Protecting the Environment Through the Ownership Society — Part II

Policy Reports | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 295
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
by H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.

National Forests, Poor Environmental Results

Like national parks, national forests have also suffered from conflicting management goals and environmental degradation. National forests began with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which allowed the president to establish reserves of timber-covered land in the public domain.18 The U.S. Forest Service was established as an official agency in the Department of Agriculture in 1905. The Forest Service currently manages a system of 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, 20 research and experimental forests, and other areas, covering more than 193 million acres.19

The Forest Service's initial purpose was to further the country's development by putting those lands to their most productive long-term use — believed at the time to be lumber production. Logging was the predominant legislated use, provided that forest resources were maintained so that they were available for future use.20

"Stripping vegetation in national forests was environmentally destructive."

Fostering Unhealthy Forests: Environmental Impact. Environmental quality, recreation and wildlife preservation were given short shrift when the Forest Service was established. Logging and road building in the national forests have often been environmentally destructive, especially in mountainous terrain that requires stripping vegetation and removing vast quantities of earth. By 1985 the Service had constructed more than 342,000 miles of roads in national forests — more than eight times the total mileage of the Interstate Highway System — to allow logging on more than half of the nation's forests.11 [See Figure I.]st295fig1

The Forest Service's policy of clear-cutting — removing all the trees from a designated area — also had negative environmental consequences. Large clear-cuts displace forest-dependent animal species and reduce the area's water absorption, at least temporarily. And small clear-cuts require more roads per acres logged. The results:

  • In the Northern Rockies, some trout and salmon streams have been severely damaged by several feet of silt or mud runoff.22
  • Road construction has created inroads for exotic, often harmful, species of wildlife, plants and parasites.

"Three are eight times as many miles of logging roads as Interstate highways."

In addition to road building and clear-cutting, other factors have contributed to unhealthy forests. Many forests have more standing dead timber or parasite-infested trees in decline than newer, growing trees. Other forests have stands of trees that are too thick (too many trees growing in too small an area) due to successful fire suppression programs, logging that has not kept pace with forest growth, and forest replanting programs that stress the monoculture of fast-growing, commercially valuable species. As a result, many national forests have either lost biodiversity — they have fewer species or varieties of trees than before — or the trees are not reaching their growth potential, or both. Indeed, one researcher found that regrowth in many federal forests was less than 50 percent of the potential.23 For instance, among national forests in Montana in 1993:

  • Lolo National Forest saw the highest average annual growth, averaging about 58 percent of its productive potential.
  • The Lewis & Clark National Forest averaged only 30 percent of its productive potential.
  • The Gallatin National Forest actually saw a negative growth rate.24

These aging and dying national forests also harbor fewer species of other plants and smaller animal populations compared to young, growing forests.

The high environmental costs of the Forest Service's logging program might be worthwhile if it served some national purpose, but most lumber products in the United States come from private forests. In fact, historically, logging on the national forests has entailed large economic costs. For instance, in 1998 alone, depending upon the estimate chosen, the Forest Service lost $126 million to $407 million on its timber program.25

Shifting Forest Management. Poor road construction, improper maintenance and intensive logging in poorly suited areas harmed forest environments. To solve these problems, environmentalists fought to end or at least drastically reduce the amount of logging in national forests. They also advocated closing and/or removing many forest roads and prohibiting future road building on all remaining roadless areas. As a result, the Forest Service's mission began to change. Beginning with the National Forest Management Act of 1976, Congress required the agency to manage the national forests for multiple uses, including logging, ensuring a diversity of plant and animal species, increasing outdoor-recreation opportunities and protecting watershed resources.

The new mission was gradually implemented and, by 1996, national forests were used recreationally for a total of 341 million visitor days, including such activities as hiking, fishing, camping, hunting, horseback riding, off-road vehicle use and driving for pleasure.26

"Forest road building was curtailed, while the number of visitors increased."

Road building and logging have been substantially curtailed to protect watersheds and species, particularly the endangered northern spotted owl in the Northwest and various trout species in the Rocky Mountains. Whereas an average of 2,000 miles of forest roads were constructed per year in the 1980s, less than 500 miles per year were built during the 1990s and thousands of miles of road were closed.27 The decline in road building has largely tracked the decline in timber harvest.

Arguably, environmentalists scored their most profound victory in January 2001, when the Clinton administration approved a Forest Service proposal to place 58.5 million acres off-limits to future road building.28 Combined with the 35 million acres of roadless areas already designated as wilderness and thus off-limits to roads and development, this makes approximately 93 million acres de facto wilderness — almost half of the total land in the national forest system.29

Environmentalists and Forests. Unfortunately, declining construction and road closures have failed to improve forest health. Indeed, recreation in national forests has increased but visitors are packed onto fewer poorly maintained roads:

  • Recreational users make more than 800 million visits per year (some visitors make multiple visits) to camp, motorbike, ride horses, hunt and hike.30
  • From 1946 to 2000 overnight visitors increased 18-fold to more than 214 million, and in 2002 there were 215 million visitors who simply drove through or stopped at scenic overlooks.31
  • However, while only 7 percent of all forest roads are paved, 80 percent are open to public use.32
  • This increase in recreational-user traffic has left the Forest Service with an estimated $8.4 billion road maintenance and improvement backlog.33

Some Forest Roads Are Beneficial. If forest roads were nothing more than a harmful drain on the U.S. Treasury, the Clinton administration's decision to implement a roadless policy might have been a good plan. However, forest roads serve important national and local purposes, providing benefits — including some environmental benefits — which should be considered before declaring current roadless areas off-limits to future road building.

