Timber-cutting controversy is moving east Forest Service proposes logging in Allegheny National Forest in Pa.


RIDGEWAY, Pa. - The signs are in the trees. Here, a cluster of leaves, thin yellow instead of vivid green. There, the luxuriant foliage of the forest canopy broken by a crown of spiky bare branches.

Across a 90,000-acre-stretch of Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest, trees are dying at an alarming rate.

To combat the decline, the U.S. Forest Service wants to sell logging rights to timber companies, so they can cut back some of the failing woods and provide room for the forest to regenerate.

At the same time, the companies would salvage an estimated $8 million in valuable cherry, ash, maple and oak before they decay.

But environmentalists are adamantly opposed. "The Forest Service's solution to any problem is to cut wood," said Mike Francis, a forestry expert with the Wilderness Society.

Three environmental groups - the Allegheny Defense Project, Heartwood and the Sierra Club - have sued the Forest Service in federal court to stop the logging.

The battle between environmentalists and timber interests has been raging in the national forests of Oregon, Idaho and other Western states for years. But now the fight is moving east.

In addition to the Allegheny suit, in the last two years environmentalists have gone to court in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Vermont to block timber cutting in national forests.

This summer, legal action stopped logging plans in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky and Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest.

A ruling in the Allegheny case is expected this month from a U.S. district judge in Pittsburgh.

"Activists in the East are becoming more educated, more sensitive to the issues," said Francis. "They realize that every national forest is vulnerable."

The national forest system consists of 156 individual forests encompassing 191 million acres. The bulk of that land is in the West. But 42 states have some national forest land.

"Most people in Philadelphia don't even realize there is a national forest in Pennsylvania, and if they do, they think it's a green dot on the map," said James Kleissler, forest watch coordinator for ,, the Allegheny Defense Project and a plaintiff in the suit.

'It's not a park'

"They think it's like a park. But it's not a park. There's logging and oil drilling going on all the time," Kleissler said. "The forest has to be protected."

Forest Service officials say they are managing and protecting the forest. "This isn't a park," said Steve Wingate, the service's chief silviculturist in the Allegheny. "We are mandated by Congress to provide timber, as well as recreation opportunities."

At its root, this is a battle between ecology and economy, between the forest as nature and the forest as a natural resource. It is a classic debate. But in the Allegheny, it just happens to be taking place against the backdrop of mysterious decline and death in the woods.

The Allegheny National Forest covers 513,000 acres - an area as large as Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware counties put together.

The land was completely clear-cut by loggers at the turn of the century. When the trees grew back, black cherry, red maple, white ash and red oak supplanted the white pine that had dominated the hills.

These trees are extremely valuable for making furniture and veneers in Pennsylvania's $4 billion-a-year hardwood industry. Each year, the Allegheny produces an average 35 million board feet of hardwood and an equal amount of pulpwood. (A board foot is equivalent to a piece of lumber 12 inches by 12 inches, and 1 inch thick.)

Without logging of the national forest "there would be tremendous pressure on state and private land," said Nancy Cubbon, executive director of the Allegheny Hardwood Utilization Group. The industry group has filed a legal brief in support of the Forest Service.

There are also 6,000 oil and gas wells in the woods, which yield 1.3 million barrels of oil annually, as well as a comparable amount of natural gas. "This a working forest," said Dale Dunshie, a Forest Service spokesman.

But for three million visitors each year, the Allegheny is a place to camp, hike, hunt, fish and boat. It is one of the most visited national forests in the nation.

That has led to a serious split in the way folks look at the place. "The Forest Service is concerned about timber, not the forest," Kleissler said. "The forest is being turned into a plantation."

This debate had been simmering for years, but it was the dying trees in the forest's southeast corner that got it boiling and spilling into federal court.

10 hard years

The last 10 years have been hard on the forest. There have been two droughts and a series of infestations - gypsy moths, spanworms, cankerworms and tent caterpillars. And there is the shoe-string fungus, which grows under the bark of most trees in the woods, but destroys only the weak.

"We know what's killing the trees. It's fungus," said Wingate. "It's killing the weak trees. What we don't know is what's making the trees weak."

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