National Forest protection: a 21st century approach for biodiversity and climate solutions

National Forest protection: a 21st century approach for biodiversity and climate solutions

Did you know that our National Forests are not protected from logging? Many do not realize that the primary activity of the United States Forest Service is to sell timber from our public lands to private logging corporations. The commercial logging program on our federal public lands costs taxpayers over $1 billion each year—essentially a giant subsidy to the logging industry—while the logging companies and the politicians whose campaigns they fund make out like bandits. 

The federal logging program is a relic of the 20th century, and we have been slowly shifting away from logging, and toward increased forest protection, on public lands since the early 1990s. However, now we have a President who would like to turn back the clock to the 1970s and 1980s, when logging levels were far higher on our National Forests than they are today. The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress have been trying to weaken or repeal environmental laws on our National Forests to facilitate increased logging, while promoting these regressive policies under the deceptive guises of “restoration” and fire management. Don’t be fooled. 

In fact, current science shows that logged areas actually burn more intensely, not less, since logging companies remove non-combustible tree trunks and leave behind flammable kindling-like branches and tree tops. Moreover, we do not need to “save” our forests from fire, which is as natural and necessary to the ecological health of our forests as sun and rain. Fires, including large fires, create some of the best wildlife habitat in our forests, such as “snag forest habitat”, created by patches of intense fire. This unique habitat is comparable to old growth forest in terms of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance

Increasingly, the Trump Administration is executing destructive commercial logging projects on our National Forests through “categorical exclusions”, arguing that industrial logging projects up to 3,000 acres in size each are exempt from meaningful environmental analysis and public comment and participation. That equates to an area nearly four times the size of Central Park in New York, or more than three times the size of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Old growth forests are being intensively logged and degraded, and ecologically vital post-fire “snag forest habitat” is being clearcut, on our National Forests as a result. 

Many of these logging projects are being implemented under the misleading term of “thinning”, which evokes a benign image of forest managers with pruning shears. In reality, “thinning” projects are typically intensive commercial logging operations, often involving the killing and removal of 80% or more of the trees, including many old-growth trees. This poses a serious threat to imperiled species such as the spotted owl, Pacific fisher, lynx, and many others. 

But we can do something about this — we can urge and pressure our Congressional Representatives and U.S. Senators to protect our National Forests and other federal public lands by ending the federal logging program once and for all. This would be a forward-looking, 21st century approach, which would not only be good for rare wildlife species threatened by logging, but would also be an essential step that we must take to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

In contrast, logging is a significant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. Scientists have concluded that, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, as well as curb the species extinction crisis, we must not only substantially reduce fossil fuel consumption, but we must also dramatically increase forest protection nationally and globally. In the U.S., the first and best place to start is our public lands. 

Consider this — if we protected our National Forests and ended the federal logging program, it would be like removing the emissions of 13 to 24 million cars in the U.S.. Further, taking this step would demonstrate US leadership in both biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation, increasing our political ability to urge other nations around the world to take similar actions. 

In the United States, we are not so poor that we must log our National Forests, nor so rich that we can afford to. It is time to put an end to a 20th century hold-over, and permanently protect our National Forests from logging.