By Daniel Kemmis
for Headwaters News
President Bushs "Healthy Forests Initiative" appears designed to use fuel reduction and forest health arguments to justify heightened levels of commercial timber harvest in fire-prone national forests.
This will almost certainly spark renewed calls from some environmental groups to end commercial logging on national forests altogether.
While that reaction would be perfectly understandable, there are several reasons to think that it would be both bad environmental policy and bad environmental politics. In fact, this would be an excellent time to recognize that the End Commercial Logging Campaign, despite its best intentions, is now doing more harm than good.
Proponents of what was originally called "zero cut" have been motivated by both ecological and economic concerns. They note the extensive damage that careless logging practices have inflicted on forested ecosystems by contributing to loss of biodiversity, while damaging water quality and recreational opportunities. And they argue that these activities have also cost millions of taxpayer dollars to support below-cost timber sales, while eliminating future economic opportunities that
rely on recreation or fish and wildlife.
Based on these arguments, the End Commercial Logging campaign has supported the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa). The bill would prohibit commercial logging on public lands, with a few specified exceptions that include hazardous fuels reduction. It would also develop national standards for forest restoration and create a National Heritage Restoration Corps.
While the bill has never made any significant headway in Congress, the zero-cut campaign has provided motivation to countless activists who have persistently resisted timber sales throughout the national forest system.
To a person, those who support this approach are doing what they believe will best protect forests about which they care deeply and genuinely. But in a number of ways, the weapon they are using to protect those forests has begun to backfire.
Western Republicans rush
to back Bush's forest initiative
By Greg Lakes, editor
Sept. 11, 2002
President Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative" may be the backlash to years of challenges to national forest timber sales, but there's seems no shortage of supporters -- elected, Republican and conservative -- across the West.
Some columnists are saying the debate will be a bitter and protracted conflict, but while the specifics vary, the momentum is swinging toward the right.
Bush's environmental agenda scored a point with approval of Yucca Mountain but lost big on plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The administration badly needs a win, observers say, and the summer's drought and wildfires will make it politically difficult for Democrats and environmentalists to counter.
Bush's plan, of course, would encourage logging and thinning to reduce fire risks on national forest land and eliminate most chances for environmentalists to appeal or file suit.
Well before Bush announced his plan, Montana Gov. Judy Martz, Arizona Gov. Jane Hull and Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin were among those loudly blaming environmentalists for holding up projects and helping the forests burn.
Democrat and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle gave Bush supporters a big boost in July when he made some forest projects in his home state of South Dakota off-limits to appeals. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and a variety of Bush backers pointed to Daschle's move as proof of bipartisan recognition of the need to eliminate red tape and forest fuels.
Since, Western representatives and senators have hurried to introduce bills supporting all or part of the Bush plan.
Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis would force logging on 40 million acres of national forest, including extensive cutting of beetle-infested timber on Colorado's Routt National Forest. Portions of that project had already been proposed by forest officials and appealed by environmentalists, who said it would encroach on roadless areas and do little to stop the beetles.
Montana's two senators, Republican Conrad Burns and Democrat Max Baucus, have competing proposals: Burns has sided with Idaho Rep. Larry Craig's amendment to make projects on 10 million acres of national forest immune to appeal. Baucus worked with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and other Western senators on an alternative that would
allow projects on 3.7 million acres and exempt them from appeals under stricter conditions.
After the Rodeo-Chediski fire, Arizona's worst ever, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl planned to exempt from appeal 39 million acres, including salvage sales on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and the Fort Apache Reservation, legislation he said he was tailoring after Daschle's.
To round out the scorecard, Reps. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and John B. Shadegg, R-Ariz., have introduced bills in support of the Bush plan. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) have called for compromise.
And as Utah Rep. Jim Hansen joined in sponsoring three bills that would largely codify the Bush plan, he shrugged off the barely 2-year-old National Fire Plan written by the Western Governors Association.
The plan involved agencies, industry and environmentalists in a much-touted enlibra doctrine that focused on consensus and called for thinning, logging and controlled burns to reduce fire risk. It was approved by the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture and was to guide policy for the next 10 years.
Hansen's reaction, as quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune: "Just because a bunch of governors come together and say, 'We've come up with a fire plan,' am I supposed to bow down?"
The problems with the campaign range from the conceptual to the political, with economic and social stops in between. It is at the social and economic level that the campaign has begun to raise a costly level of Western resentment against environmentalists and environmentalism in general.
"End commercial logging" is interpreted by most timber-dependent communities around the West to mean, "destroy this community." That translation is, of course, a vast oversimplification of a very complex situation. The decline in timber-based economies around the West is part of a bigger picture reaching out geographically to the scale of the global economy and historically to an ongoing pattern of the timber industry overcutting one region of the continent after another and
then moving on.
