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 Longfellows 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 nations 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 mansomething that
probably didnt exist even in Longfellows 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.
USE IT OR LOOSE IT?
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.
THE TIMBER PEOPLE
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
Although the United States is the worlds leader in importing
other raw materials, most of the wood consumed in this nation
is produced and manufactured hereso far.