Friday, July 08, 2005

100 Years of the United States Forest Service--A Brief Evaluation

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt creating the Forest Service. Not to be overly simplistic, but I want to consider briefly whether or not this was a good or a bad thing.

First, let's look at the state of the forests in 1905. To say the least, they often weren't in very good conditions. State and federal regulations on how to cut trees, how to get trees to market, what kind of environmental damage was acceptable in logging, and reforestation were almost non-existent. The forests of the east had been almost completely destroyed by this time. The great north woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan had nearly disappeared by this time and were in the process of undergoing disastrous attempts at farming the cutover land. Much the same had occurred in the piney woods of the South. The forests of the northeast had been mostly lost even before that of the Great Lakes region and the South. And this same process was transforming the last virgin forests of the continuous United States--the Pacific Northwest.

At the same time though, did the Forest Service really reverse these trends? It's hard to say that they did. There's a lot to be said for the efficient cutting of forests and applying scientific knowledge to forestry. The Forest Service did do some of this, particularly in its early days under Gifford Pinchot. But after Pinchot's ouster during the Taft administration, and especially in the decades after World War II, much of this spirit of the scientific administration of forests was lost. The timber industry, perhaps not surprisingly, became very influential within the Forest Service and they pushed the USFS to allow cuts far beyond what was in fact sustainable. By the 1980s, we began to see the last of the old-growth forests come under the saw and the environmental consequences of this became clear, as epitomized in the spotted owl controversies of the late 80s and the early 90s.

While the forests of the Northwest continued their long transformation into a giant tree farm, the forests of the Northeast and the Great Lakes came back through benign neglect. As people stopped farming in these places, the forests took back over without the help of the federal government. There are still clear damages from nineteenth-century logging in these forests, but in many cases they now look much closer to the original forests than in the Pacific Northwest and other forests managed by the Forest Service.

Overall though, I have to think that the creation of the Forest Service was a positive thing. It may have taken a long time for scientific management of forests to take hold in a real way, in a way that wasn't just lip service for the timber industry, but today it has. The forests of the Northwest now have an optimistic future I think. It's a future that will include logging, but that will also include ecosystem management in a real way. People like Pinchot were pretty far ahead of their time. We should criticize the lumbermen and government officials who allowed such ridiculous cuts in the National Forests for so many years. And we should criticize these same people for their war on fire, something that has made dryland forests of the West, from northeastern Oregon to here in New Mexico, greatly unhealthy and in danger of giant fires such as we've seen throughout the West since the turn of the century. Yet without that infrastructure in place, we could not have the positive changes going on today of ecosystem management, scientific studies, and controlled burns. We can compare the western forests with those of the South, where the Forest Service never managed to gain but a foothold and which are in fact giant tree farms. The one time I drove through rural southwestern Georgia I was struck by the nature of these tree farms--the trees were of one species and of one height. There was no forest, just some ecologically dead woods. I don't even know how long it would take for southern forest ecosystems to reestablish themselves if logging were to stop. Certainly longer than in the Northwest. Without the Forest Service today, we would see the rest of the nation's forests look like Georgia's.

So while this is only a brief discussion of our forest history and while a yes or no answer is awfully simplistic, I will go ahead and say that I am glad the Forest Service was a good innovation in 1905 and it's a good thing to have today. Whether or not it was good in 1945 or 1965, well that's a little more complicated.