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Sierra Magazine
Big Timber's Big Lies

Big Timber's Big Lies 1 | 2

Clearcuts for Kids

In addition to pretending to be a crusader for forest health, the timber industry has cast itself as the savior of rural education. This ruse is made possible by a federal law enacted nearly a century ago requiring that 25 percent of timber-sale revenues from national forests go to rural counties for road maintenance and education. The result is that school systems have gotten hooked on revenue from deforestation, and fluctuations in the timber economy have made school budgets unpredictable.

Both the Clinton administration and the Forest Service have proposed legislation to de-link education funding from timber sales and make guaranteed payments for schools directly from the government. The timber industry is vehemently opposed to such a move because this would reduce its political leverage.

Under heavy timber-industry pressure, the House passed H.R. 2389, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which keeps rural education dependent on public-lands deforestation. At press time, an equally destructive companion bill, S. 1608, was under consideration by the Senate. The bills would set county payments at fixed levels but would raid funds from non-timber programs (such as fish and wildlife) if timber revenue wasn't sufficient, putting pressure on agency managers to get the cut out. The bills also require a substantial portion of the payments to be used not for education, but rather for additional logging projects on national forests.


Logging as Foreign Policy

As if the rationalizations about jobs, forest health, fire protection, and education weren't hard enough to swallow, timber executives and their friends in Congress are now insisting that halting logging on our national forests would create "shifting economic pressures" to increase logging in forests abroad. Forest protection at home, they now argue, triggers deforestation elsewhere.

In fact, less than 3 percent of domestic wood comes from national forests. Even if industry's contentions about worldwide logging were true, any shift in supply would have a minute effect on the global timber market. What's more, the industry's own research provides little support for the "shifting pressures" rhetoric. A recent study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics estimates that for every 50 acres of forest protected in North America and Europe, only 2.5 acres of forest would be lost collectively throughout Asia, South America, Africa, and the former Soviet Union. And this study doesn't address the extent to which a shift to non-wood alternatives could compensate for reduced domestic logging.

This shift in supply could well go in an entirely different direction than the timber industry would have us believe-not to foreign countries, but to substitutes for wood. Ending timber sales on national forests and removing heavily subsidized public timber from the market would enable non-wood products to be more competitive. For example, overall costs of building with recycled light-gauge steel are only 3 percent greater than those of wood, but even such a small difference causes contractors to choose wood framing. If not for the unfairly low prices created by the federal timber program, says Michael Roddy, president of Green Framing Systems, recycled steel could meet significantly more of the demand for construction materials.

In any case, the timber industry's predictions of rising wood demand have turned out to be wishful thinking. Earlier reports incorrectly projected that by the year 2000 wood consumption would be 70 percent higher than it now is. Global consumption of wood in 1998, however, was actually about the same as in 1984, having peaked in the late '80s and decreased slightly since then.

Predictions that the demand for wood can only be met by continuing or increasing logging assume no increase in recycling or development of alternatives. Yet there is not so much a demand for wood itself as a demand for paper and construction products-products that can be easily derived from non-forest sources and recycled materials.

The federal government, the largest single consumer of paper in the world, provides an example of the potential for change. The executive branch alone consumes 20.9 billion pages of copy paper each year. Although federal agencies have increased the recycled content of their copy paper in the last two years, thanks to an administrative mandate, over two-thirds of it is still derived from virgin wood fiber. Executive Order 13101 required suppliers to provide paper with at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled content. When it was proposed, paper manufacturers howled, insisting that they could not meet such a requirement. Nevertheless, only two years later, suppliers have adjusted, and federal agencies are now in 95 percent compliance.

The quantity of paper consumed by the judicial and legislative branches of the federal government is unknown, but if they use as much as the executive branch, then the federal government's total consumption would equal roughly the amount of paper produced through commercial logging on national forests annually. (More than one-third of the timber cut on national forests-from 150,000 to 250,000 acres each year-goes into paper products.)

Stronger recycling efforts could also greatly reduce the need for lumber. Figures released last year by the Forest Service's Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, show that 29.6 million tons of recoverable, usable waste wood is produced in the United States each year from three major sources: municipal solid waste, demolition and construction waste, and the timber milling process. This is the equivalent of over 45 billion board feet of timber, nearly half of all wood consumed in the United States each year, and 15 times the amount of timber cut from national forests annually. Every year this quantity of wood ends up in landfills.


The Real Global Issues

Logging our national forests does have a global impact, but it's the exact opposite of what the timber industry alleges. The United States, for better or worse, is the trendsetter in international policies affecting forests. For example, the United States was widely blamed by conservationists for the failure of the 1992 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro to deliver a meaningful forest-protection treaty. Less-developed nations pointed out that the United States is still logging its last remaining ancient forests-even on public lands. Why then, they argued, should they institute strong measures to preserve their own forests?

Forest protection begets forest protection. Halting logging on federal lands would encourage preservation of both U.S. private lands and forests abroad. According to Mauricio Fierro of Geo-Austral, a Chilean forest-protection organization, "As much as we appreciate direct support from people in the United States, the most helpful thing you could do for us would be to stop logging in your own national forests." Similarly, Chris Genovali of the British Columbia-based Raincoast Conservation Society says, "Ending logging on U.S. national-forest land will set an important precedent for ancient-forest protection and will create positive political momentum internationally, which in turn could end up helping forest protection efforts in British Columbia."

As citizens of this country, we are faced with a choice: We can, through our silence, allow the timber industry to continue picking our pockets and plundering our public forests. Or we can hold our elected officials accountable and demand that they end the timber sales programs on our national forests.


Chad Hanson is a national director of the Sierra Club, and is the executive director of the John Muir Project. He can be reached at (626) 792-0109, at chadhanson@juno.com, or at 30 N. Raymond Ave., #514, Pasadena, CA 91103.

Big Timber's Big Lies 1 | 2

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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