The cutting down of trees, called logging, has severe environmental effects. Attempts at sustainable logging are considered monoculture production, which is the practice of cultivating a single crop in a given area. It is not considered ecosystem preservation. The U.S. Forest Service, a unit of the Department of Agriculture, permits private corporations to cut down trees on public lands. The profits go to the logging company. Permits for cutting trees, salvage logging, and fire-reduction cuts are controversial, in part because of the fees the Forest Service charges.
I. A Growing Nation and the Need for Land
II. Environmental Effects
III. Logging and Soil Erosion
IV. Effects on Climate
V. Loss of Biodiversity
VI. Sustainable Logging
VII. Protests on Both Sides
VIII. Roadless Areas and Logging
A Growing Nation and the Need for Land
Historically, clearing land of trees was necessary for human settlement. Clear land was necessary for growing crops. The trees also had provided cover for wildlife, which most American pioneers tried to keep away from their homes and livestock. Today, clearing trees by centuries-old slash-and-burn techniques continues, but modern technology and monoculture pesticide-supported growing techniques make it easier for faster and more extensive deforestation.
Today, logging to clear land for other agriculture is less common although still controversial. Modern logging now treats trees as raw materials for the production of wood and paper among other products.
Logging has short- and long-term environmental effects. It affects many parts of the ecosystem because trees are essential components in many ecosystems. They retain water, cast shade over land and water, and provide food and shelter to wildlife.
Although there are many types of trees, only some species are logged. In many ecosystems trees fill unique ecological niches. One example is the Port Orford cedar growing on Oregon’s coast. Having adapted to the wet, windy conditions of its ecosystem, it flourished. When it was plentiful, it was logged.
In the 1980s a deadly virus attacked the species. Port Orford cedars grow and communicate through their roots, and the virus moved from tree to tree, wiping out whole groves. State biologists sought preventive solutions, and environmentalists became very concerned. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service permitted logging in and near a wilderness area with some of the last stands of Port Orford cedar. The loggers transmitted the virus to these trees, although they were not logging the Port Orford cedars.
Intense environmental litigation ensued. Among other issues, the court ruled that the loggers were to wash their logging vehicles upon entering and leaving the wilderness area. They do not do this, and the fight over the issue continues.
Logging and Soil Erosion
Another concern about logging is how much soil erosion it causes. Soil erosion degrades the environment in most places because it lowers the ecological productivity of a region. Soil supports plants that wildlife need for food or shelter. When roads are built and heavy loads of logs are moved on them, the stability of the soil on any type of slope is greatly affected. Because many trees are in mountainous areas, logging roads are often built along the sides of valleys or canyons. At the bottoms of these valleys and canyons are usually creeks, streams, and rivers. When the soil becomes unstable, it can cause landslides or allow runoff that hurts fish and other aquatic species. The landslides can occur months or years after the logging operation ceases because the trees are no longer there to hold the soil in place. Some states have more miles of logging roads than paved roads.
Forests also provide a buffer that filters water, and they sustain water and soil resources by recycling nutrients. In watersheds where forests are adversely affected by logging, soil erosion results in silting of the waterways, which, when combined with the loss of shade from trees, increases the temperature of the water, thus threatening aquatic life. Silting can also impede human use of water downstream. This affects agricultural users, cities, and natural systems. In Salem, Oregon, in the late 1990s, overlogging caused the city to close the public water supply. Clear-cutting trees on steep slopes had caused silting of the water in the watershed.
Effects on Climate
Local changes in precipitation are direct and immediate when the forest cover is removed. Trees and forests engage in a natural process of transpiration that modifies water flow, balancing the effects of fluctuations in water volume. Reducing transpiration increases both runoff and erosion.
