If there is anything convenient about many environmental controversies,
at least the opposing parties are typically well defined, and the rhetoric
But that's where the clarity ends regarding a proposal set in
motion by President Clinton to place permanent development restrictions
on upwards of 50 million acres in national forests in 44 states
and Puerto Rico that currently that have no roads—so-called
There are 191 million acres of land in the U.S. national forests.
Of that total, 35 million acres are wilderness, and about 117 million
acres are general forest and grasslands which have an extensive
network of roads—typically a rough, dirt road—averaging
about one mile of road for every 300 acres. The remaining 40 million
or so acres are roadless areas-identified in 5,000-acre tracts from
an inventory conducted in the 1970s.
The roadless initiative, however, is proposing to also include
1,000-acre roadless tracts that exist in the general forest and
grassland areas. Although these areas have not yet been mapped or
even inventoried as of March, such a move is expected to push the
total acreage of roadless areas to roughly 50 million acres, according
to the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service).
Roadless areas are quasi-protected to the extent that without
roads, little human activity typically takes place in these areas.
However, unlike designated wilderness areas—where development
is forbidden by law—roadless areas generally are not off-limits
to road building and the logging and recreational uses that eventually
Clinton's roadless initiative would essentially prevent future
road building in existing roadless areas, making it de facto wilderness.
The proposal includes a little less than 6 million acres in 19 national
forests in the Ninth Federal Reserve District, and better than 90
percent of that acreage lies in Montana's 12 national forests.
Road building in national forests reached its heyday in the 1980s,
cutting paths into largely undisturbed areas and dropping the amount
of large-tract roadless areas from about 60 million acres to its
current 40 million.
Road building, however, has come to a screeching halt. The result
largely of public opposition and a huge maintenance backlog on existing
roads, the NFS decommissioned close to 10 times more road than it
built in 1998. Forest Service officials have also pushed for more
stringent analysis of new road projects.
The underbellies of dueling sound bites
Like others before it, the roadless initiative has been boiled
down to an "us-against-them" arm wrestle between environmentalists,
who want roadless areas wholly preserved, and timber and off-road
enthusiasts, who believe continued access to national forests is
While maintaining a fairly low profile in the national media,
the issue is a hot one in those areas near national forests.
"We're not happy with [the proposal]," said Keith Johnson, city
manager of Ironwood, a city of 6,600 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
which lies on the border of Ottawa National Forest and is 30 miles
from the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin.
"I think it's going to be devastating for our community."
Idaho and Montana governors—whose states are bearing the
brunt of the proposal, along with West Coast states and Alaska—filed
suit to stop the proposal from moving forward (since dismissed).
A coalition of Republican congressional members also accused the
Clinton administration of giving environmental groups preferred
access and an inside track in organizing public comment on the proposal.
Environmentalists are saying the roadless initiative is one of
the most significant federal moves since the creation of the national
forests themselves more 100 years ago. They also have been critical
of the rhetoric getting passed off as information as camps jockey
"Is there misinformation? Acres and acres of it," said Bob Decker,
executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) in
Helena. For example, opponents are wrongly publicizing that the
initiative would halt all public access in national forests. "There
is no threat to access," Decker said. "It protects the status quo."
The roadless initiative also has broad public support. Opinion
polls—including one commissioned by an environmental group
but conducted by a leading GOP polling organization—have consistently
found widespread support for increased protection of roadless areas.
But such results shouldn't be surprising, according to Nadine Bailey,
president of the Timber Products Association of Michigan and Wisconsin.
"It's not a 'fuzzy' issue. You pick a knuckle-dragging logger
or a spotted owl—who gets the sound bite?" Bailey said. "It's
(all about) land access and that's why we're so vehemently opposed.
It's a little bit here and a little bit there."
Beneath the rhetoric, however, are a number of issues that have
been left relatively unexamined by the mainstream media. While both
off-road enthusiasts and the timber industry are battling for future
access, the battle is largely defined by the decades-old debate
over logging rights and practices in the national forests, and their
economic and ecological impact.
In some respects, the argument might seem like much ado about
nothing: The impact of roadless areas on timber "is very little
in the first place," Decker said—a fact the timber industry
cannot refute. Proposal advocates say protection of roadless areas
would have little immediate impact on the timber industry. The little
impact that would occur would be very locally absorbed.
However, the logging that currently takes place in roaded areas
of national forests is actually set in law as part of the NFS's
mission. In lockstep with public sentiment, the agency's focus has
gradually shifted away from resource harvesting to environmental
protection and enhancement.