According to the Society of American Foresters, properly constructed and maintained forest roads are necessary for the Forest Service to carry out its multiple-use mission. Just focusing on the agency's environmental responsibilities indicates the critical need for roads. For example, for a number of years, a rising share of public timber sales has been undertaken for "stewardship" purposes — meaning they have an environmentally beneficial purpose. These sales are expected to account for 60 percent or more of total timber sales in the future.34 However, few of these stewardship sales will be economically or technically feasible in roadless areas.

Figure II: National Forest Fires of 1,000 Acres or More

"Roads are necessary to thin trees for wildlife habitat and reduce fire hazards."

Wildlife habitat improvements also depend on the kind of active forest management that requires roads. For example, the Forest Service has argued that the Mexican spotted owl may benefit from timber harvests that maintain old-growth pine habitats and alleviate risk from wildfires, insects and disease.35 Other species that depend on active forest management include red-cockaded woodpeckers, Kirtland's warblers, goshawks and snowshoe hares (a primary prey species for lynx).

In addition, active forest management is generally good for game species and, when properly done, creates a mix of habitats and trees of diverse ages that are generally beneficial for many species. Thus, the roadless designations hamper wildlife management activities.

Overcrowding and Forest Fires. The reduction in road building and timber harvesting has led to overcrowding — forests filled with too many living and dying or dead trees:

  • Historically, large ponderosa pines grew in stands of 20 to 55 trees per acre in the Western national forests; today they grow in densities of 300 to 900 trees per acre.36
  • National forests in California have an estimated 10 to 20 times more trees than is "natural" — making them dangerously overcrowded.37

Overcrowding contributes to the continuing decline in forests' health. It also increases the likelihood and severity of fires. [See Figure II.] According to Forest Service figures, fully 60 percent of national forest land is unhealthy and faces abnormal fire hazards.38 And of the more than 90 million acres at high risk for catastrophic fires, 14 million acres are located in designated roadless areas.39

"Overcrowded and diseased trees increase the risk of forest fires."

Access to forests for fire management is perhaps the most important environmental benefit that roads provide. Yet, environmentalists' lawsuits against the Forest Service have successfully halted or delayed attempts to thin various forests using such techniques as salvage logging of dead trees in areas that have already suffered catastrophic fires. They also argued for a policy of active neglect — allowing naturally started fires to burn (unless or until they become a threat to developed areas). As a result, the Service still fights fires resulting from human carelessness or arson, but now often allows forest fires sparked by lightning to burn. And in many places, the Service has even engaged in small-scale prescribed burns to help the forests regenerate by mimicking the historic fire patterns in the Western forests. As a result of these policies:

  • In 1988, prescribed burns decimated 1.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park.40
  • In 2000, New Mexico's Los Alamos Fire destroyed 90 percent of the endangered Mexican spotted owls' habitat.41
  • In 2002, the Biscuit fire destroyed almost 500,000 acres, including tens of thousands of acres of spotted owl habitat and 49 known nesting sites in national forests in Southern Oregon and Northern California.42
  • Between 1999 and 2002, the Forest Service identified 11 California spotted owl nesting sites lost to wildfires.43

"Forest fires set to encourage regrowth sometimes destroy private property."

This new fire policy also has human costs. By 2000, while only 38 out of 3,700 prescribed fires had gotten out of control, the losses in terms of human life and property damage were enormous:44

  • In 1980, 50,000 acres in Michigan were decimated by a prescribed burn intended to create habitat for the Kirtland's warbler; the fire destroyed homes and resulted in one death.
  • In 1991, a raging wildfire in Oakland, Calif., destroyed 700 homes and 25 residents died .
  • In 1999, forest managers lost control of the Lowden prescribed burn, which destroyed 23 homes in Lewiston, Calif.
  • In 2000, a prescribed burn in the Bandelier National Monument got out of control, swept through the Los Alamos National Laboratory and destroyed more than 400 homes and businesses, causing more than $1 billion in damages.
  • Between 1990 and 2000, more than 50 lives were lost to wildfires.

The financial costs of fighting forest fires have risen, too. Fire damage to homes and property increased six-fold to $3.2 billion by 1997.45 And the Forest Service spent a record $1.5 billion fighting fires during the 2006 firefighting season.46

Law of the Land. Some of the most damaging recent fires have occurred in areas covered by the roadless rule. As a result, a number of states, counties, outdoor recreation groups and private timber companies have challenged the roadless rule, fearing its harmful effects on the economy, people, property and wildlife. Lawsuits and subsequent action by the Bush administration have prevented the rule from ever taking full effect. Contradictory rulings from different federal courts largely left the rule in limbo, though it has basically been de facto in force, since road building has been on hold in many regions during the ongoing legal proceedings.

In 2005, the Bush administration repealed the previous roadless rule and replaced it with a process whereby each state governor could petition the Forest Service to maintain the roadless status of some or all of the inventoried roadless areas of national forests within their state. The governors could also petition the Service to allow more active management.47 The administration argued that this process would allow interested states more input and allow more flexible management over time in light of and in response to changing forest conditions.

This "state petition" rule was immediately challenged by several governors and environmental interest groups. In September 2006, Judge Elizabeth Laporte, of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, overturned the new policy and replaced it with the previous roadless rule.48 Laporte claimed that the Bush administration failed to follow proper procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act. Interestingly, when Judge Clarence Brimmer, of the U.S. District Court in Wyoming, overturned the initial 2001 roadless rule, he stated that the Clinton administration had failed to follow proper procedures under NEPA and the Wilderness Act in establishing the rule.49 For federal forest management, the more things change the more they stay the same: poor management continues, lawsuits pile up, the forests burn — and the public and the environment continues to pay the price. 

Read Article as PDF