The question of how forest resources should be used goes beyond the science of growing and harvesting trees; forest management must solve the problems of balancing economic, aesthetic, and biological value to entire ecosystems. The earliest forest managers in North America were native peoples, who harvested trees for building and burned forests to make room for grazing animals. But many native populations were wiped out by European diseases soon after Europeans arrived. By the mid-nineteenth century, it became apparent to many Americans that overharvesting of timber along with wasteful practices, such as uncontrolled burning of logging waste, was denuding forests and threatening future ecological and economic stability . The Forest Service (established in 1905) began studying ways to preserve forest resources for their economic as well as aesthetic, recreational, and wilderness value.
From the 1600s to 1820s, 370 million acres (150 million ha) of forests—about 34% of the United States' total—were cleared, leaving about 730 million acres (296 million ha) today. Only 10–15% of the forests have never been cut. Many previously harvested areas, however, have been replanted and the annual growth now exceeds harvest overall. But the nature of the forests has been altered, many believe for the worse. If logging of old-growth forests were to continue at the rate maintained during the 1980s, all remaining unprotected stands would be gone by 2015. Some 33,000 timber-related jobs could also be lost during that time, not just from environmental protection but also from over-harvesting, increased mechanization, and increasing reliance on foreign processing of whole logs cut from private lands. Recent federal and court decisions, most notably to protect the northern spotted owl in the United States, have slowed the pace of old-growth harvesting and for now has put more old forests under protection. But the questions of how to use forest resources is still under fierce debate.
For decades, clear-cutting of tracts has been the standard forestry management practice. Favored by timber companies, clear-cutting takes virtually all material from a tract. But clear-cutting has come under increasing criticism from environmentalists, who point out that the practice replaces mixed-age, biologically diverse forests with single-age, single or few species plantings. Clear-cutting also relies heavily on roads to haul out timber, causing root damage, topsoil erosion , and siltation of streams. Industry standards such as "best management practices (BMPs)" prevent most erosion and siltation by keeping roads away from stream beds. But BMPs only address water quality . Clear-cutting also removes small trees, snags, boles, and woody debris that are important to invertebrates and fungi .
Rather than focusing on what is removed from a forest, sustainable forest management focuses on what is left behind. In sustainable forestry , tracts are never clear-cut: instead, individual trees are selected and removed to maintain diversity and health of the remaining ecosystem . Such methods avoid artificial replanting, herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers. However, much debate remains on which trees and how many are chosen for harvesting under sustainable forestry.
In a new management style known most commonly as new forestry, 85–90% of trees on a site are harvested, and the land is left alone for decades to recover. Proponents say this method would cut down on erosion and increase diversity left behind on a tract, especially where one or two species dominate. The Forest Service and some Northwest states are studying new forestry, but environmentalists say too little is known about its effects on old-growth stands to use the practice. Timber companies say more and larger tracts would have to be harvested under new forestry to meet demand.
Those who make their living from America's forests, and those who place value on the biological ecosystems they support, must resolve the debate on how to best preserve our forests. One-third of forest resources now come from Forest Service lands, and the debate is an increasingly public one, involving interests ranging from the Sierra Club and sporting clubs to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Agriculture Department (and its largest agency, the Forest Service), and timber companies and their employees. The future of our forests depends on balancing real short-term needs with the high price of long-term forest health.
[L Carol. Ritchie ]
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