U.S. Must Lead the World in Forest Protection
Dr. Jud Newborn
A forest protection bill of potential global significance, reintroduced recently in the United States Congress, the Act to Save America's Forests, is underscoring the contradiction between U.S. admonitions for worldwide forest protection and America's own domestic policy of forest destruction.
According to "The Last Frontier Forests," a still-current 1997 landmark study by the independent, Washington-based World Resources Institute, today it is virgin temperate, not tropical, forests which are most endangered. Collaborating with the World Conservation Monitoring Center and the World Wildlife Fund, the WRI found that most of the world's nations have already lost, or will soon lose, their last large tracts of ecologically viable forest. Those nations on the edge include Sweden, Finland, and the continental United States, while the great forests of Canada and Russia, according to Jonathan Lash, President of the WRI, are currently under heavy siege by "transnational logging companies." This is not to minimize the urgent need to protect tropical rainforests. According to a February 1999 report by the Brazilian Environmental Ministry, for example, deforestation of the Amazon jumped 300/0 from 1997 to 1998, when a mind boggling 6500 square miles, or an area the size of Belgium was cleared.
However, it would be naive or cynical for the world's developed nations to suggest that tropical forests must be protected for the good of the earth while the planet's temperate forests can be sacrificed for financial gain. As U.S. Vice President Al Gore himself argued in his book, Earth in the Balance, "Wherever rainforests are found, they are under siege. . . The developed nations, however, have massive deforestation problems of their own. . . particularly in heavily logged regions like the Pacific Northwest and Alaska."
Ironically, it was then Senator Al Gore who accompanied Texas Congressman John Bryant, Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado (now head of the UN Foundation) and other U.S. officials on a tour of the Amazon in 1989, hosted by Smithsonian senior biologist Dr. Tom Lovejoy. Disturbed by the widespread devastation they witnessed, the U.S. delegation voiced its concern to President Sarney of Brazil, asking what could be done to halt the destruction.
According to Bryant, Brazil's President turned the question back on them by asking the Americans what they were doing to protect their own forests. Observing that the United States already had leveled most of its old growth forest during its own historic period of development, he noted that Americans today are continuing to destroy their remaining forests, even as they proposed to instruct a developing Brazil on how to manage its environment.
If the Clinton Administration's record of compromise on the environment is any measure, then the Brazilian President's lesson may have been lost on Al Gore. Bryant, however, took the message to heart and introduced the Act to Save America's Forests into the U.S. Congress. Now being championed by Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Representative Anna Eshoo of California, the Act to Save America's Forests is the most important nationwide forest protection measure in Congress today.
It may also be the most globally significant environmental legislation for the dawning millennium. Just over a year ago, in late October 1998, scientists at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Italy, reporting in New Scientist magazine, expressed bleak prospects for the world's rainforests. "The pressures to remove the forests are too great to be stopped, especially in places like Southeast Asia," said Frederic Achard of the Research Centre. "There is very little we can do to change the politics of these countries."
The Act to Save America's Forests gives the United States a dramatic opportunity to reverse this grim global prognosis. According to the bill's proponents, by protecting its own forests instead of despoiling them, the U.S. would set a powerful example for the world's developing nations, providing them with the guidance and principled leadership which it has failed so far to deliver.
Endorsed by over 120 members of Congress to date, the Act to Save America's Forests would protect and restore the entire U.S. National Forest system, an area larger than two Californias. The bill would ban government-subsidized clearcutting, restore native flora and fauna, and end logging forever in the nation's last ancient forests. This is an act so sound that 600 leading ecological scientists, including two-time Pulitzer prize-winner E.O. Wilson and world-renowned biologist Jane Goodall have put themselves fully behind it, thereby sending the bill's blustering opposition, led by Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, into disarray.
Protecting its own forests as a world example is something the U.S. can easily afford to do. A recent U.S. Congressional Research Service report of March 1998 indicated that less than 6% of America's timber comes from its national forests. According to Robert Wolf, Fellow of the Society of American Foresters, the price at which it comes is outrageous. Focusing on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, in a case-study sent out on the internet on May 21, 1999, Wolf concludes that the "total Tongass timber sale drain on the Treasury over the years is at least $1 billion." Such findings support Wolf's broader conclusion that "logging is financially unsound on virtually all of the national forests."
According to Carl Ross, Executive Director of Save America's Forests, the scrupulously independent lobby which helped initiate this legislation, "America's national forests offer much more economic value through tourism, recreation, pure drinking water, fisheries and wildlife. Clearcutting these forests destroys all of these values, while getting one-time timber use out of irreplaceable ancient trees." Government subsidized clearcutting nonetheless persists to such an extent that The New York Times, in an editorial on August 16, 1999, saw fit to condemn egregious violations of federal rulings. The Times characterized the U.S. Forest Service as "a notoriously stubborn agency that has long favored the harvesting of timber in the national forests at the expense of wildlife protection and other environmental values."
"This is hardly the example we want to set before the world," says Carl Ross. "The entire global environment is on the verge of a downward spiral, unless concerted emergency actions are taken. The positive steps so far are too small and too few. This bill, however, is a giant step in itself," he continues. "It would make law the restoration of all native forest species and the protection of biodiversity. Coming from the U.S., this could be a signal that major change is needed now, worldwide-otherwise major irreversible catastrophe is inevitable."
President Clinton's "roadless area plan," which offers partial protection to approximately one-third of the national forests, could be a positive step forward. However, these are areas which the timber industry has left for last because they are the least valuable. Ninety-five per cent of logging in our national forests actuallly comes from the other two-thirds which the President's plan leaves unprotected--regions with endangered old growth and invaluable, recovering natural forest. The "roadless area plan" allows clearcutting and environmental collapse to continue in these richer more biologically diverse areas without saving endangered species. It is thus no substitute for scientifically sound, comprehensive legislation.
For these reasons the Act to Save America's Forests deserves and demands bipartisan support in Congress, along with international pressure to see that it is passed into law. Doing so would be in line with the wishes of the vast majority of the American public, who favor more environmental protection. More importantly, it would serve the growing global consciousness, as the new millennium dawns, that all life on earth hangs in the balance as never before.