Montana: Wuerthner’s yet to see a logging operation that doesn’t impoverish the land

An associate who works for a major environmental group doesn’t want to
talk to me anymore. He has concluded that I’m against logging because
I won’t uncritically support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship
Proposal (BCSP), a plan that, among other things, calls for logging a
portion of the Lolo National Forest in Montana. He’s right. I don’t
support the BCSP because no one has convinced me the proposed logging
aspects of the plan won’t be degrading forest ecosystems. How many
acres will be logged? What is the rationalization for logging and is
it accurate? Can some of the goals like fire hazard reduction be
accomplished at less cost without logging? What are the real
ecological costs of logging? So far most of my questions about the
specifics of the proposal have gone unanswered. The only responsible
uses of our public lands are those activities which do not leave them
unimpaired. Is asking that anyone using public lands—especially using
public lands for a potential profit—to leave them unimpaired so

The problem for me as an ecologist is that I have yet to
see a logging operation that doesn’t impoverish the land. I’ve visited
the most lauded logging operations in the country—those certified as
sustainable forestry—and even these degrade forest ecosystems. They
are examples of more sensitive logging to be sure. But they are not
benign. They still degrade the forest ecosystem, just not as fast or
intensively as traditional timber cutting. But in the end better
logging practices doesn’t matter if you ultimately impair the forest
ecosystem. Just as spending more than you earn will leave you broke
in the end whether you do so slowly or quickly. Let me make an
analogy. Let’s pretend a company wants to borrow and use some public
property—say a school bus to transport people to a company conference.
They are willing to pay a small fee for the use of the school bus.
But when they return the key, one discovers that there were two flat
tires, the gas tank was empty, the seats were ripped, the bus had a
huge dent in the side where it had been hit, and the window shield was

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that it was not in the
public interest to let that company—especially a company that was
using that public property for a profit-making venture—continue to use
that public property? And when it comes to logging we are spending
our natural endowment for short-term profits, jobs, and wood products
that are priced far below their real ecological costs. Logging is like
skin exposure to the sun. Any dermatologist will tell you that the
less exposure your skin has to the sun the better. If you must go out
in the sun you should take precautions, like using sun screen and
wearing a hat, but that doesn’t mean that sun exposure is “good” or
benign.” It’s just a better way to cope with the sun when you can’t
avoid it. And you might try to argue that getting a tan might make you
more sexually attractive so perhaps that is a “benefit,” but any good
doctor will tell you that is a steep price to pay given the long-term
damage to your skin. If you spend a lot of time in the sun without
any sun protection, you may not get skin cancer, but your skin and
eyes will still suffer. Similarly, some logging practices may not
result in complete collapse of the forest ecosystem. But don’t let
anyone fool you; there will still be impacts to the land. Logging
equipment compacts soils. Logging removes biomass critical to future
soil productivity of the forest. Logging disturbs sensitive wildlife.
Logging typically requires roads and skid trails which create chronic
sources of sedimentation that degrades water quality and aquatic
organism habitat. Logging roads and skid trails are also a major
vector for the spread of weeds. Logging disrupts nutrient cycling and
flows. Logging can alter species composition and age structure (i.e.
loss of old growth). Logging can alter fire regimes. Logging can
change water cycling and water balance in a drainage. The litany of
negative impacts is much longer, but suffice it to say that anyone who
suggests that logging is a benefit or benign is not doing a full
accounting of costs. Those who suggest that logging “benefits” the
forest ecosystem are using very narrow definitions of “benefit.” Much
as some might claim that smoking helps people to lose weight and is a
“benefit” of smoking.

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