Loss of Biodiversity
Some scientists and environmentalists assert that logging reduces biodiversity by destroying natural habitats. They fear that that this could lead to the extinction of species, such as the spotted owl in Oregon. The logging industry has developed some replanting and selective harvesting techniques designed to minimize habitat degradation and soil erosion. Some logging corporations say that they try to keep a protected strip of land next to the waterways, a procedure called riparian protection. They limit the number of trees they take from steep slopes so as to prevent soil erosion. They buy land and plant their own trees and then engage in logging there instead of on federally owned land. Logging corporations also prepare environmental impact statements in applying for permits to cut trees on federal land. These corporate techniques are contested by environmentalists, who say that logging corporations do minimal mitigation, create far more damage than they report, and also take trees illegally from federally owned lands.
Many rural western communities are dependent on logging as their only source of income. Since the spotted owl controversy of the 1980s, about 60 logging mills have closed down in Oregon alone.
The idea of sustainable forestry is that the land would never be depleted of its trees. As early as 1936, Weyerhaeuser practiced sustained-yield logging, a practice it continues in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. By logging the forest of its timber and replacing a variety of tree species with a single commercial species, timber companies aim to create a continuing supply of timber. This practice might also result in fewer environmental effects that the logging of virgin or secondary-growth forests.
Critics of this practice say that simply planting your own trees does not necessarily lessen environmental damage, especially to the soil. They say that such monoculture leaves the forests susceptible to disease and that the pesticides used to protect the trees are harmful.
Protests on Both Sides
In some timber states, small property owners have stands of timber they have planted or preserved as a future investment, intended for eventual harvest. Some of these stands can contain unique and irreplaceable old-growth forest. When environmentalists pursue legislation to limit the owners’ expectations for the use of this timber, private property activists get involved and open up another front in the logging controversy. When loggers cut old-growth forest, environmental activists increase protest activities such as tree sitting. When timber corporations begin sustainability programs, it is in the context of this entrenched, litigation-heavy controversy.
Roadless Areas and Logging
Many environmental laws protect federal lands and also control multiple uses on them. Roads are a major concern because they erode a “forever wild “status in wilderness areas and can be environmentally detrimental. When roads are built in protected areas so that corporations can log, mine or graze in other areas, recreational users, such as riders of all-terrain vehicles, mountain bikers, and campers on packhorses often begin to use the roads, thus increasing traffic and potentially also the environmental threat.
There are approximately 50 to 60 million acres of roadless areas in the United States, representing about 25 to 30 percent of all land in the national forests; another 35 million acres are congressionally designated wilderness. The rest of the national forests contain 380,000 miles of roads. The vast majority of these rough-cut roads are built by the government to provide access for logging and, to a much lesser extent, mining.
Environmentalists have long accused the Forest Service of simply managing the profits for industry, not protecting the environment. The activists are concerned about watershed protection and restoration and about reforestation. Public opposition to subsidizing logging on public lands by building roads, bridges, and aqueducts in national forests has resulted in budget cuts for the Forest Service.
There is substantial public and political support for permanent protection of the roadless areas. Historically, many people conceived of national parks and wilderness areas as being without any roads. With the increased reliance on automobiles, roads were developed nearly everywhere. Roads greatly affect pristine natural areas, so much so that the need to protect roadless areas is well known. Some experts say environmental policy must establish a ban that protects all roadless national forest areas from road building, logging, mining, grazing, and other activities deemed environmentally degrading.
In 2004 the George W. Bush administration proposed to open up national forests to more logging. The administration had been studying a rule that blocked road construction in nearly one third of national forests designed to prevent logging and other commercial activity. It decided that state governors would have to petition the federal government if they wanted to prevent roads from being build to accommodate logging in remote areas of national forests. The plan covers about 58 million of the 191 million acres of national forest nationwide. The timber industry supported the proposal, maintaining that these decisions are far better made by the local community and state governments than through federal policy.
With the fate of the roadless areas in doubt and industry scientists, environmentalists, and federal agencies intensely studying these issues, the logging controversy will continue. As timber supplies dwindle, governmental agencies may need to take private property to control ecosystem effects from logging. Some logging communities live and die based on local mill operations. Other communities are concerned that their watersheds could be contaminated from runoff or spraying from logging. Logging is also an international environmental issue, and global developments around logging could affect the U.S. controversy.
Robert William Collin and Scott M. Fincher
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- Roadless Area Conservation, http://roadless.fs.fed.us/