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Once Upon a Forest

Republicans are using their version of 'science' to eliminate environmental protections for recovering forests.

I was on a radio program out of Detroit last week, and the host asked me how things were going in the great forests of the Pacific Northwest. "Do people still sit in trees there?" he asked. "Are they still cutting down the big trees?"

My answer to both questions was yes. People do still sit in trees and protest logging. But these days, the protests rarely make the national news. The mainstream media has never allocated enough space to cover environmental news (while most newspapers have special sections on health, science and technology, special environment sections are rare), and what space there is goes to the hottest issue of the moment. These days, understandably, it is global warming.

But the health and stability of the climate is intimately tied to the health and stability of forests. Destruction of forests and other wild land is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of the total.

For this reason alone, the newest assault on America's forests, House Resolution 4200, should be big news. HR 4200 passed out of the House Resources Committee last week (with the votes of six Democrats -- showing that the timber industry spreads its influence around liberally). It goes to the Agriculture Committee for markup this week and then to a vote.

Also known as the "Walden logging bill," after its sponsor, Oregon congressman Greg Walden, HR 4200, the "Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act" would mandate logging after natural disturbances like fires, droughts and windstorms. This bill would exempt salvage logging from every relevant environmental law, including the Endangered Species Act. The bill includes no protections for old-growth reserves, roadless forests, salmon streams or other sensitive areas. Making matters worse, it is an assault on public safety that would steal taxpayer dollars from fire prevention work in order to subsidize commercial logging.

Proponents of the Walden logging bill claim they need to slash environmental protections for burned forests because otherwise environmentalists will use the protections to appeal logging plans. Often, they say, appeals can drag out long enough that the burned timber rots and becomes worthless, and if the timber can't be sold then there won't be enough money for replanting. Thus the politicians, who know best, must override the misguided environmentalists in order to "save" the forests.

There are two very large problems with this line of reasoning: the science and the facts. Chris Mooney, in his book "The Republican War on Science," has documented the Right's extremely well-orchestrated attack on science. Republicans have invented something they call "sound science," which is basically any science that gives them the results that they want, as opposed to independent science that gives the wrong answers. The attacks on science have been many and varied, ranging from distorting and misrepresenting reports from agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the outright silencing of scientists like NASA's James Hansen who try to sound the alarm about climate change. In the case of salvage logging, there is a particularly bizarre story to tell.

The story starts with the ignition of the Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyou National Forest in the summer of 2002. The fire eventually burned through about 500,000 acres. Some acres burned heavily, some burned lightly, and some not at all as the fire skipped and swirled its way through the steep wild canyons of the Siskiyou terrain.

With so much acreage burned, environmentalists knew that the pressure to log dead and dying trees, known as "salvage logging" or "post-fire logging" would be intense. Even though such logging does not help a forest recover, they prepared themselves to work with the Forest Service to design a salvage logging program that would do the least possible damage, and a plan to log about 100 million board feet moved ahead.

The timber sale planning was almost complete by the summer of 2003, when the Forest Service put it on hold for some new information, a study paid for by the Douglas County Commissioners on behalf of the timber industry. The study, conducted by forest engineer John Sessions at Oregon State University, showed that, with advanced engineering methods, loggers could feasibly pull 2 billion board feet -- 20 times more wood -- out of the burned areas. This was the study that delayed the logging plan. Environmentalists had nothing to do with it.

Implementing the Sessions Report delayed the start of logging by a year. During that year, micro-organisms went to work on the ash and fallen needles, turning them to soil. Seeds sprouted, and tiny fir and pine trees rooted themselves, their first bright green branches unfurling. Tall trees, blackened and dying, continued to stand and provide shade for the tender seedlings and homes for woodpeckers and other creatures as the ancient ones slowly rotted under the remains of their cindered bark.

The upshot of this corporate-sponsored delay? By the end of 2005, about 70 million board feet had been logged. Meanwhile, a group of graduate students at Oregon State University completed a study of forest regeneration in the Biscuit burn. They found that without logging, forests were beginning to regrow on their own, but where salvage logging had occurred, new seedlings were killed as heavy equipment scraped the ground and disturbed the soil. The study was submitted to the prestigious journal Science and accepted for publication.

But the study enraged proponents of Walden's logging bill, as well as some pro-salvage logging professors in OSU's Department of Forestry (which gets about 10 percent of its funding from the timber industry). They asked the editors of Science to pull the report. Science refused. The paper had gone through the regular peer-review process and been accepted.

Then, after report appeared in Science, the Bureau of Land Management, which had funded the study, put a hold on the remaining funds left in the grant. BLM officials said the students had violated their contract by attempting to influence legislation pending in Congress -- the Walden logging bill.

So, to recap the situation: When a forest engineering study that is funded by timber industry boosters is used to bolster legislation proposed by a congressman who is funded by the timber industry (Greg Walden gets more money from the timber industry than any other House member -- over $100,000 in 2004 alone), that is called "sound science."

But when a group of independent graduate students studying ecology go out and make observations and measurements on the ground and get their paper accepted for publication by the most prestigious scientific journal in America, and that paper happens to contradict assertions used to justify pending legislation, that is called "junk science."

"Proponents of expedited logging can't provide a significant body of evidence that a nationwide program of logging in forests recovering from disturbance is scientifically justified," said Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist for the World Wildlife Fund. "Of the more than 30 scientific papers on post-fire logging published to date, not a single one indicates that logging provides benefits to ecosystems regenerating after disturbance."

Walden's bill is wrong on the science. And Greg Walden has lied to justify the need for his emergency logging law, blaming environmentalists for the delay in the logging plan that was actually caused by the timber industry's logging study.

America is beginning to wake up to the fact that the scientists were right about climate change all along, and that while the media is guilty of ignoring those warnings, the Bush administration is guilty of both censoring the science and of outright lying. It would be tragic to let a similar pack of lies bring the ax down on our last native forests.

Kelpie Wilson is the environment editor of TruthOut.org.