Vanishing national forests

October 17, 1991|By New York Times

THE FORESTS are sanctuaries not only of human life but also of the human spirit. And every tree is a compact between generations.

So declared President Bush in 1989. Yet Bush has done little more than his indifferent predecessor to stop the devastation of these sanctuaries. Logging in the national forests continues at a furious pace.

Two senior Forest Service officials have told Congress they were kicked out of their jobs for resisting orders to increase the timber harvest that they felt were environmentally unsound. Their defiance, they said, provoked the wrath of the timber industry and the White House.

Such charges of industry favoritism are a further embarrassment to an administration still smarting from the spanking it got in May from U.S. District Judge William L. Dwyer of Seattle. Accusing the administration of a "deliberate and systematic refusal" to comply with laws protecting wildlife, he banned further logging in parts of the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest until federal agencies produced an effective protection plan for the endangered spotted owl.

Historically, federal policy has favored exploitation of the national forests, which provide roughly 15 percent of the nation's wood. The Forest Service has long been in the business of selling timber.

It's a cozy deal for industry because the timber harvested from public land is cheap. The Forest Service picks up road construction and other costs. That, of course, creates artificially low prices, reduces incentives to harvest private land and further increases the pressure on public lands. But loggers love it.

The government has been equally solicitous of industry in the Pacific Northwest, whose majestic old-growth forests are coveted by loggers. These forests are home to the spotted owl, and for years, conservation groups -- as anxious to save the forests as they were the owl -- urged that the bird be listed as a threatened species.

The Reagan administration dawdled, knowing that if it protected the owl it would also have to protect its habitat. When Bush reluctantly agreed to list the owl in 1990, his aides torpedoed a plan to set aside millions of acres to protect the habitat.

That's what set Dwyer off. He acknowledged the hardship his decision might cause for logging families. Yet he found it inconceivable that "the mightiest economy on earth" could not find a way both to manage its irreplaceable old-growth forests and ease the pain for workers.

Dwyer is right. But forest policy is a job for the "environment president" and the Congress. And so far, both have failed.

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