Clock is ticking for America's forests

March 14, 2000|By Peter Pinchot

Many of the most significant advances in American conservation have come late in a president's term. In 1897, with 10 days left in office, Grover Cleveland more than doubled the federal Forest Reserves (later to become National Forests). Theodore Roosevelt, by the time his second term ended in 1909, had not only created the U.S. Forest Service but had quadrupled the size of the National Forests under its protection.

Now, in his last year in office, President Clinton has put forth his own vision: a major plan to preserve permanently the biological legacy of the roadless areas in the National Forests. If this plan is not finalized before he leaves office, Americans may wait many years for a comparable opportunity.

For decades the U.S. Forest Service has been mired in conflict between the economics of timber harvest and the ecological values of the forests. The din of partisan politics has all but buried the seismic shift in priorities that Americans have made for their public lands, with wilderness recreation and biodiversity preservation now at the top of the list. At the center of the conflict is one-third of the land in the National Forests that has never been opened to exploitation by building roads.

This conflict has begged for an act of genuine leadership to chart a new course for the National Forests. And that is what President Clinton and Mike Dombeck, the chief of the Forest Service, have finally done. Last October they announced a plan that could protect 54 million acres of the National Forests from any new roads and further commercial and environmentally damaging uses.

When added to the existing wilderness area protection, almost 50 percent of the National Forest acreage would be taken out of harm's way. These protected lands can become the nucleus of a national commitment to restore and protect the biological diversity of the American continent that will set a standard for the world.

While some may see this as a controversial idea, it is fully consistent with the original mission of the U.S. Forest Service, which was to protect as much of the nation's forests as possible for the long-term benefit of American citizens. At the beginning of the last century, as the West was being settled, forests from coast to coast were being logged and burned with little thought for the future. Realizing the inestimable value of what was being lost, President Roosevelt, working with Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service chief, brought 192 million acres under federal ownership.

Today our forests face an even more serious crisis. There is a broad consensus among scientists that the Earth is in the midst of a catastrophic decline in the diversity of plant and animal species. The greatest conservation challenge of this century will be to preserve as many species as we can even while human population and economic pressure on natural resources soar to their peak.

The one strategy that most biologists feel confident can slow down the loss of diversity is to set aside large areas of natural forest and grassland that are no longer managed intensively for economic production. These large wildlands can function as arks or safe havens for sustaining the whole complex of species that inhabit a region. By protecting almost half of the land in National Forests from further road building and logging, President Clinton will be taking a vital step toward creating a workable safety net for the continent's biodiversity.

It is no surprise that there is powerful political opposition to this plan, just as there was to establishing the National Forests one hundred years ago. As with any major act of leadership, this plan shakes up many of the vested stakeholders, some of whom will protest bitterly, as they did in the time of President Roosevelt. However, that is no reason to sacrifice our profound national interest in protecting the forests, nor to ignore the need to preserve the irreplaceable biodiversity that our public forests hold.

A recent national poll by a prominent Republican pollster found that more than three-quarters of Americans favor protecting the remaining roadless areas in the National Forests from logging, mining and road building. This position is neither partisan nor regional, but is shared by 62 percent of Republicans and two-thirds of Westerners.

Why? One reason may be that for the first time in history the majority of people live in isolation from anything resembling a natural landscape. A growing hunger to reconnect with nature propels millions of Americans out to public lands each year for wilderness recreation. Either we protect our wildlands now, or we will lose much of the biological wealth of this continent.

Peter Pinchot is director of the Milford Experimental Forest in northeastern Pennsylvania. He wrote this piece for Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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