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Land of Many Uses and Abuses

November 20, 1988|Wallace Stegner | Wallace Stegner's most recent book is "Crossing to Safety" (Random House)

When the furious timber industry forced through Congress a law forbidding any more such reservations without the legislature's consent, Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot sat up all night; only after he had put away a final 16 million acres did Roosevelt sign the bill preventing him from doing so.

That principled balking of a powerful group could be an inspiration to Bush, if he let it. For since the 1950s, the Forest Service has been snuggling up to the timber industry it was created to guard against, ignoring or minimizing the other uses it is bound by law to promote.

In the Forest Organic Act of 1897, the national forests were charged with protecting watersheds and guaranteeing a future supply of timber. Grazing almost immediately asserted itself as an established use. Recreation--including fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, climbing, solitude and spiritual refreshment--also had to be accommodated. Visits to the national forests were fairly constant at about 10 million a year until World War II. After the war they went up and up. By 1975, 190 million visits a year were recorded, and now national forests draw more recreational visitors than national parks.

Use was always foremost in Pinchot's mind-- wise use, benefiting the greatest number over the longest time. The bureau he created has consistently differentiated itself by that criterion from the National Park Service, which it sees as preservationist. That is why, in national forests, the signs say "Land of Many Uses." In fact, the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1959 put those various uses into law, listing them alphabetically to emphasize their equal importance: outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed and wildlife and fish habitat. To those was added wilderness preservation. As long as the cut in the national forests was minimal, the uses did not significantly clash. But as private forest lands were cut over, demand for timber from the national forests grew. Since 1950, it has grown steeply, and the practice of clear-cutting--skinning whole mountainsides--increased as well. The symbiosis of the Forest Service and timber industry became even closer, until, in the Reagan Administration, an industry executive was directing the national forests.

While demand for the public's timber grew, and was met by a compliant Forest Service--even at sales far below cost--the demand for other stipulated uses also became more urgent. The bureau's foresters felt besieged. They were halfhearted about wilderness studies forced on them because they did not subscribe to the preservationist philosophy they saw behind wilderness. Too often, they overlooked or evaded the intent of the law setting six equal uses. When a Wilderness Society forester examined the 1985 budget, he found resource development and exploitation items (timber sales, minerals and grazing) totaled $600 million. Resource stewardship items (soil, water, watershed, wildlife and fish habitat, recreation and land acquisition) totaled $170 million. Not exactly equal.

The same bias toward timber sales and the expensive roading that makes logging possible (and forestalls wilderness designation), is apparent in plans mandated by the National Forest Management Act of 1976. Those plans will set the pattern for every forest for the next 50 years. Almost every draft has come under attack from environmental groups for the increased cutting and heavy roading proposed.

In most forests, roading and management costs exceed money obtained from sales. With Forest Service help, the public subsidizes the timber industry. Congress itself is to blame for the $50 million annual subsidy to loggers in Alaska's Tongass Forest, guaranteeing them a rich profit while they devastate--largely for Japan's benefit--one of the few remaining temperate-zone rain forests.

The bureau must move toward the multiple use it has given mainly lip service to. It must be brought to serve the public good, not that of the loggers. For roading and clear-cutting do harm the watersheds, spoil the scenery, harm the wildlife habitat, destroy the wilderness, fill the spawning streams with eroding silt. And those things matter more, to more people, than the 16% of our lumber that comes from the national forests.

These forests are for use, but not a single destructive use. If the greatest good to the greatest number over the longest time is still the criterion, then the Forest Service needs to be remodeled and given a broader and more humane mandate.

The opportunity is in Bush's hands.

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