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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: A Tale of Two Forests

An open letter to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck.

by Carl Pope

Dear Chief Dombeck: Standing outside the chief's conference room, where I recently met you for the first time, I noted the photographs of Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall, two visionary advocates for American forests, and two of the Forest Service's greatest leaders. Theirs are big shoes, and no recent chief has even tried to fill them. You, however, have no choice but to try--and succeed--if the American people are to maintain their confidence in the Forest Service as a steward for their public forests.

As you know, the members of the Sierra Club have voted for an end to commercial logging on federal public lands, including the national forests. Our members concluded that the Forest Service cannot balance logging the national forests with conserving them. As I told you at our meeting in January, both our polls and your agency's own data show the same thing: the public believes that national forests should be used primarily for recreation and wildlife, not for wood chips, timber, grazing, and mining.

The Forest Service should be listening, and listening hard. I appreciated the attentive (if noncommittal) hearing you granted me. But what worries me and the Sierra Club is that when decisions are actually made in our forests about what to do with each watershed and landscape, your staff remains stubbornly deaf to the public's concerns.

In our meeting, we talked about Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. This February the government finally voided its disastrous 50-year contract subsidizing the Ketchikan Pulp Company's destruction of the world's last intact temperate rainforest. But even with the Forest Service free to exercise sound stewardship, it still ignored the advice of a panel of 17 independent biologists who called for preserving remaining roadless watersheds, avoiding clearcutting, and protecting riparian zones and critical wildlife habitat. Instead, your staff wanted to cut just as much timber as under the old contract, and allow the destruction of 84 wild rivers.

What do the American people, the owners of this forest, think? The Forest Service received an unprecedented 22,000 comments from the public on the Tongass. Seventy-three percent sided with the independent biologists and against the Service's proposal to continue clearcutting and over-logging.

During our talk, I also brought up your agency's proposal for Black Hills National Forest, the first of a new generation of forest plans that are supposed to demonstrate how the Forest Service is going to manage its lands for the preservation of ecosystems and wildlife.

Based on this plan, your staff is not even going to try.

Although the plan praises the "scenic beauty" of the Black Hills, less than one percent of the forest is to be managed for "very high" scenic integrity. Only 12.1 percent is slated for "high," and a whopping 44.4 percent for "low." While the Black Hills are home to the Black Elk Wilderness, one of the most popular wild areas in the region, the new forest plan calls for no more designated wilderness areas than the measly one percent in the old plan. The new plan pledges that "whatever we do will not diminish the capacity of the land to maintain a healthy ecosystem," but it actually retreats from the 1983 plan, which projected eventual return of 21 percent of the forest to old-growth conditions. The new plan lowers its sights to a mere 9 percent. It also allows grazing on all eight of the Black Hills' biologically rich "Special Botanical Areas," with no analysis of whether they are suitable for grazing.

This is not the stewardship the American people expect. The Forest Service received 997 letters from the public in favor of preserving biological diversity in the Black Hills--but dismissed them in less than one page of response.

Chief Dombeck, the Forest Service's shameful handling of these forests illustrates the enormity of your task. In your first address to your employees, you said that you would run the agency neither to the specifications of the timber industry nor of the Sierra Club. Fair enough: we would be happy if you simply ran the Forest Service according to the specifications of the law and the American people. That is not what is happening now.

It will take an intense internal struggle to shake up the incentives, financing, and culture of the Forest Service. A recent report from the White House Council of Economic Advisors documents how, under the present system, the Forest Service spends nearly a quarter of a billion dollars more than it makes from all logging on all the national forests. Much of this expense goes to pay for the logging roads that make the clearcutting possible, and that can also cause catastrophic mudslides and the destruction of salmon fisheries. The Forest Service continues to maintain that its timber sales actually make money-a conclusion that can only be reached by counting environmentally destructive roads as public assets.

There are some signs that you may be up to the challenge before you. You vowed to the Senate to halt logging in riparian, old-growth, and roadless areas until public trust is regained. You also sent the Tongass plan back to the drawing board, and two of your deputy chiefs with reputations as advocates for the timber industry have resigned. If you succeed in remaking the agency, perhaps future visitors to the chief's conference room will note your portrait alongside those of Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold. If you fail, the American people may conclude that the Forest Service is incapable of carrying out its mission.

I wish you the best of luck. You will need it.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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