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Congress must intervene to save forests

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The United States Forest Service, originally created to protect our forests, now exploits public lands at a significant loss to the American taxpayer. The agency has intertwined with the timber industry to a point where no other interests other than their own are considered.

The current large-scale destruction of our last remaining virgin forests goes largely unwitnessed. The lush green forests rising up the mountains on either side of the highway are conveniently set aside as scenic overview, yet complex ecosystems requiring thousands of years to create are destroyed in minutes as the USFS bulldozes the land.

Logging the National Forests would not be profitable in a free market. The situation continues because both the timber industry and the United States Forest Service are benefiting. In return for subsidies, the timber industry provides a purpose for road engineers, timber foresters, and associated employees in the Forest Service. In many cases, the costs of building new roads and growing tree plantations to replace lost forest are covered by the Forest Service at a loss to the United States Treasury. In 1985, taxpayers provided $600 million to cover below cost timber sales.

Construction of Forest Service roads cost the taxpayers $500 million annually. Currently the USFS is planning to double the 350,000 miles that already extend through the forests. By funding roads that will mainly be used for bulldozing virgin forest, Congress is directly subsidizing the timber industry.

The northwest temperate rainforests contain double the weight of plants and animals per acre than the Amazonian forests. This ecosystem also houses many species of birds, plants and vertebrates that live nowhere else in the world. So far, we know of sixty-four vertebrate species that are associated exclusively with the northwest forest. Their numbers are steadily decreasing with their remaining habitat.

Fragmentation, or clearcutting the forest in large patches, has its own ramifications on the wildlife. For example, the spotted owl, now endangered, is preyed upon much more easily as it flies through open spaces. Not surprisingly, the Forest Service supports wildlife protection only when the land is extremely steep, rocky, or covered in ice.

The majority of timber workers see wildlife protection as threatening their jobs, yet court ordered protection plays only a minor role in declining mill employment. Modernization and the exportation of 25 percent of the nation's timber as raw logs cause greater unemployment. Nations such as Japan and Korea will pay twice as much as American processing plants for raw timber.

Already we have lost over 90 percent of our nation's forests; strong political action is needed immediately. Congress has the power to protect the remaining land and establish a sustainable industry. Legislatures must illegalize the fragmentation and clearcutting of public land.

As subsidies from Congress end, the industry will need to be restructured. Timber must be priced with environmental costs in mind; this will maintain a profitable industry while promoting conservation and recycling. Sustaining tree plantations is more desirable than constantly deforesting more virgin land. Congress could ease the industry's transition period by investing in retraining displaced employees.

Despite the difficulties involved, the government has no choice but to end the current system of deforestation and significantly reform the timber industry. The preservation of irreplaceable life systems and of our ecological balance is at stake.

Jenny Zemach '91