Cut and run
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Cutting Down the Trees     Clearcuts. As beautiful as tree-covered West Virginia hillsides are today, yesteryear's massive devastation of the state's native forests left a bitter legacy for today's timber industry to dispel. In fact, the modern forestry profession arose from concerns that clearcuts might once again make the "beautiful hills" barren.

     By 1961 clearcuts had been applied to more than half the harvests in national forests across the country as part of "scientific forestry." Later, in the 1970s, when the Mon was at the center of a national debate about national forest practices, the National Forest Management Act of 1976 was enacted into law to ease the public's concerns.

     Present-day worries are legitimate yet need to be kept in historical perspective. The debate has not ceased. 

     Beware. Caveat emptor still applies to the public which buys (accepts) what the federal government is offering. Spurred on by the timber industry, "salvage" logging rears its head from time to time.

     For example, in 1995 Congress attached a rider to a budget bill providing disaster relief. The rider authorized "emergency salvage timber sale" of 4.5 billion board feet under the guise that sick trees in national forests could be sold. However, the rider sanctioned sale of healthy trees associated with the sick ones, exempted sales from regulatory review (e.g. Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act), and mandated reopening or substitution in kind of sales of old-growth trees previously exempted from sale so as to protect endangered species. The rider, which expired eventually, stirred up a storm among environmental advocates. 

     With television screens filled by images of burning forests in 2000, during 2001 a concerted effort by Big Timber to log these forests commenced. Without Mike Dombeck as its head, the U.S. Forest Service reverted to old policy positions on post-fire salvage logging.

      Congress in the late 1990s loaded appropriations bills with anti-environmental riders.  Spearheading these cut-and-run efforts were the determined, patient, and politically savvy Alaskan triumvirate of Senators Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski and Representative Don Young.   Their strategy, as well as that of their cohorts, has been to obscure these environmental sores inside large pieces of legislation. With the ascendancy of a Democratic U.S. Senate in 2001, their influence, while still substantial, has waned.  

     State trends. There are trends within the timber industry which justify vigilance. Loggers remain unregulated and are supposed to adhere to voluntary best management practices. The state's Division of Forestry, charged with overseeing loggers, is oriented toward production. In 1997 a position in the state's Development Office was created to promote growth of the wood products industry. Yet,  little overall long-term forest planning exists in state government.

     Between 1987 and 1994 timber harvested every year doubled to more than one billion board feet and production is expected to increase. Between 1992 and 1999 timber companies targeted more than two million acres for logging, which is about 13 percent of the land in West Virginia. 

      The timber industry in West Virginia has transformed so that large factory-like facilities devour massive quantities of trees to be shredded into chips. This trend threatens both diversity of hardwoods and re-creation of old growth forests, both of which would play second fiddle to tree farms of tiny, young, low-grade timber. Chip mills are not saw mills.  They use smaller trees, leftover tree limbs and tops and glue them together. Without human intercession dead trees, tops and limbs will provide nutrients to the soil.

     In 1987, 3.7 trees were growing for every one that was cut, but by 1995 there was a dramatic decline to only 1.3 trees growing for every one cut. This disturbing trend applies to numerous hardwoods. 

     The state's policy is to encourage timber production.  Providing  trained workers is the aim of the West Virginia Wood Industry Training and Technology Assistance Consortium, a non-profit group assisted by the West Virginia Development  Office, the Division of Forestry, the West Virginia Wood Technology Center, the West Virginia Forestry Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and West Virginia University.

     An excellent series of articles about West Virginia's timber industry appeared in the Charleston Gazette . These articles are in the following web site:

     State forests. Nine state forests, constituting about 80,000 acres, form an arc in the eastern and southern parts of the state. Most are located in remote, heavily forested areas.

      Management is awkwardly divided between two separate agencies: the West Virginia Division of Forestry (non-developed portions) and the Division of Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Section (developed portions such as cabins, etc.). The director of the Division of Natural Resouces has the authority, with approval of the governor, to sell timber on state-owned land except state parks and Kanawha State Forest. [W.Va. Code sec. 20-1-7(13)].

