cut is emerging. According to the USFS, 58 percent of Americans oppose any commodity extraction from national forests.
Zero-cut legislation recently made great progress with the introduction of the bipartisan National Forest Protection and Restoration Act in the house. Although the legislation stalled in the house, momentum is generating towards the reclaiming of national forests from the hands of profit-seeking timber companies.
Enough of the arguments of economics… A friend lingers upon a rocky summit, overlooking the lush boreal forests of Montana’s Selway-Bitteroot National Forest. Plans have been announced to drive a road through the heart of the rich, roadless valley. He has come to summon the power of the wilds, to invite the voices of the trees to join his own as he advocates for their protection. Atop his rocky perch, he is visited by a coyote, showing him that the forest is a place of communion rather than dominance. “I shall fight for my friend’s home,” he tells me, “for there is nowhere else to go.”