by Pamela Wellner and Bryan Bird
2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the USDA Forest Service, an historic occasion that is being met with much self-congratulatory backslapping between the Forest Service and its industry patrons. However, in reality, the state of our nation’s forests warrants not so much a celebration as it does an SOS. With only 15 percent total old-growth forests left and a mere five percent in the lower 48 states, forest protection should be the highest priority for the federal government.
Our forests serve us in many ways, providing physical and spiritual renewal, stabilized soils, habitat for plants and animals, clean air, and drinking water for over 60 million Americans. Despite the long list of economic, social, and environmental benefits provided by our national forests, what little remains continues to be fractured and significantly altered under the purview of not just the Forest Service, but the Bureau of Land Management as well. For decades these forests have been systematically abused through a highly subsidized resource extraction program. Under the Bush administration, with its pro-logging agenda, the pace of this mismanagement has accelerated.
With so little high-quality forest left and increasing threats on federal forests, it is more important than ever to protect large expanses of connected forestlands to serve as a healthy ecological framework. A new report by Greenpeace shows for the first time that the best and biggest forest areas in the United States are on public lands, with the exception of forests in Maine located primarily on private lands.
The report, America’s Keystone Forests: Mapping the Next 100 Years of Forest Protection, highlights 11 forest areas throughout the U.S.—the nation’s last large areas of continuous forest—that provide the healthiest habitat for the greatest number of plant and animal species. Greenpeace is calling these areas “keystone” forests, borrowing from the architectural term for the middle stone at the top of an arch that holds all the other stones in position. The keystone is the central cohesive source of support for the greater whole.
To locate these forests, Greenpeace worked with geographic information systems experts at Big Sky Conservation Institute who prioritized the criteria of habitat fragmentation, the presence of rare species, and ecosystem quality. BSCI used GIS mapping software to assign numeric values to represent each of these criteria.
Why the criteria? Because the breakup of habitat into small, isolated patches is considered to be the foremost cause of native species loss.1 The presence of rare species and ecosystem quality is also an indicator of the forest health and the degree to which the forest is in its original condition.
Maintaining large expanses of intact ecosystems was certainly not a criterion used in the early and middle years of public land protection. It was during the advent of conservation biology in the mid-1980s that three essential elements of conservation came to the fore.
The first essential element is cores. Cores are protected areas designed to maintain existing natural landscapes where biodiversity, ecological integrity and wilderness take precedent over other uses.2 Cores are essential for protecting ecological health, especially for large wide-ranging mammals. Increasing the designation of larger nature reserves, either as parks or wilderness areas, is an effective way of establishing successful cores.
The second component is that of safe corridors for travel between cores to help ensure species viability in the long term.3
The third component, keystone species (also using the architectural term) are those plant and animals that play a critical role in maintaining biological diversity, the so-called custodians of healthy ecosystems. Keystone species may occur at any ecosystem level, from large to small animals to plants that physically change landscapes.
Contemporary conservation planners now recognize that these three interdependent elements—cores, corridors, and keystone species—are necessary for healthy nature reserve networks that protect biological diversity. Now that we have the know-how to protect habitats effectively, we need to take this knowledge and put it into practice.
Keystone forests, thanks to their large intact area and health, are ideal candidates for increased protection, conservation and restoration. They can serve as a base for healthy forest eco-regions. This is not to say that they are the only forest areas that need increased protection. Many critical forest areas, such as Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest and Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest, have been aggressively logged and the very survival of species like the Canada lynx and Northern goshawk depend on these forests being protected and restored. In addition, although prioritizing keystone forests for protection is vital, it is only a complement, not a substitute, for detailed planning on a regional and local scale.
Addressing the ecological disintegration of our national forests is vital, but its protection goes hand in hand with economic solutions, as well. Our country’s forests are far more valuable standing than logged for commercial timber. The Forest Service and BLM timber sale programs cost the government more money to operate than that which is recouped from the timber companies that bid on the timber sales.
From a purely economic standpoint, our tax dollars would be better spent if federal forests were protected and restored. Independent economists and the Forest Service itself have estimated that timber accounts for less than three percent of the total value of goods and services from national forests, while recreation, fish and wildlife contribute more than 84 percent.4 A boost to the local economies can be even more profound, generating 31 times more jobs from recreation and tourism in national forests than logging.5
The Mogollon Keystone Forest, which stretches from Flagstaff, Arizona, almost to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, is one keystone forest that holds great promise for re-wilding or restoration. Greenpeace named this forest after the region that spans the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau to where it meets the great Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. The prominent feature of this area is a long escarpment, known as the Mogollon Rim, extending for several hundred miles, with an average elevation 7,000 feet.
The potential exists to carefully allow nature’s natural architectural processes to resume a prominent role. Before civilization “tamed” these forests for its own ends, fire, mistletoe, insects and the like were the prime engineers of Southwestern forest ecosystems, creating diverse forest heterogeneity and thus a greater degree of biodiversity. It is virtually impossible for mankind to mimic this diversity through mechanical manipulations. Rather, the processes themselves must be safely reintroduced and permitted to function at their own temporal and spatial scales.
In contrast, one out of every two new dollars in personal income over the past 30 years comes from service industries such as health, engineering and business attracted by large natural landscapes.
One threat to the Mogollon keystone forest is within Prescott National Forest. Here, the Forest Service is using fuel reduction and beetle kill as an excuse near Indian Creek campground to log “dead and dying” old growth. The Forest Service is employing new rules established by the Bush administration to avoid both an environmental impact analysis and citizen participation. The logging is proceeding under a National Environmental Policy Act categorical exclusion to log huge old trees under less scientific scrutiny, while leaving trees under 12 inches in diameter, the real fire hazard to communities. The Prescott National Forest representatives have admitted to conservation groups that they sold the old growth trees because 12-inch and larger trees are favored by timber industry.
On a positive note, under the guidance and commitment of regional conservationists, Gila National Forest, also within the Mogollon keystone forest, is implementing a 1,400-acre project called the Mill Ecosystem Restoration Project. This project focuses on thinning very small trees and using fire as a restoration tool. The project can also serve as a model for other forest restoration plans.
America’s forests, after a century of mismanagement, are at a crossroads. The Bush administration has chosen to take the road of maximum resource extraction, while the majority of Americans are opting for the road to protection and restoration of our nation’s forest.
On a national level, it appears as though the path to protection and restoration is at an impasse. However, local participation in national forest protection is strong and growing, and even though national forests belong to all of us, efforts spearheaded by people living closest to national forests are gaining significant momentum.
To achieve long lasting protection and restoration of national forests, Greenpeace makes the following recommendations:
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