My Turn: Clearcuts can be part of healthy forest

Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Erik Lie-Nielsen's letter to the editor of Jan. 19 blasted Dick Coose for his earlier guest editorial. The derogatory remarks, however, applied broad-brush generally to foresters, specifically those "suckled at the public teat with the Forest Service." Putting professional in quotes implied that they were not. Further, that "multi-use (presumably multiple use) management then" meant only clear cuts and stumps to Forest Service foresters. Apparently "then" means past.

Ignorant criticism of foresters is not new; we are perhaps more defensive because of its ignorance.

Way back, the Forest Service was repeatedly studied trying to learn how it accomplished so much with so limited a force at such little cost. Reason: Dedicated people who loved and respected the land and had a mission exceeding aspirations to personal gain and who "signed on" as part of something representing more than a job. The previous administration finished dragging the agency into the political gutter, purging it of many dedicated professionals. Precious few remain.

Until relatively recently, science-based forestry was practiced mostly on public land, providing goods and services and demonstrating forest management. It has been copied and often improved upon. Earlier demonstrations were most appropriately carried out on public land, affordable elsewhere when proven effective and profitable. Like it or not, capitalism relies on profit. To sell conservation, not preservation, it initially had to be proven possible and profitable.

Among the thoroughly researched practices was even-age management, requiring clearcutting. It has been abused, on public and other ownerships, more on private lands for quick capital acquisition versus desire or ability to manage for longer-term results. Clearcutting, properly used, is necessary to achieve certain results. Other methods are used to extract products and to manage for other objectives. They are less obvious than clearcuts, but those methods lead to different results. Ecological knowledge and economics drive the choices.

Surprising to some, logging to forestry is a first, not final, step toward long-term objectives. The cutting method is chosen to achieve a pre-determined next forest generation. All require seeing beyond the stumps.

Species grown for many high-demand forest products regenerate best in full light, shade-free. Shade-intolerant spruce is one. "Pick and pluck" selective logging may look better than a clearcut, but results in stand conversion to shade tolerant hemlock, less useful and less needed than spruce. "Selective" logging to be profitable encourages "high-grading," unethical in forestry, taking only the best logs, leaving poor growing sites for the next generation. Usually poor quality trees are left, degrading the stand leaving low quality logs to rot; at a distance good-looking, poor conservation. A selection system, not "selective" logging, is usually used to reach objectives other than encouraging desirable regeneration.

A limited forest ecology and management lesson is insufficient to license a reader to practice forestry or intelligently criticize; hopefully enough to illustrate that there's more than shown by casual observation. Some forestry requires more than one lifetime to complete.

Books tell more about multiple-use management; briefly, multiple-use management includes provision for consumer products, as well as wilderness, recreation and other consumptive and non-consumptive resource use. No special interests embrace it. They strive for their ends, selfishly at the expense of the others. "Balance," the multiple use objective, is forever debatable, satisfying few.

Criticizing government employees is popular sport. To some extent, even by law, their defense ability is limited. Healthy, constructive, intelligence-based criticism benefits civil service. Otherwise it is only damaging and demeaning.

Criticizing foresters and forestry is also popular, forestry's defense ability and capacity to educate is also limited. It's a small poorly funded profession, less than 20,000 Society of American Foresters members nationally. Romantic dazzling big-budget "causes" generate larger memberships, can afford media space and batteries of lawyers even in little Juneau.

Stumps aren't as pretty as old growth, but this wasn't written on old growth and my roof, furniture and toilet paper are not old growth or wilderness or ancient. A forest of baby trees fails to evoke sighs, swoons, and cathedral comparisons. But, consumer needs are best met with renewable resources scientifically managed on productive land minimizing land needed. Better than being insensitively extracted for short-term benefits. Better than being imported from unmanaged land in unregulated countries desperate for quick profit. Healthy forests are managed forests possible in and contributing to a healthy economy.

Wayne R. Nicolls of Juneau is retired from the U.S. Forest Service and serves as chairman of the Juneau Chapter of the Society of American Foresters.

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