Austin As U.S. FOREST Service officials were concluding a recent Austin hearing on their 50-year plan for the management of Texas forests, the folk singer Bill Oliver stepped up to the microphone. He sang: Texas has the reputation of desert land and wasted spaces, dustbowl towns and weathered faces, empty prairies and desert mesas. If we trade our finest forests, that were here so long before us, for a giant pine plantation, we’ll deserve that reputation. Oliver’s song had even the blue-suited Forestry personnel tapping their feet and clapping; it was the high point of a twohour presentation that began with a Forest Service slide show followed by rebuttals by environmental groups, such as Earth First! and the Sierra Club, and ended with perhaps a few too many personal testimonies about the beauty of trees. The Forest Service’s stenographer got it all down, silently reducing even the lively music into machine-made black marks on a continuous strip of paper. Perhaps that silent transformation was emblematic of the forest bureaucracy’s hearing process the Forest Service learned long ago that environmentalists can be seen and not heard. And often the environmentalists come to the hearings knowing that little, if anything, they say will ever translate into action. But they come anyway. They come armed with facts and suggestions on how to improve what they term forest “mismanagement.” While there are many points on which the Forest Service and environmentalists do not agree \(see revolves around the management of a metallic-green colored insect no larger than a grain of rice: the Southern pine beetle. Although forest management is relatively new, the pine beetle is not. It has lived in Texas forests for millions of years. The beetles fly from host tree to new tree where they mate and breed, and they frequently choose trees that are Elizabeth Beck is a freelance writer living in Austin. stressed: those broken in a storm or hit by lightning or heavy machinery. Once they attack the tree en masse, they usually girdle and kill it. But the pine beetle is just one of hundreds of species of bark beetles that coexist within forests. When and why did it become a pest? Beetlemania The beetle’s proliferation is due to the changing composition of East Texas forests. Since the passage of the Organic Act of 1897, which established National Forests to provide “a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States,” the forests have been used for growing pines, a popular source of tall straight lumber. This management policy has caused University of Arkansas entomologist Fred Stephen to remark that “what we are faced with is not an outbreak of Southern pine beetle, but an outbreak of Southern pines, which the SPB [Southern pine beetle] is doing its best to control.” In a forest with a variety of trees, hardwoods tend to limit the spread of the beetles. And even if the pines in a stand die, what is left is a stand of hardwood. In a forest’s natural state, the pine beetle’s destruction tends to allow the hardwoods to compete with the fastgrowing pines that otherwise cut off the sun from their slower, shorter cousins. The Forest Service, however, does not intend to rethink the wisdom of growing pine monocultures; they intend to wipe out the beetles. The solution they have devised is to clearcut the stands that are infested even if they are found in wilderness areas. But clearcutting has never been popular among ecologists, either as a way of harvesting timber or as a method for controlling pine beetles. The scarred and mutilated land that remains after bulldozers remove the trees is susceptible to soil erosion and may take hundreds of years to recover. In addition, the Forest Service cuts out wide areas of healthy trees in an attempt to get those suffering infestation. “Basically, the Forest Service treats the beetles like cancer. If you take out a pound of cancer and three pounds of healthy tissue, you may get all of the cancer,” says John Rawlins, Associate Curator in charge of Invertebrate Zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Because spot infestations usually become inactive beyond an acre from the original damage, entomologists believe that clearcutting is too radical. Other methods of beetle control, such to lure beetles to invulnerable trees, are being studied. In the meantime, since THE LATEST clearcutting controversy comes at a time when environmental groups thought they had just won a difficult battle. This year, five areas totaling 34,400 acres were set aside as wilderness areas to be preserved in their natural state. The Forest Service adamantly opposed these designations. Now the environmental groups believe that the Forest Service is using the beetle as an excuse to continue managing these areas. The Forest Service justifies the cutting by citing a clause in the Wilderness Act that states they may take “those measures necessary to control fire, insects and disease in Wilderness Areas when the harm sought to be prevented threatens the integrity of the wilderness.” Opponents of clearcutting maintain that the beetle is not a wilderness threat. “The beetle is only a pest in a forest managed for timber,” says Tom Mueller, an entomologist specializing in insect pests. “In a wilderness it is an integral part of an ecosystem. It weeds out weaker trees and allows hardwoods to grow. I don’t see it [beetle infestation] as the wilderness being destroyed, devalued, or decreased in any way. It is just changing in the way that ecosystems change.” Among the many reasons the environmentalists have for fighting clearcutting in wilderness areas is the fact that there are so few of these areas. Only seven percent of the East Texas forests is national forest. Of that seven percent, only two percent is wilderness. One of the wilderness areas, Upland Island Wilderness Area in Angelina Forest, has already suffered 84 individual cuts, some up to 100 acres, to control for pine beetle. And the biggest irony of this management is that there has never been a study proving it works. Despite massive Destroying the Forests to Save the Trees By Elizabeth Beck we don’t know that the effect of the beetles is worse than that of clearcutting, ecologists suggest the best solution is to leave them alone especially in wilderness areas. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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