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The West 2000 Page 9

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Fewer Americans experience them today, except from the passing window of an airplane or a car, yet even after the century-and-a-half since Longfellow’s poem, American forests still stand as vast as they did then. In fact, even with all the harvesting and their conversion in parts to millions of acres of farm land, and even with losses to natural causes, the nation’s forest land is still about two-thirds the size it was before Pilgrims landed in 1620.

The heart of the bitter arguments today is in that romantic notion of a “primeval” old growth forest untouched by man–something that probably didn’t exist even in Longfellow’s time. It is in the last century, and especially in the last decade, that federal policy has prohibited uses of the forest that were prevalent even among Native Americans five centuries ago, thus “preserving” a renewable resource that federal policy may end up destroying.



Spanish explorers in the 16th century reported they were unable to approach the Pacific Coast of this continent at times because of the heavy smoke and ash blowing out to sea from huge forest fires probably set by native inhabitants as a regularly used method for clearing the forest.
It is only in the last quarter century that researchers have begun to appreciate the extent by which Indians all over the North American continent used fire in combination with other methods to harvest the forest resource. A “primeval” forest probably no longer existed after thousands of years of development of native civilizations prior to the arrival of Europeans. In fact, early settlers frequently commented on the “park-like” forests with open savannahs and easily traveled trails. Research indicates that overgrowth of these forests may have been due to the extraordinary loss of population among natives susceptible to diseases brought by early European explorers and settlers, and in even greater measure to federal reservation policies that removed tribes from their native lands.
In 1910, the condition of the largely untended forest of northern Idaho and western Montana that foresters called, “the high lonesome,” was that of an old growth forest unmanaged in any way. There was a drought, shattered in two terrible August nights when wind and lightning set off perhaps the largest fire ever known. It raged like an open blast furnace across three million acres, killing 86 people, and leading to the establishment of Forest Service policies on fire suppression. Recovery of the forest in “the high lonesome” was said to have required at least 40 years.
Under the Clinton administration, however, the Forest Service has presented an unclear policy largely favoring “natural” causes, including wildfires, to occur. Many former Forest Service employees say it is an invitation to disaster. Not surprisingly, the timber industry has recommended that harvesting of the forest for beneficial use would serve best for managing against such wildfires. Yet permits for salvaging even dead trees on Forest Service land have been steadily reduced during the Clinton administration and in some places in the Southwest eliminated altogether.


As with other forms of agriculture, the numbers of people directly involved in logging or harvesting of the forests are only representative of a larger industry that involves trucking, mills, finished production

The problem, in fact, is not too few trees, but too many, something most Americans cannot grasp amid a pressure-laden campaign against the U.S. timber industry.

In 1900, forest growth and regeneration was a fraction of annual harvest. Today, however, growth exceeds harvest by more than 33 percent. This is not merely a factor of new policy. Net annual growth of the forest has increased 55 percent since 1952, and growth per acre has increased 62 percent, largely due to new technologies and management by the industry itself.

  • Nearly 60 percent of U.S. forest is still on private land.
  • Harvesting on public land today is practically nil, but even at the beginning of the decade, when harvest from public land accounted for less than 10 percent of production, growth in National Forests exceeded harvest by more than 60 percent.
  • For every tree harvested, seven are planted.
  • Of the 6.2 million acres of identified old growth timber in National Forests in Oregon and Washington, virtually all of it is now set aside in areas forbidden to harvest. Another one million acres is in National Parks where harvesting has always been prohibited.

Currently proposed roadless policies on public land would cut off access to between 40 and 60 million acres of forested land. The result is a staggering growth of fuel-loaded forests exceeding 30 million acres that even the U.S. Forest Service admits is at extreme danger from wildfires of previously unheard of proportions. At the same time, the Forest Service acknowledges that even domestic demand for wood fiber will increase by at least 50 percent in the next 20 years.

Wood consumption in the U.S., measured in tons, currently accounts for 47 percent of all primary industrial raw materials consumed, roughly equivalent in weight to all metals, plastics and cement combined.

Although the United States is the world’s leader in importing other raw materials, most of the wood consumed in this nation is produced and manufactured here–so far.


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