The battle over the fate of the nation's forests--wilderness vs. wood--has been fought before, but it is once again raging as politically correct activists posture to preserve everything while using nothing.
Nearly 100 years ago, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, battled for the hearts and minds of Americans over the fate of the nation's forests. In the end, a compromise was struck. Large areas of federal lands were designated as national parks, where nature was to be preserved and protected. Other large tracts were allocated to the national forest system, where timber could be obtained to provide for society's needs. The legislators of the day understood the need for such a compromise. The people want wilderness and the people need wood.
But now, it is so trendy to be opposed to cutting trees that many people find it possible to ignore the absolute necessity of using wood in their everyday lives. Many seem willing to forget that wood is, without question, the most renewable and environmentally friendly of all materials used to build our civilization. Wood is the material embodiment of solar energy, created by photosynthesis in a factory called the forest, and whether we like it or not, wood can only be obtained from trees.
It has become fashionable to suggest that logging be banned on all federal public lands, including the national forests and lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The Sierra Club has adopted such a position, one now supported by congressional legislation that would outlaw commercial forestry on all public lands in the United States. The authors of the bill claim that such a policy would "save taxpayers money, reduce the deficit, cut corporate welfare and protect and restore America's natural heritage by eliminating the fiscally wasteful and ecologically destructive commercial logging program on federal public lands." They are wrong, and their plan would result in a great deal of harm to the environment and economy they seek to protect.
While there may well be need for reform in the way forestry is managed on public lands, this in no way negates the very positive benefits of forestry to society and the environment as a whole. These benefits include employment in rural communities, road access and facilities for public recreation and protection from wildfires. The most important benefit, however, is the provision of wood as a building material and as a source of fiber for paper products. Practically no other use of public lands brings such an important environmental benefit as the use of that land for sustainable forestry.
Wood requires far less consumption of energy to produce than any of the substitutes--steel, concrete, plastic. By using more energy, we burn more fossil fuels, which in turn results in higher emissions of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide in particular. Therefore, using more renewable wood and less steel, concrete and plastic will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one of the main goals of environmentalists around the world.
What has been lost here is balance. Forests serve a number of important functions, among them recreation, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and timber production. It is not possible to have total preservation and timber production on the same acre of land. The only logical approach is to zone the land so that some of it is used for each of the many values forests provide. A single-minded, preservationist approach across the entire public estate is wrongheaded because it fails to address the complexity of multiple benefits derived from forests and trees.
Imagine if the people of the Polynesian Islands decided that all the palm trees must be preserved, that none could be cut for building houses or canoes. Their culture would be destroyed. It is not that Polynesians don't love the trees--they practically worship them, since the palms provide so much of what they need for food and shelter. But they do have an intuitive understanding that so long as the palms are sustainably harvested, there will always be trees for future generations.
We need to find this same wisdom and to oppose the preservationist agenda that would deny the environmental benefits of using part of the public's land to produce some of the public's wood.