with the way they’re going to do it,” Wilhite says. Most environmentalists are not opposed to selective thinning or scheduled burns in the National Forests. It is the level of intensity that mainstream conservationists question. Based on what they consider the Forest Service’s abysmal track record in Texas and the inherent contradiction of using the logging industry as caretakers of the forest, conservationists have no reason to trust a management plan that is not strictly limited by a court. The Boswell Creek Watershed had a history of controversy even before it was chosen to be a Healthy Forest Initiative testing ground. Within the watershed is a section of land called Four Notch. Twenty years ago, Four Notch was included on a list of proposed wilderness areas by Texas conservation groups. While being studied for designation, Four Notch underwent a southern pine beetle infestation. The Forest Service announced plans to cut breaks in the area to prevent the insects’ spread. Conservationists, fearful that severe logging would disqualify Four Notch for elevated wilderness status, appealed the decision. Their appeal was denied and a massive salvage logging operation ensued. Despite a day of protesters chaining themselves to trees, large swathes of land were clear cut, and the marketable logs were removed from Four Notch. Typically, a clear cut is followed by site preparation, which consists of killing and burning the remaining forest so that a new crop of pines can be planted without competition. Horror stories still circulate among conservationists describing the methods of site preparation used in the Four Notch area. A “tree crusher” with self-propelling blades indiscriminately hacked away everything in its path. A bulldozer equipped with a triangular sheer blade attachment plowed smaller trees, limbs, and shrubs into piles of organic refuse. Finally a helicopter flew over the area and simultaneously released and ignited alumagel, a congealed gasoline product akin to napalm. Larry Shelton, an environmental activist, surveyed the area after the helitorch “dropped fire from the sky,” and reports that he found scorched armadillo carcasses and turtle shells among the ashes. Four Notch was transformed into a wasteland rather than a wilderness. The fact that this same area is now a national pilot project to exemplify the “Healthy Forests Initiative” is ironic. To environmentalists, it signifies a celebration of destructive forest policies. Roughly half of the stripped land in Four Notch was replanted, and just like rows of carrots sown in a garden, the young pines were put in with the assumption that regular thinning would follow. The physical result of the clear cut is that a majority of Four Notch consists of densely packed trees that haven’t yet reached a marketable age. In order to pay for thinning projects, larger trees with monetary value will be sacrificed. The Forest Service plans on reducing the tree mass on most acres by 10 to 50 percent. Opponents of the pilot project say that using a “Goods for Service” funding mechanism encourages the logging of older, more fire-resistant and valuable trees. This seeming conflict of interest is what the Sierra Club’s Wilhite identifies as a main problem with management under Bush’s forest initiative. Environmental groups want the government to stop subsidizing logging operations and instead use the funds to pay for the thinning of smaller, unmarketable trees. Citing erosion and habitat destruction, they also call for an end to clear cutting and “even-aged logging,” the public relations name given to clear-cutting variations. Wilhite reasons that using the timber industry as a management tool encourages mismanagement and costs money as well. The economic rationale of logging national forests has been questioned by environmental organizations for years. Texas groups argue that contrary to Forest Service records, logging public lands is a money-losing operation. A 2002 report by the Ecology and Law Institute on the hidden costs of logging Texas National Forests found that between 1987 and 1999 taxpayers lost $26 to $32 million. According to researchers with Texas A&M University, timber is the third most valuable agricultural commodity in the state. Yet the Ecology and Law Institute states that the four National Forests account for only 2 percent of the productive timberland in Texas. Historically, logging on national forests provided muchneeded revenue for the counties that encompass the public land. Thus a huge financial incentive \(25 percent of each port contract logging in the National Forests. Thanks to the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, counties may opt instead to receive regular payments directly from the government. The Clinton-era law assures future payments comparable to those received in the most profitable logging years between 1986 and 1999, even if current timber sales on national forest property plummet. 1 t is October 10th, the last day for public comment on the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment of the Boswell Creek Watershed Healthy Forest Initiative Pilot Project. District Ranger Tim Bigler and wildlife biolo gist Rusty Plair drive a Ford F-150 from the Sam Houston National Forest’s New Waverly office into Four Notch. They are not physically far from the stumps located by Wilhite, yet their perspective on forest management is light years away from his point of view. Both men appear to fit their respective job titles. Bigler, who has been with the U.S. Forest Service since 1978, has a calm administrative confidence and a meticulously clean uniform. His salt and pepper hair is neatly trimmed, and his voice varies only moderately in either pitch or volume. Plair, who specializes in red-cockaded woodpecker management, wears a non-government-issue t-shirt, tucked in, that reads, “nothing runs like a Deere.” As the truck dips and bounces on the dirt road, the two men discuss how the Forest Service attitude toward management has changed in the last few decades. “When I began with the organization 25 years ago we were growing lumber and pulp continued on page 19 12/5/03 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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