Land Use

Forest Fights

Roadlessly transforming national timber reserves into national parks.


The courts are once again refereeing fights between the Bush administration and the environmental lobby over our national forests. At issue is the "roadless rule" a lame duck regulation issued by President Clinton just 15 days before he left the White House. This rule prohibits the building of roads in untouched parcels of federal forest at least 5,000 acres in extent and applies to some 58.5 million acres of national forests.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups strongly backed the rule. After all, the Sierra Club wants to end all commercial logging in our national forests. "America's first National Forests were established for the people more than one hundred years ago," the Club declares. "Since then the timber industry has turned our publicly owned National Forests into a patchwork of clearcuts and logging roads."

With that comment, the Sierra Club is stuffing the reason why national forests were established down the memory hole. At the turn of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt created the national forests largely for the purpose of being logged someday. Why? Because he thought the country was about to run out of wood. "So rapid has been the rate of exhaustion of timber in the United States in the past, and so rapidly is the remainder being exhausted, that the country is unquestionably on the verge of a timber famine which will be felt in every household in the land," warned Roosevelt in his Annual Message to Congress in 1907.

He also predicted that, if the rate of consumption of timber remained unchanged, "practically all our lumber will be exhausted in another generation." To Roosevelt and his circle of progressive central planners, the solution to the impending national timber famine was a government program—national forests managed by a new federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service. Under Roosevelt, some 192 million acres of public lands were turned into national forests.

Of course, Roosevelt and the progressives were wrong. The timber famine never occurred. Advances in tree farming and improvements in wood preservation increasingly met consumer demands for wood products. As a result, as Resources for the Future forest economist Roger Sedjo notes, "Although the United States has been the world's number one timber producer since World War II, U.S. forests have experienced an increase in volume in the past fifty years and have maintained roughly the same area over the past seventy-five years." In the 1960s, national forests produced 20 percent of our timber. Today, 95 percent of the timber cut in the United States comes from private forests. But private timberlands aren't just dedicated to slashing and cutting—in the Southeastern U.S., they now earn as much as 25 percent of their income from recreation and hunting fees.

Federal timber sales are another example of government failure. Environmentalists are right when they complain that many national forests have sold their timber below cost. Why? In the past, the managers of each national forest were given set targets for timber sales, and failing to meet them could be bad for their careers. To encourage bids from loggers and thus meet their targets, the national forests would sell to loggers at prices that, unlike private timber sales, often did not cover the costs of road building, restoration, and replanting. Expanding timber sales at a loss perversely increased the budgets for national forests, since they had to cover their losses by asking for more appropriations.

The result was that, in the early 1990s, half our national forests lost money on timber sales. The combined losses have totaled more than $400 million to date. Private loggers bought the federal timber at prices the market would bear, but if the costs of restoration had been included in the pricing, the loggers would likely have gone elsewhere for their timber.

Well then, one might ask, since we evidently don't need the country's 155 national forests for timber production, much of it money-losing in any case, what's so bad about the roadless rule?

"It's a one-size-fits-all rule," says Holly Fretwell, a research associate with the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. "It doesn't look at the unique characteristics of the forests that are being closed off." Fretwell argues that how a particular bit of forest should be used ought to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Such analyses might find that the highest-value use of some portions of the national forests would still be timber production.

Nevertheless, Fretwell believes that even without the roadless rule, most of the forests covered by it would likely remain roadless. In fact, even without the centrally imposed rule, local managers of national forests had already designated 24 million acres as roadless.

Another problem with the one-size-fits-all roadless rule, according to Fretwell, is that it inhibits the ability of the Forest Service to improve the ecological health of large tracts of forests. Federal management, especially decades of vigorous fire suppression, has resulted in the build-up of huge fuel loads in many national forests. This wrongheaded policy leads to vast swathes of western forestlands going up in ecologically damaging flames every summer. The roadless rule will hinder efforts to thin fuel loads and to control fires when they inevitably break out.

Whenever I point out in public speeches that the national forests were created as timber reserves, most audiences are surprised. Americans today make no distinction between national parks like Yellowstone and national forests like the Jefferson National Forest. They want both to be preserved and used largely for recreational purposes. Ultimately, if the courts let the roadless rule stand, it will, for good or for ill, become a back door way of adding 58.5 million acres of federal forests to our national park system.