Carrying the Torch

Rangers get fired up over Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative

"It's kind of like living in a floodplain," Mannchen says. "If you live in an area that burns naturally, well, you take a certain risk. You have a responsibility to keep your yard and house fireproofed. But the Forest Service does not focus on that."

Mannchen also questions the Forest Service's motives for using fire and logging to prevent blights by the southern pine beetle. The beetle naturally thins out pine trees, enabling hardwoods to inhabit Southern forests. "The pine beetle is not a bad guy," he says, "unless you're focused on harvesting pine logs."

Although logging was once widespread in Sam Houston, it has been minimal for years. During the 1970s, foresters were authorized to harvest 100-acre parcels. By the 1980s, most logging had been reduced to thinning projects and the yearly cutting of about 50 acres. More recently, a glut of private wood flooded the market, and combined with recycling programs, reduced the price of pine logs. Half as many timber companies now bid on the logging projects.

Wilhite points to a hardwood tree he says was damaged by logging trucks.
Josh Harkinson
Wilhite points to a hardwood tree he says was damaged by logging trucks.

Yet the Forest Service still seems to manage Sam Houston for logging. The majority of land consists of widely spaced pines, most of them the same age. One benefit of the approach is improved access for logging trucks.

Mannchen says the Forest Service should change its approach. Sam Houston records about a million visits every year, and not many of them are by loggers. He says that returning the forest to its natural, diverse state would be more attractive, better for wildlife and still open to limited logging.

Bigler says the Sierra Club has a point. But there's a problem: one little woodpecker and the mighty Endangered Species Act.

The red-cockaded woodpecker, a black and white bird with two stripes of red behind its eyes, loves pine trees. It once inhabited soft trunks in mature pine stands across much of the Southeast, but clear-cutting removed the older, widely spaced trees, and the woodpecker nearly disappeared. It became an endangered species in 1970, and the Sierra Club began a lengthy legal battle in the late 1980s aimed at slowing its decline.

At the time, timber companies called the lawsuit their death knoll. Ironically, Mannchen says, it has become their best friend.

"We are obviously for the woodpecker," he says. However, Mannchen argues that the Forest Service now uses that bird as an excuse to manage its habitat "as commercial pine forest."

Nearly three quarters of the forest is now devoted to the woodpecker. As the Forest Service interprets it, this means promoting widely spaced pines, suppressing the pine beetle and removing brush and hardwoods -- much the same conditions maintained on pine plantations.

"As long as that bird is there," Bigler says, "we are going to have to provide the open understory, and that is what is pushing a lot of this."

The pine management also promotes other wildlife such as deer and wild turkeys, he adds, which benefit hunters.

Timber companies make money off the arrangement by removing pines in thinning projects. And in the future, rangers could allow more intensive logging on mature parcels.

Mannchen wants the Forest Service to stop creating artificial woodpecker habitat and to restore the forest to its former diversity. "We could have more natural ecosystems," he says, "and the woodpecker would still have wonderful habitat to live in."

But now that the Healthy Forests Initiative is curbing public input, he doubts change will happen without more lawsuits.

"It's a sad way to deal with the public when you're basically saying, 'Sue me,' " he says. "And that's what we think is happening."

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