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A Truce for the Trees
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A Truce for the Trees

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (center) joined U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and FLA President Scott Rowland (right) on a recent forestry tour in Arkansas.

U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman explains how the Resilient Federal Forest Act represents win-win policy for federal forests.

By Bruce Westerman

With an axe and a saw our forefathers conquered the forest to build a mighty country. With a pen and a gavel our contemporaries silenced the axe and are literally loving our forests to death.

There is a better way to be stewards of our forests - a way that is reasonable and science based that focuses on one goal: to make our federal forests healthy and resilient. When forests are healthy we all win with clean air, clean water, abundant and diverse wildlife, better recreational opportunities, beautiful landscapes, a stronger economy with better career opportunities, stronger communities in rural America, and a U.S. Forest Service that can take pride in its work saving money for taxpayers while providing Americans a valuable service.

All Americans benefit from healthy forests. Tree roots hold earth in place so our valuable top soils are protected and serve as water filters instead of washing into our streams as pollutants. Tree leaves, fueled by sunlight, amazingly pull carbon from the air, turn it into food for the tree where it's stored, and release pure oxygen back for us to breathe. Tree boles and branches have sustained humanity throughout the millennia with a renewable supply of energy, building materials, paper, and numerous other products that improve quality of life, generate wealth, and build economies. Our forested landscapes create diverse beauty, wildlife habitat, and natural arenas for outdoor recreation. American forests are an American treasure. It's past time we treat them like one.

Forest ownership is broadly categorized in two groups: public forests and private forests with sub-groupings under each major category such as state, tribal, and federal in the public column with industrial and non-industrial on the private side. There is more standing timber in America today than in 1900 and generally speaking every category of U.S. forests are trending healthy except for federal forests where we have seen record acres go up in smoke (more than 10 million in 2015) resulting in well over 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget being spent to put out wildfires. Regrettably, even with all the benefits of healthy forests, our nation finds itself in a tenable position where our private and non-federal public forests are generally resilient while our federal forests generally fail to thrive.

The predominant management practice on our federal forests for the past several decades has been a “no-action” approach, which in itself is a misnomer because trees and forests are forever changing. Trees are living, dynamic organisms constantly growing and competing for nutrients, water, and available sunlight space. As trees compete and grow older, many are weakened or die and become susceptible to insect and disease infestations, which increases mortality resulting in excessive tender to fuel catastrophic wildfire events that routinely are ignited by lightening strikes.

These major wildfires are more common in the arid west where strong winds can accelerate the infernos, but their devastation is felt even in eastern forests where forest management budgets are consumed fighting western fires. Because life and property are in harms way, we are compelled to put out wildfires once they start. However, as justifiable as suppressing forest fires may be, fire suppression is a forest management tool, and the decision to use it interferes with nature’s way of restoring unhealthy forests. It defies logic that we deny using economical forestry management tools in the present to make our forests healthy and resilient knowing the consequence in the future is having to use extremely costly and often dangerous fire suppression.

The science of silviculture originated in Europe and has been practiced in places like Germany and France for centuries. The science has spread to all corners of the world where trees are grown but has been utilized only just over a hundred years in the United States and much of that time, it was not widespread. As populations and housing grew and later as an elaborate railway system was constructed, the vast forests of America seemed to be an endless supply of timber needed to build a young country.

Settlers moved from east to west utilizing the common practice of “cut-out and get-out” with little regard for reforestation. Simply put, the most valuable and useable timber in an area would be cut, some of the land would be developed, some converted to agricultural uses, and the timber industry would move west in search of the next forest.

The trees grew back but our forests landscapes have changed. Many Americans are now passionate about protecting our forests and for notable reasons they have banned together to achieve their purpose. Our lack of sound stewardship and conservation in the past has fostered a mindset of preservation for the future. But preservation is utopia when dealing with trees and forests because to be preserved living organisms must be killed like cucumbers to make pickles or strawberries to make jam. Preservation is for innate objects that you find in a museum, not trees. The trees and the forest simply will not listen to us when we try to preserve them. They continue to grow, interact with each other, react to their environment, and change.

There is a better way to healthy forests and it starts with all those interested in the benefits of healthy forests working together for healthy forests. Not agendas, not politics, but healthy forests that will sustainably meet our needs for generations to come. Conservation is what Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot advocated.  We should rally around and celebrate conservation because conservation through good stewardship affords us opportunities to benefit both economically and environmentally.

Nature is not always serene. Nature at its core is wild, violent, and powerful. The more we work against it, the harder it fights back. Our best hope is to work in harmony with the forest through the science of silviculture to imitate acts of nature in a prescriptive approach to achieve a balance that allows us to live at peace with nature. Our reward will be healthy forests maximizing benefits back to us in pure water, clean air, abundant wildlife, economic growth, beautiful vistas, and natural recreation venues. 

This is happening on many private, state, and tribal forestlands across America. Working private and public forests are a wonderful success story of implementing sound silvicultural practices to restore and promote vigorous healthy forests but our federal timberlands are in a state of turmoil. 

Because silvicultural practices have advanced on private and some public lands, the once incessant need for timber off our federal forests has been greatly relieved. Conversely, federal lands today need markets for timber products more than timber products need fiber from federal lands.

As existing markets grow and researchers find new uses for wood fiber, federal forests can contribute but private working forests will carry the heavy load. This will free federal lands for sustainable management regimes that are less intensive but robust enough to maximize forest health. This model also can incorporate our wilderness areas that can remain wild and managed only by nature as long as we incorporate boundary and transitional areas around the wildernesses that protect neighboring forests from the inevitable wildfires that will burn on these lands. This three-tiered forest management approach across private and public lands is a sound conservation strategy to meet all our land use needs.

We need a truce for the trees on federal land to implement this strategy. We have to use the pen and the axe constructively and the gavel sparingly. The pen should be used to write science based, common sense, and flexible policy focused on forest health. Because silvicultural practices and land use priorities change from region to region and even from forest to forest the pen needs to be further used to record our local collaborative planning efforts to craft specific forest management plans for individual federal forests units across the country. 

The axe as well as a wide range of tools and technology available to forestry professionals should be used to execute those plans in a responsible way. If we truly want healthy forests and all the associated benefits, we no longer can allow the gavel to enforce “no-action” management decisions. While these decisions the last few decades have drawn attention to the importance of forests they have inadvertently managed our federal forests into an unhealthy state rivaling any damage to conservation the axe did a hundred years ago.

The Resilient Federal Forest Act passed with bi-partisan support in the House and the Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act companion bill filed in the Senate should be further debated, reconciled, and supported by Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate and signed into law by the President.  Healthy forests should be an easy issue for the federal government to illustrate we can focus on the big picture, fight for a good cause, and govern. 

The forests and the country desperately need us to do so and this is one issue where America has a real opportunity to win in more ways than one.

Bruce Westerman is the U.S. Representative for Arkansas’s 4th Congressional District.

*This article initially ran in the November/December issue of Forest Landowner, the official publication of the Forest Landowners Association.


 

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