This shift has brought environmental regulations that have significantly
scaled back logging in roaded areas where the vast majority of timber
is cut, and thus placing a premium on roadless areas as the timber
industry looks for new forests to back-fill those lost to various
restrictions. The NFS's shift toward environmental stewardship has
also led to higher average costs for existing timber programs and
a public perception that the timber industry is being subsidized
to log national forests.
If a tree falls in the forest ... was it cut by a logger?
While much of the public condemns logging in national forests—and
wonders why it continues—largely overlooked is the fact that
the Organic Administration Act of 1897 mandated the Forest Service
to "furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities
of the citizens of the United States." Congress is also involved
in setting harvest goals in each forest.
Today about 45 million acres of national forest are deemed suitable
for timber harvests, with only about 1 percent actually harvested
in any one year. Roadless areas potentially offer another 8 million
acres for timber harvests, according to the NFS.
Although some logging does currently take place in roadless areas,
it is a miniscule portion—likely somewhere between zero and
1 percent—of the total timber harvest. "We know it's relatively
small ... but no one has good numbers," said Chuck Keegan, associate
director with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the
University of Montana.
Kootenai National Forest is the biggest timber producer among
national forests in the Ninth District, harvesting about 60 million
board feet (mbf) annually, according to Bob Castaneda, Kootenai
forest supervisor. "Roadless areas are not a big factor in maintaining
the program we have now," he said. "We've got enough (timber in
roaded areas) to sustain 60 to 70 mbf."
But generally speaking, logging in national forests has hit the
skids. Adjusting for a few spikes and valleys, timber production
from national forests hovered around 11 billion to 12 billion board
feet (bbf) from the mid-1950s until the late 1980s. That level has
since crashed to 3 bbf in fiscal year 1999—a drop of about
75 percent and similar to pre-1950 levels.
Given this decline, timber from national forests today makes up
a small portion of the total timber market. Today, Montana's national
forests supply roughly 15 percent to 20 percent of all timber cut
in that state, down from about 40 percent to 50 percent in the 1980s,
"It's not because we're running out of trees," Keegan said. "There's
a substantial amount of timber out there" in existing roaded areas.
A number of sources pointed out that national forests are experiencing
significant net tree growth in its forests, and depending on whom
you talk to, could sustain higher cutting levels.
Instead, the drop in timber production in national forests is
due mostly to new environmental regulations for water, animal and
plant protection, which has put millions of forested acres in roaded
areas off-limits to timber harvests.
Castaneda said that forest officials have to manage for the bald
eagle, grizzly bear, bull trout and other animals in Kootenai. Grizzly
habitat alone covers close to half of Kootenai, Castaneda said,
bringing with it varying use restrictions.
Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the number
of protected species with habitat on national forests and grasslands
has risen more than sevenfold. Bailey estimated that this act alone
was responsible for dropping timber harvests by as much as 5 bbf
in national forests.
"This industry is being squeezed so hard by so many things. This
(roadless initiative) might be what throws them over the edge,"
Logging restrictions don't affect everyone in the timber industry.
Many timber and wood-product companies own or manage some forest
for their own private cutting. But smaller operations typically
have smaller holdings and often have to fall back on national forests
to meet their demand, according to Ronald Buentemeier, logging and
lands manager for F.H. Stoltze, a family-owned lumber company that
employs 185 in sawmill and logging operations in Columbia Falls,
Mont. (pop. 4,200).
F.H. Stoltze manages about 35,000 private acres, which has been
largely exhausted over the last decade as harvest areas and related
public timber offerings declined, Buentemeier said. If logging in
national forests continues to be scaled back, he said his company
could be forced out of business in two to three years.
Decker said blame for timber woes falls squarely on the backs
of the timber industry. He pointed out that timber companies, with
an assist from government, were on a "liquidation pace" in harvesting
trees from national forests in the 1970s and '80s, "and it caught
up with them."
Decker acknowledged that forest management on both private and
public lands is better than it once was. "There's no wholesale clearing
of hillsides," he said. "But it's hard to do as badly as they used
And by many measures, national forests appear to be on the road
to recovery. The total number of acres impacted by timber harvests
has been cut by 55 percent to less than 460,000 acres from 1989
to 1997. About 88,000 acres are harvested in national forests in
the Ninth District.