Even greater complexity is added by the fact that many traditionally timber-dependent communities are finding new life and prosperity in a post-industrial, amenity-based economy. Still, the economic transition is always wrenching and often devastating for these communities, and it is simply inhumane to make it more difficult without good reason.
Zero-cut proponents are certainly not motivated by a desire to do harm to Western communities and families, and they believe they have good reasons for whatever economic pressure they put on timber communities.
They would argue, with considerable reason, that conservation has already lost far too much ground to exploitative harvest practices, and that an absolute end to commercial logging is the only environmentally sound option.
"The compromise has already been made," they argue; "We cant subject our national forests to any more abuse."
The problem is that the sense of being driven into a corner that environmentalists so often feel becomes something like a cycle of abuse, so that now the ECL campaign itself has left timber communities feeling as if they are the ones who are cornered.
Unable to make any headway against zero-cut arguments and tactics with what they consider sound arguments for achieving a reasonable level of timber harvest to supply a small part of societys demand for wood, timber-dependent communities and the timber industry are now taking advantage of public concerns about wildfire to gain some access to public timber.
Their arguments about the benefits of timber harvest to forest health are rightly criticized by environmentalists. The problem is that we are now locked in a battle between two equally implausible positions, and there is next to no chance to fashion sound public policy on the basis of such disingenuous arguments.
In these terms, the End Commercial Logging Campaign has become as much of a hindrance to the policy debate as has the "logging is good for the forests" argument.
The fact is, our society uses wood extensively, and because we are by no means prepared to use only recycled fiber in all of our wood products, we have to harvest trees.
It is true that only a modest percentage of those trees will or should come from national forest lands. But just as there are significant portions of the public domain that should not be roaded or logged, there are clearly some public lands that are able to contribute their share of societys demand for wood products in an ecologically sound and sustainable way.
By denying that bit of common sense, the ECL campaign does as much damage to the credibility of the entire environmental movement as the "logging is good for the forests" argument does to the timber industry. But the damage goes even deeper.
Anti-logging advocates who remain convinced that a zero-cut policy is sound should still consider the political ramifications of the campaign. In spite of its veneer of bipartisan sponsorship, McKinney-Leach has always been a Democratic bill: Of its 110 current co-sponsors, only two are Republicans.
In the public lands West, this proposal is widely perceived as just one more instance of non-Western Democrats trying to exercise from afar a misguided dominion over Western landscapes, with substantial impacts on the communities those Westerners care so much about.
This kind of single-slogan approach to environmental issues has often served national environmental groups well. It not only provides a way to advance what they are convinced is good environmental policy, but is also an effective way to build membership around an easily understood and emotionally appealing position.
Some of the money raised by those appeals reward congressional and presidential candidates (again predominantly Democrats) who support policies like zero cut or no grazing on public lands.
These simple formulas gain votes and contributions for Democrats outside the West, but within the region, they have contributed very substantially to the partys steady decline.
Zero-cut and cattle-free campaigns have cut off Western Democrats from any possibility of establishing a populist foothold in the rural reaches of the West. People who make a living from the land have always been key to any strong populist movement.
Republicans now have a corner on Western populism, and that will not change as long as the Democratic Party is identified in Western minds with policies that deeply threaten the economic viability of land-based communities.
But it is not only bad politics to ignore these people; it is also bad environmental policy. In the long run, ecosystems, in the West or anywhere else, can only be sustained with the active, creative involvement of the people who inhabit those ecosystems.
However well intentioned, environmental policies that most inhabitants of an ecosystem feel have been forced on them cannot succeed over time.
The fact is that the vast majority of people who make a hard living from Western landscapes have stuck with those places because of a deep attachment to the land. They mean it when they insist that they are environmentalists.
The great tragedy of zero-cut and cattle-free policies is that they make these grass-roots environmentalists view the environmental movement as their enemy. Increasing numbers of Western environmentalists have been working hard over the past few years in their own river basins, their own ecosystems, to build alliances with ranchers, loggers and other Westerners who make their living from well-loved Western landscapes.
That creative work and the new alliances that spring from them are the foundation not only for sustainable environmental policy, but for a new, grass-roots environmental politics in the West. Zero-cut and cattle-free positions needlessly make enemies of people who should be supporters of sound environmental policies, driving them to support unsound policies like Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative.
The environmental movement could reclaim seriously damaged credibility and build new political partnerships by moving beyond slogans that have outlived their usefulness.
Daniel Kemmis is director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Mont., and author of "This Sovereign Land - A New Vision for Governing the West."