100 Years Young, Forest Service Meets to Map the Future

The U.S. Forest Service is marking its 100th anniversary this week with Centennial Congress which aims to initiate a national dialogue on the challenges facing Americas forests. The gathering commemorates the 1905 American Forest Congress, which led to the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, now an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The 1905 American Forest Congress initiated a century of change in managing public forests and grasslands by introducing a new conservation ethic and a workforce to carry it out, said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. My hope is that the Centennial Congress can help provide a foundation for similar contributions by the agency and foster a collective commitment to conservation in our next 100 years.

USDA Secretary Ann Veneman told the more than 500 delegates on Tuesday that under the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Restoration Act, in 2004 the USDA and the Department of Interior together "treated a record 4.2 million acres of land, an increase of 1.6 million acres over the previous year's total."

Treating these acres means clearing them of trees so that wildfires cannot spread, even in areas where wildfires are not frequent. Veneman views such treatment in a positive light.

"I will never forget visiting the sites of wildfires or areas that had been burned and seeing firsthand the ecological and social devastation that catastrophic wildfires can cause," Veneman said. "I have seen stands of dead and diseased trees some of which, not long after, burned to the ground. And I am proud that, we are changing the equation."

But environmentalists do not agree. To mark the 100th anniversary, Greenpeace and the Big Sky Conservation Institute have identified the nations last remaining intact forests - called keystone forests - and faulted the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to protect them.

"While the Forest Service is patting itself on the back, the reality is there is little to celebrate when it comes to the state of our forests," said Pamela Wellner, Greenpeace senior campaigner and co-author of the report. "With only five percent of the nations ancient forests left in the lower 48 states, keystone forests represent our last best hope for saving the countrys natural heritage. Unfortunately, they are threatened by the very agencies that are responsible for them: the Forest Service and the BLM."

Keystone forests are - the Maine Woods, the Blue Ridge-Appalachia, the Florida Panhandle, the Upper Great Lakes, the Mogollon, the Sierra, the Klamath-Siskyiou, the Pacific Northwest Volcanic, the North Cascades, the Northwest Rockies, and the Alaska Coastal Temperate Rainforest.

Unique maps show the condition and ownership of the land within each forest.

"These maps draw together for the first time the latest scientific studies of forest fragmentation, road density, biological diversity and health of plant and animal communities," said Bill Haskins, GIS manager of the Big Sky Conservation Institute and creator of the forest maps. "They provide a penetrating look at the damage already done, and a prescription for saving and restoring what's left of our most diverse native forests."

In the short term, Greenpeace is calling for a moratorium on large-scale industrial logging and road-building in all forests administered by the Forest Service and the BLM. In the long term, the organization says, Americas best forest lands, starting with the keystone forests, must be given greater protection, and "the missions of the Forest Service and BLM must be refocused on restoration and conservation, not commercial exploitation."

But Veneman told the Congress that the U.S. Forest Service is already moving in the right direction. "We have streamlined restoration projects by helping federal, state and local officials work together," she said. "We have intensified the fight against invasive pests, treating 1.1 million acres to protect against devastating infestations."

"We looked to the long-term, developing a 10 year strategy to protect Western lands from wildfires, a strategy that 17 Western governors endorsed," Veneman said. "Under the Healthy Forests Initiative, we have implemented policies that result in improved wildlife habitat, better air and water quality, and less erosion."

"These improvements are coming not just on our national forests, but on the vast landscape of America's private forests that are owned by 10 million individuals and families, the stewards that we all depend upon," the agriculture secretary said.

"We are working with state foresters, private landowners, and tribal and local governments to develop guidelines that promote the use of forestry practices to sustain healthy watersheds. We are also consulting with landowners and private organizations to help develop a Healthy Forests Reserve Program that will help restore and maintain biodiversity and the habitat of threatened and endangered species," she said.

Greenpeace has a different view of what is taking place in the national forests. "The Forest Service and BLM have allowed, and even encouraged, rampant industrial exploitation of the nations forests at taxpayer expense," the environmental group said Monday. "Under the Bush administration, this mismanagement is escalating at an unprecedented rate. Most recently, the administration announced on December 22 that it was opening up all national forests to greater logging and mining."

The results of widespread logging are already being seen in eastern national forests, the environmental groups' report warns. "The famed Appalachian Trail begins in the Maine Woods," the report says, "but it is only a thin 'beauty strip' increasingly hemmed-in by clearcuts, roads and motorized recreation."

"Transnational paper and timber companies, investment partnerships and real estate speculators own most of the land in a few large blocks. During the last two decades these landowners have clearcut an area of forest larger than Delaware, built 15,000 miles of logging roads and subdivided remote lakeshores for second-home development," the report states. "Intensive motorized recreation penetrates areas that were not long ago wild and roadless. More than five million acres of land have been sold in the last decade, with only a tiny portion being acquired by the public or other conservation buyers."

Conservationists are still hopeful that some of these forest lands can be safeguarded.

"There is an existing proposal submitted to the National Park Service for the creation of a 3.2 million acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve in the heart of the Maine Woods. This new park would bring the land back into public ownership, restore past damage from logging and other industrial uses, guarantee public recreational access and serve as the foundation for a sustainable regional economy," writes Michael Kellett of the group Restore the North Woods.

For more information on the Forest Services Centennial Congress, visit: www.natlforests.org/centennial. Read the full Keystone Forests report by clicking here. Find a National Forest or Grassland at: http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/map/finder.shtml Source: Environment News Service (ENS).