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Keystone Forests: Preserving Forest Wildlands in the Southwestern U.S. and Beyond.

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.

Ponderosa pine.  
Ponderosa pine in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico.
Photo by Jess Alford, courtesy Forest Guardians.

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.

Economic Values of Forest Wildlands

The Forest Service estimated that the economic value of recreation in national forests was $6.8 billion in 1993, and that by 2045 it will grow to $12.7 billion. Recreation, fishing and hunting contributed more than $111 billion to the GDP, creating more than 2.9 million jobs each year. In contrast, National Forest timber sales created only 55,535 jobs in 1997, and netted only $354 million.

Clean Water
One of the most important environmental services that our national forests provide is fresh water. National forests are the single largest source of fresh water in the U.S. Over 60 million Americans, served by 3,400 public water systems, depend on national forests for their drinking water. Each year, national forests provide more than 173 trillion gallons per year at an estimated value of $27 billion per year.

Water utility companies spend tens of millions of dollars on water filtration that would not be necessary if surrounding forest had been left standing rather than clearcut by taxpayer subsidized logging operations. Additionally, once logged, many national forests are prone to flooding, mudslides and stream destruction due to runoff and siltation. In 1996, after logging induced catastrophic floods, the Forest Service spent more than $100 million to repair roads destroyed by floods and mudslides.

Non-Timber Forest Products
Public forests contain non-timber products such as medicinal plants, mushrooms and floral greens and boughs. The Forest Service estimates that more than 450,000 families rely upon non-timber products harvested from national forests. In Oregon and Washington, national forests non-timber products provided about $300 million to the regional economy in 1992. These products are also critical sources of subsistence foods. In Southeast Alaska, the average household consumes an average of 889 pounds per year of edible forest products, including 295 pounds of salmon.

Protection from Catastrophic Fire
Fire is part of the natural evolutionary process of many forests and natural intact forests actually reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. In the Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest, the Ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest and the flatwood pine forests of the South, fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. As a natural ecological disturbance fire gives rise to a mosaic of habitats and age stands, creating a positive impact on biodiversity. Fire releases cone seeds from species such as the Giant sequoia, lodgepole pine and Ponderosa pine and redistributes nutrients to the soil, benefiting new growth.

Under the guise of fire prevention, President Bush launched the so-called Healthy Forests Initiative, which directs logging to remote, intact forests in one part of the country to pay for the thinning of fire-prone forests in another. The result is that truly “healthy” forests, such as old growth, are roaded and thinned, making them more susceptible to catastrophic fire. In November 2000, the Forest Service reported that “the number of large fires are dramatically higher in areas that are already roaded than in inventoried roadless areas.”

It is estimated that the climate regulation benefits associated with the 58.5 million acres of roadless areas in National Forests are worth $490 million annually.

U.S. Agriculture
Public forestlands also provide important habitat for species that either feed on agricultural pests or pollinate crops, such as ladybugs, birds, bats, bees, amphibians and butterflies, all critical elements to U.S. agriculture. Research has estimated that the potential contribution of these wild pollinators to the U.S. agricultural economy is approximately $4-7 billion per year. On a global scale, temperate and boreal forests’ contribution to natural pest control is estimated to be at least $11.8 billion per year.

Source: Greenpeace, 2005.


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 Mogollon forests are characterized by vast stands of Ponderosa pine, as well as the piñon-juniper ecosystem of the upper deserts to the high elevation spruce fir forests. Born of fire, these are the largest of their kind in the United States, covering tens of thousands of acres. Fire is critical in the ecology of Ponderosa pine, and many efforts—some controversial—are underway to restore this ecological process. The negative effects of grazing, logging and fire suppression since the late 1880s on Ponderosa pine forests have been profound and lasting.

The considerable expanse of forested high country, river oases and wild mountains sweeping from subalpine parks down to arid grasslands offers a unique opportunity in the lower 48 states to re-wild and re-connect our spiritual affiliation with nature. Sufficient unbroken forests exist to reintroduce or restore populations of some of the continent’s greatest carnivores, including wolf, grizzly bear, and jaguar.

Mogollon Keystone Forest.  
Mogollon Keystone Forest:
Click for larger image.
Graphic courtesy Greenpeace.
BLM and USFS forested areas
National park and wilderness forested areas
Other public and private forested areas

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.

Embracing big, wild forests is compatible with economic growth patterns in the West. In fact, the more protected the better according to systematic analyses by Southwick Associates in 2000 and the Sonoran Institute in 2004. Wilderness areas, national parks and monuments, and other protected public lands set aside for their wildland characteristics play an important role in stimulating economic growth. Dependence on resource extraction industries (e.g., logging and mining) results in the slowest long-term economic growth rates. Traditional rural economic activities account for only eight percent, down from 20 percent in 1970, of all personal income in the rural west.

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.

  Mogollon Rim.
  Forest wildlands around Sedona and northcentral Arizona.
Photo by Adriel Heisey, courtesy Forest Guardians.

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:

  • A moratorium on large-scale commercial logging and road construction on all forests administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. A moratorium provides a “time out,” to investigate the mismanagement of our public lands, both ecologically and economically, with the purpose of developing appropriate remedies before further damage is done.
  • Increased protection of federal forestlands with environmental, social and cultural significance through the designation of wilderness status, the maintenance of roadless areas, or and transfer to national park and preserve status.
  • A halt to further elimination or weakening of forest protection laws by the Bush administration, and the reinstatement of those original laws already modified by the administration.

For more information or to receive a copy of America’s Keystone Forest, call 415.255.9221, email [email protected], or download the report here.


Pamela Wellner is a Senior Campaigner for Greenpeace in San Francisco, CA. She has been working to protect both tropical and temperate forests for fifteen years, and is a board member of the Rainforest Action Network and Environmental Investigation Agency U.S.
Bryan Bird is the forest program coordinator for the Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, NM. Bryan received his masters in conservation biology from New Mexico State University in 1995 and undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1990. He has undertaken conservation research and planning in both Central America and the Southwestern United States.
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America's Keystone Forests: Mapping the Next 100 Years of Forest Protection

Forest Guardians


Mogollon Keystone Forest

Native Forest Network

US Bureau of Land Management, Arizona

US Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico

USDA Forest Service Southwestern Region


End Notes.

1. Wilcox, BA, Murphey, DD. "Conservation strategy: The effects of fragmentation on extinction." Biological Conservation (1985): 879-887.

2. Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

3. Soule 1981, Noss 1983, Harris 1984, Noss and Harris, 1986, Soule, e.g. Soule, M.E. 1987. Viable Populations for Conservation. Cambridge University Press.

4. Native Forest Network, April 16, 2002; Scientists' letters to George Bush.

5. Wilson, E.O., Endangered Forests, Endangered Freedoms Press Conference, Washington, D.C., June 3, 2003.



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