Forest Service Chief Urges Halt to Old Growth Logging

DURHAM, North Carolina, January 9, 2001 (ENS) - In a historic speech that conveyed a clear challenge to the incoming Bush administration, outgoing U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck on Monday unveiled a new initiative that calls for the protection of the nation's remaining old growth forests.

Speaking at a landscape legacies conference at Duke University, Dombeck said that the time has come for the Forest Service to take the "long view" and enact policies that prohibit the harvesting of old growth trees. Old growth forests, by definition, are stands of trees that are approximately 200 years old or older.

Declaring that "reverence for ancient trees is ingrained in our culture," Dombeck outlined a series of new Forest Service directives designed to protect the nation's remaining old growth forests.

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Old growth forest in the Ketchikan area of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska (Photos courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Under the directives, each of the 155 national forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service will be required to take steps to inventory, map, protect, sustain and enhance old growth ecosystems.

The directives also require the Forest Service to determine the extent and pattern of old growth forests in the past, and to develop plans to facilitate the development of old growth in the future.

Dombeck pledged that the Forest Service will work with local communities to prioritize and implement old growth restoration projects, which he said would create jobs. He said that selective thinning and prescribed burning could still be utilized in areas where "uncharacteristic" wildfire risks threaten old growth resources and values.

Dombeck spoke poignantly about the need to protect old growth forests, citing the environmental and social harms wreaked by "profiteers" who have embarked on clearcutting sprees in the pursuit of "progress and prosperity."

"First the eastern forests fell, next the forests of my home country, the Lake States," said Dombeck. "Finally, the entrepreneurs turned to the South and West. In their wake remained miles of slash, fueling enormous wildfires. Hillsides left bare were gullied by erosion; downpours caused flash floods in distant downstream communities."

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Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck
Dombeck described the loss of the last old growth maple in the Great Lakes region through the words of the noted conservationist Aldo Leopold, who in the 1920s launched the campaign to protect the nation's rapidly vanishing wilderness areas.

"With this tree will fall the end of an epoch ... There will be an end of cathedral aisles to echo the hermit thrush, or to awe the intruder. There will be an end of hardwood wilderness large enough for a few days skiing or hiking without crossing a road. The forest primeval, in this region, will henceforward be a figure of speech," said Dombeck.

Conservation groups hailed Dombeck's announcement, the latest in a flurry of 11th hour environmental initiatives put forth by the outgoing Clinton administration.

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This grove in Michigan's Ottawa National Forest is representative of the type of forest used as a base for old growth characteristics.
"This is a significant step towards restoring old growth in the Eastern U.S., which has been nearly eliminated," said Kristen Sykes of the American Lands Alliance. "With only one percent of the eastern old growth left, few people know or appreciate how magnificent the forests east of the Mississippi really can be."

Dombeck, in his speech to the conference, said he fully anticipates that critics will charge that "protecting old growth somehow translates into an abandonment of multiple use and active management." Critics claim that "active management" practices such as extensive timber harvesting and widespread road building are necessary to mitigate threats posed by catastrophic wildfires.

"In fact, the opposite is true," Said Dombeck, who noted that wildfire risks are often the most severe in areas where old growth trees are scarce and logging roads are numerous.

"That is where the risk is greatest to communities, municipal watersheds and habitat for threatened and endangered species," Dombeck said. "This is where we must focus our work."

Randi Spivak, president of the American Lands Alliance, called the new Forest Service initiative a "welcome change from an agency that until recently seemed to be taking shortcuts to log more old growth" timber. Spivak noted that the Forest Service has recently approved a number of timber harvest plans that propose to allow more old growth logging.

"With the chief's announcement today, we expect to see immediate changes on the ground," Spivak said.

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Woodland caribou in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest prefer undisturbed lichen bearing forests.
Spivak noted that public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Americans want greater protections for national forests, and especially for the nation's remaining ancient forests. Those opinions are being reflected by the drop in the market demand in old growth wood, he said, noting that a number of major corporations have pledged to stop using old growth wood in their products.

"If corporate America can move away from old growth, so can the federal government," Spivak said.

The Forest Service's initiative to curtail the harvesting of old growth trees comes just days after President Bill Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting commercial logging and road building on nearly 60 million acres of unroaded Forest Service land.

Congressional Republicans have called that initiative "illegal," and have pledged to rescind once the Bush administration comes to power. President-elect Bush has hinted that he may try to undo a number of environmental accomplishments of the Clinton administration, including the designation of 11 national monuments throughout the American West.

Bush is set to be inaugurated on January 20, a week from this Saturday.