Logging: Natural Resource on Public Land

The story of logging in the Pacific Northwest would be incomplete without examining the United States government as a significant actor.

Aside from conscientiously doling out land and building infrastructure in the Northwest in order to develop and settle the region, the United States government has periodically redesignated public lands’ statuses depending upon what it decided was priority politically and in the way of resources. What happened on the Olympic Peninsula in 1915 is an example of this. That year, President Woodrow Wilson changed the status of half of the Mount Olympus National Monument acreage to National Forest Service land, allowing area’s timber to be harvested. The reason? The Olympic Peninsula had well sized spruce trees, which deemed necessary for the government’s World War I airplane production. The army established the Spruce Production Division, and built roads and railroads throughout the Olympic National Forest.[1]

But let us back up a couple of decades to the National Forest Service’s beginnings.

Public land status and therefore use was established at the end of the 1800s. In 1891, the Forest Reserves Act was passed, which allowed forest reserves on public lands. This was done to protect to western watersheds and to protect interests in continuous timber supply. The Forest Reserves Act was enacted on public land throughout the western United States. With land in reserves, the government needed a unit to manage the lumber, grazing, and irrigation uses of the reserves, and in 1897 the Forest Management Act handed regulatory authority to the Secretary of the Interior. By 1905, the forest reserves were given to the Bureau of Forestry to manage; the Bureau’s name changed to Forest Service, and the forest reserves to national forests. Gifford Pinchot, who has a national forest in Washington state named after him, was the first to lead the Forest Service.[2]

Before going further, the distinction between “conservation” and “preservation” should be discussed, as these philosophies determine the orientation of decisions about the land and its resources and how protection is enacted. The National Park Service website provides this definition: “conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.”[3] This is helpful to understand, because the governmental agencies with oversight of the various public land statuses operate within these different philosophies as outlined by Congress. The Forest Service (USFS or NFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have the authority to designate land use, and often practice multiple-use land management,[4] following the conservation philosophy. Some of the National Forest Service boundary signs even note “Land of Many Uses” as this one does. 3271_a1 National Parks were created for preservation, so activities that would alter nature are not allowed. This distinction in restrictions and permissions between the different public land designations is felt not just by natural resource industries, but by the recreator as well.

The practices of the Forest Service under Gifford Pinchot were motivated by the conservation outlook. Pinchot, who was both “close friend and advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt” and “the first American to receive an advanced degree in forestry”, “advocated the scientific and efficient use of natural resources for the common good” and “wanted to maximize the long-term output of lumber”.[5] His autobiography described “‘virgin forests’” to be “‘inherently wasteful’”.[6] Pinchot believed in sustained-yield forestry, which became the foundation of the Forest Service’s strategy.[7]

In his national role, Pinchot had the challenge of the wariness of different stakeholders. Some groups feared the liberalness of land use, whereas other groups feared the Forest Service policies might limit access to natural resources. Pinchot and Roosevelt played the politics with Congress, and increased the National Forest Service land in the Northwest; Washington state was nearly 25 percent National Forest Service land by the time Roosevelt’s tenure as president ended in 1909. Pinchot also acknowledged the concerns and disincentives pressuring lumber companies into practices that were adverse to conservation goals, and he worked to reduce those disincentives. The lumber industry was simultaneously beginning to recognize the value of investing in the science of conservation, particularly around preventing forest fires in their stands, and as an industry began moving in that direction.[8]

It was, and is, not just the federal government managing the public lands’ natural resources, but the state governments as well. NFS districts will note timber sales on the district website; this sign here points to timber sales in a Washington state forest,2632_a1 and another placard  gives some background, describing how the state uses the income from the timber sales to fund public services. IMG_2633Yet the philosophies that influence the process of timber harvest seems to have shifted some since Pinchot’s time. On the Washington State Natural Resources signs, the department cites the standards by which the land must be logged: according to the opt-in Sustainable Forestry Initiative, an organization that certifies timber harvest practices as meeting certain environmental standards. IMG_2635 Another example of this shift, is that the Forest Service at one point was moved under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which, from my understanding from speaking with a USFS forester, was because tree plantations was a common practice on Forest Service land in the past. Now however, in some NFS land such as in the Olympic National Forest, restoring the environment and facilitating old growth forest conditions is the goal. The logging activities in these places are extremely limited, and are done to mimic (in an expedited way) the natural processes that would have occurred if logging had not previously taken place.[9]

The tension between the philosophies of conservation and preservation are evident in the governmental agencies given jurisdiction over public land, and the practices under which they operate. The government’s attempt to recognize the different orientation towards the land and the use of natural resources is a reminder of the many variables that complicate the story of the forest and land use.

See the rest of the Logging in the Pacific Northwest project

[1] Chiang, C. and Reese, M. (Year unknown). Evergreen State: Exploring the History of Washington’s Forests. A Curriculum Project for Washington Schools. Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington Department of History. (Page 13.)

[2] Chiang and Reese, Pages 9-10.

[3] Conservation vs Preservation and the National Park Service. Retrieved November 22, 2014, from National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/klgo/forteachers/classrooms/conservation-vs-preservation.htm.

[4] National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). Environmental issues in Pacific Northwest forest management. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. (Pages 172-173.)

[5] Chiang and Reese, Page 10-11.

[6] As quoted in Chiang and Reese, Page 11.

[7] Chiang and Reese, Page 11.

[8] Chiang and Reese, Pages 10-11.

[9] USFS Forester. (2014). Informational interview. 20 October 2014.