      Logging is a major focus of 10-year state forest management plans. The philosophy seems to be: plan for logging and roads and then consider wildlife, ecology, and aesthetics. Logging versus wildness and resultant tourism. That conflict led in 2000 to including Kanawha State Forest in the state park system. Citizen-input into these plans is crucial.

     The Division of Forestry has a financial incentive to have trees cut since it retains seventy-five percent of the money. Incentive versus duty. The director also has the duty to protect our forests. [W.Va. Code sec. 20-1-7(15)]. And for land purchased by the state for state forests the "director shall protect, preserve and maintain lands so acquired...." [W.Va. Code sec. 20-3-2]. Is the director doing so?

     Beyond the issue of philosophy, care and expansion of state forests is limited by its funding, principally hunting licenses. That money tends to go to wildlife management. The shortage of funding limits expansion necessary to protect watersheds and ecosystems in state forests.

     National forest. Due to the sizeable national forest acreage in West Virginia, located in a remarkably scenic, mountainous area, the federal government's timber management policies and practices regularly raise important issues. Common concerns involve haulage and skid roads, size of sales of timber, subsidized timber sales, loss of soil and siltation and pollution of streams from timber cuts, endangered species of animals, preservation of old growth forests, and impairment of scenic views. 

     Model. One successful model for modifying questionable timber sales in the Mon occurred in 1996 and early 1997. The site in question was on the east side of Gauley Mountain north of Marlington, one of the prettiest areas of the state. The Forest Service had planned the largest-ever timber-cut in the Mon, 16 million board feet of century-old trees. To its credit the U.S. Forest Service listened to citizens voicing concerns about the size of the cut and damage to steams and wildlife. Differences remained and a lawsuit was filed to alter the proposal. A settlement agreement was reached which reduced the size of the cut by about one-fifth and adopted arrangements to monitor and protect streams and wildlife. 

     Roads. There are more miles of roads in national forests than are contained in the interstate highway system, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Roads can cause landslides, erosion, and siltation of streams. Fortunately, the Service has taken a significant step in precluding roads in wilderness portions of our national forests with its roadless policy. It is the first time public land has been protected for being ecologically intact.

     Thr Roadless Initiative began in January 1998, was proposed as permanent in October 1999 by President Clinton, and in November 2000 the Forest Service made its final Environmental Impact Statement. In the early Bush II administration the rule was allowed to take effect. However, revisions are anticipated based upon "more local input," meaning future concessions to timber-producing areas in midwest and western states.

     The roadless policy advances a new approach to preserving land, "save everything that is left," which is preferable to the Twentieth Century's national parks policy of "save one of everything, the best you can find." 

     The roadless policy also prohibits timber harvests in roadless areas except where cutting is necessary for reducing the risk of unusually intense fires, restoring ecosystem health, or conserving roadless area values -- "stewardship logging."  Environmental watchdogs no doubt will monitor the exception to the rule. Critics of the roadless policy want more logging to dampen the risk of wildfires as seen in the West during summer 2000.

     How much forest land will be protected? A remarkable 50 million acres, expanding to 60 million acres with 2004 inclusion of Tongass National Forest in Alaska. They constitute about two percent of the land in the USA. In West Virginia the new rule covers about 200,000 acres of the Monongahela National Forest and some tracts in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

     Helicopter logging. An additional discouragement to road construction in the Mon is helicopter logging, which is required in some areas of the Mon. A minus to this form of logging is that it may provide access to areas otherwise not likely to be logged. 

     Monuments. Another device for protection of forests is the federal Antiquities Act of 1906. The statute has been used by many presidents late in a term to create national monuments. In 2000 President Clinton boldly set aside nearly three million acres of scenic land for protection through national monument status, more than any other president. For example, thirty-four of the nation's seventy-five giant sequoia groves on 328,000 acres in California were given national mounment protection.
Last updated on Tuesday, July 24, 2001