According to a report by the Forest Service's North Central Region
(which includes Wisconsin, the U.P., Minnesota and the Dakotas),
the number of trees at least 10 feet tall has increased by 55 percent
since 1980, and now number more than 50 billion. Within a representative
sample of 400 of these trees, only one out of 400 is harvested in
a given year, while 26 die by natural causes.
The subsidy question
Part of the push for greater forest protection from logging stems
from the publicly accepted belief that logging companies are subsidized
to do what they do in our national forests.
As it relates to the roadless initiative, for example, charges
are regularly made that the Forest Service is paying for new logging
roads. In fact, once all of the accounting is done, that's not really
According to several Forest Service officials, when a stand of
timber is put out for private bid, the agency calculates a fair
market floor price for the timber as if the road was already in
place. This tactic pushes up a timber offering's market value, and
by relation, the bids from logging companies for that timber.
The end result is that the Forest Service earns more revenue on
a typical timber offering than it would have otherwise without the
higher—and somewhat artificial—market value estimation.
In return, road construction costs are built into contracts with
logging companies, and "paid" for by the additional revenue generated
by the higher timber valuation.
Forest Service officials did acknowledge that timber from national
forests is undersold by 5 percent to 10 percent compared with an
identical private stand. When estimating the timber's value, the
agency reduces the asking price to account for additional costs—like
environmental protection costs for slash disposal or water bar construction—that
a purchaser incurs on a national forest stand that it would not
likely see on a private stand.
Even here, however, the private logger is not subsidized. Out-of-pocket
costs are similar on both stands; expenses on the private stand
pay for timber only, while expenses on the national forest stand
pay for timber plus the cost of the environmental remediation (which
generally equals the timber discount given in the first place).
Timber critics also point to an $88 million shortfall in Forest
Service timber sales in 1997 as evidence of subsidy. Timber programs
in Ninth District national forests fared better than their counterparts
elsewhere, although three of four NFS timber programs in the Ninth
District lost money, including all 10 in Montana.
But unraveling the cost structure of timber programs again reveals
little or no subsidy for loggers. One reason for the deficit stems
from the fact that the Forest Service is a high-cost producer compared
with private as well as county- and state-based timber programs,
according to numerous studies.
Over the last two decades, the Forest Service has undergone a
well-documented shift away from resource production toward resource
protection and enhancement. In doing so, it has instituted more
environmentally sensitive cutting methods (including a dramatic
decline in clear cutting) and has increased the use of timber harvests
for "forest stewardship" objectives (such as forest thinning to
dampen wildfire risks), both of which typically create higher costs
The Forest Service now assigns timber-related costs to three different
objectives—commodity timber (commercial), forest stewardship
(environmental) and personal use (which includes such things as
Christmas tree and firewood cuts). Commodity timber sales were in
the black in 1997, while sales for forest stewardship and personal
use timber programs were in the red by $57 million and $38 million,
Connecting the trees to wood consumption
Ultimately, the roadless initiative will be a referendum of sorts
on what the public wants from its national forests. Many people
agree in concept about protection but have very different opinions
about what that means, according to Paul Strong of the Chequamegon-Nicolet
"The devil is in the details—protected from what?" Strong
said. "People get lost in the rhetoric."
According to Buentemeier, the demands of John Q. Public are simple:
"Look green and look clean," he said. The challenge for forestry
professionals is to better manage the visual impact of timber harvests.
"They don't know if we cut a tree if they don't see it," Buentemeier
said. "We have to figure out how to manage land and leave that (green
and clean) kind of impression with the general public."
Some environmental groups, like the Montana Wilderness Association,
are even lending a hand. Decker said MWA has been involved with
small wood products and logging companies to devise alternative
cutting methods in roaded areas. "We think there's a place for timber
production on public lands," Decker said.
A larger issue—one unlikely to be resolved regardless of
the roadless initiative's outcome—is the disconnect between
timber harvests and wood consumption. "Hand-in-glove in protecting
roadless areas is consumption," said Decker, pointing out that some
roadless advocates are the same people who live in 5,000 square
foot, stick-built houses.
"The value of roadless lands is only going to grow as we lose
wilderness," Decker said, but added that "consumption numbers don't
jive with the public support for protecting roadless areas."
That, it seems, is one thing all parties involved in the roadless
debate can agree on.
"Everybody seems to think they can have everything they want without
producing the product," Bailey said. "Pigs don't lay bacon, and
you don't pick pulp from a tree. No one connects natural resources
Roadless Initiatives Resources