The Dernogalizer

January 5, 2010

Will Tom Vilsack’s forest policy plans protect forests?

The following is a cross-post from UMD for Clean Energy’s blog, done by our member and former media director Kenny Frankel.  Kenny interned with a DC non-profit called “Save America’s Forests”, and exercises his knowledge from that experience to explain what’s wrong with US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s new forest policy plans.

So this past summer I had an internship with the DC-based environmental non-profit group “Save America’s Forests”, an international forest protection organization.  My boss, the founding director, came across an article that infuriated him.  It described Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s forest policy plans, which he said were a far cry from sound environmental policies.  He asked me to debunk this problematic article and bring attention to a lot of the misinformation.  Anyways, see the article and subsequent debunking below:

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently shared his thoughts on how to manage our country’s forests in an AP article written on August 14th, entitled “Vilsack calls for renewed emphasis on forests”.  The Secretary said he “placed a high priority on restoration to protect water resources and combat climate change”.  He additionally said that restoration may include “improving or decommissioning unnecessary roads and rehabilitating wetlands and streams”.  Unfortunately, the actions Vilsack seeks to take will cause significant forest and environmental destruction that will undermine the goals he lists above.

First, Vilsack points to woody biomass production as a way “develop ‘green jobs’ that help restore forests while using them as ‘carbon sinks’ to help offset global warming” … wait, by cutting down the very trees that would, left untouched, sequester carbon dioxide and then in burning them in biomass production, release carbon dioxide into the air? Biomass may theoretically, over 100 years, release less net carbon in comparison to fossil fuels, but it is still worsening climate change now.  I say if you want to “develop green jobs” and “restore forests as carbon sinks” you should allow natural forests to grow back, not to cut down the existing forests and burn them.  Duh.

Second, the article explains how Vilsack supports a “national roadless policy”, which is “an important step toward resolving the conflicts and patchwork approach that have hindered forest management for decades”.  I think implementing the roadless rule in forests is a step in the right direction because it limits – with certain exceptions – the Forest Service or a timber company from building a road through many areas of our national forests for the purpose of logging.  This is important because roads are permanent scars on the landscape that will never be fully restored to pristine condition.  They break up a once completely connected ecosystem into sections, which causes soil disturbance or the siltation of the forests, rivers and streams – or harm to birds, fish, insects, and a multitude of other animals.

This policy sounds like a definite environmentalist victory, but let’s take a step back.  What the roadless rule does not do is preserve the 58 million acres of forest that Vilsack is looking to protect.  It is not the same as making a wilderness area, which leaves the forests completely untouched.  In wilderness areas, the trees continue to sequester carbon, the salmon continue to swim and spawn freely and provide us with food, and the 1210 threatened and/or endangered animals and 750 threatened and/or endangered plants can survive.
The roadless rule, however, allows logging and roadlbuilding in roadless areas for the purpose of so-called “fire reduction” or “forest health”, which could amount to a giant loophole for major logging caused forest degradation in roadless areas that were supposed to be protected.  Further, the roadless areas are largely made of land with no forests, or forests with trees not worth logging.  What is very significant about the roadless rule is the larger portion of the national forests, over 100 million acres, which it allows to continue to be heavily logged.
With 193 million acres of national public forest left in the United States (less than 20% of all original American forests), passing forest protection policies which do not go the whole nine yards does is not good enough.

Third, Vilsack claims that “conservation work” will be done on forests – since more than 500 projects are aimed at creating jobs and promoting forest rehabilitation through projects such as removal of small trees and underbrush that serve as fuel for wildfires.  If Vilsack believes this is a conservation policy, we are in big trouble.  The idea that removing small trees and underbrush fire-proofs a forest is a recycled myth that just gives the Forest Service and its timber company friends the go to do more logging.  According to Congressional testimony in 2003 by Arthur Partridge, Professor Emeritus of Forest Disease and Insect Problems who has 37 years of teaching, research, and administrative experience, this concept of ground “fuels” is “misguided because almost anything in a forest will burn, given the right conditions.  Any fire specialist will tell you that the principal factors affecting fire are temperature and moisture, not fuels.”  He continues, “No legislation will prevent or even reduce fires in the vast areas of the national forests and to pretend so is fraudulent.”
He said this in response to Bush’s 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which aimed to thin forests in thousands of areas to supposedly reduce wildfire risk.  But now Vilsack is trying to go unnoticed using the same rhetoric – but why?  Well Big Timber could then legally make its way into the forests, and cut down more big trees under a false pretense while leaving more “fuel” debris on the ground in the act than beforehand.  Great, just great.

In sum, not only is “fuels reduction” or “tree thinning” then a stupid policy but it literally fuels biomass production, which we earlier concluded is a far cry from carbon neutral.  Well, looking on the bright-side, at least the roadless rule is half-a-victory for conservationists because no other policy Vilsack outlines in the August 14th article will safeguard the well-being of America’s natural world.  John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt must be turning over in their graves.


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