WARREN, Pa. - Deep in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest, towering old-growth hemlocks hint at what the virgin woodlands of the Eastern United States looked like before European settlers began felling trees.
Black bears, bobcats and bald eagles frequent this part of the forest near Tionesta Creek, a 4,000-acre old-growth preserve where 400-year-old trees grow to more than 100 feet tall and a thick blanket of moss carpets the ground. But as with national forests throughout the country, all is not tranquil here.
Just beyond the edge of the virgin timber grove in northwest Pennsylvania, one of the largest in the East, the U.S. Forest Service wants to log stands of maple, black cherry and oak prized by furniture makers.
The Forest Service plan, and a determined move by environmentalists to oppose the logging, mirrors similar disputes in national forests around the country.
If the Forest Service has its way, local timber companies will cut 8,137 acres of Allegheny hardwoods in the coming year, about 1.5 percent of the forest.
Plans then call for applying the herbicides glyphosate, sold commercially as Roundup, and sulfometuron methyl to more than 25 percent of the logged area to kill grasses and ferns that choke off hardwood seedlings. As part of the harvesting plan, the Forest Service also wants to build or reconstruct 125 miles of roads and to erect wire fences to prevent the burgeoning deer population from foraging on the delicate new trees.
The logging plan, as well as intensified oil and gas drilling in the Allegheny, have triggered a bitter battle between environmentalists, who have filed suit to stop the cutting, and the Forest Service.
The service says the logging is needed to help regenerate forest areas badly damaged by acid rain, insect defoliation, and severe deer overgrazing.
A `tree farm'?
Environmentalists charge that the Forest Service's intensive management of the Allegheny is creating a "tree farm" for the benefit of timber companies and furniture makers that will permanently alter the ecological balance in parts of the forest. It does not matter to the preservationists that the area to be logged is relatively small.
"We are seeing a full-forced gale [of development] bearing down on the forest," says Jim Kleissler, forest watch coordinator for the Allegheny Defense Project (ADP), which opposes the logging plan. "We have a forest with a lot of potential that is just getting to the point where it is recovering, but instead we seem to be entering a whole new era of exploitation."
Nonsense, says Rep. John E. Peterson, a Pennsylvania Republican whose economically struggling congressional district includes much of the forest. He says the environmentalists' litigation is driving jobs from the region, all for the purpose of providing nice camping and fishing spots for city folk.
"These environmentalists want to lock up the woods for the critters," Peterson says. "The problem is, we [local residents] are not critters." The environmentalists, he says, are "basically very young people. The majority are not from the area originally. They were college students who hung around."
It is a debate that is playing out in one form or another all across the country as environmental groups battle timber companies, ranchers, and oil and gas companies that want to reap more of the vast energy and timber resources on public land.
By law, national forests must be open to multiple uses such as logging and energy development, as well as recreational activities.
But environmental groups are challenging this approach on numerous fronts, saying the government must protect America's 156 national forests from further development. "You can't get this kind of space anywhere else, a large contiguous tract of forest land for hiking, or canoeing or wildlife conservation," Kleissler says.
Environmentalists won a big victory in their battle to preserve public lands in the West when the Clinton administration in January proposed to ban construction of roads on nearly 60 million acres of national forest land, effectively preventing further energy development and logging in those areas.
The rule, which was put on hold by the Bush administration while it seeks further public comment, has little practical consequence in the Allegheny and other Eastern forests since there are very few roadless areas left in those places.
But the underlying issue, whether to develop resources on public land or set it aside for recreation and environmental preservation, is essentially the same.
In the Allegheny, there is pressure from all sides. Easily within reach of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the forest is visited by thousands of hikers and campers on a typical summer weekend. Powerboats ply the Allegheny Reservoir inside the forest while all-terrain vehicles career across trails set aside for that purpose.