The Logging Road Not Taken

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As a hunter, Teddy Roosevelt was a sort of bully Magoo, blazing away in a spirit of exuberant approximation.

He'd spray ammunition at a beast until he struck a haunch or horn or dewlap. And then he'd wear the poor thing down. The godfather of American conservation and founder of the national parks was capable of gleeful sacrilege and atrocity when he got the scent. In "The Wilderness Hunter," Roosevelt records this moment: "On the way an eagle came soaring over head, and I shot at it twice without success. Having once killed an eagle on the wing with a rifle, I always have a lurking hope that sometime I may be able to repeat the feat. I revenged myself for the miss by knocking a large blue goshawk out of the top of a blasted spruce." An eagle! Potshots at the national bird!

That is the spirit of American idealism when it gets into the woods: noisy inaccuracy and ethical contradiction coexisting with high principles — myopia (Roosevelt was incredibly nearsighted) and great vision.

Earlier this week, I described the views of Idaho loggers, including foresters for Boise Cascade, who believe fervently- — even scathingly — that thinning the forests by logging is absolutely essential in order to prevent the sort of wildfires now blazing all over the West. Essentially: You have to cut the forests in order to save them. The Forest Service itself has often made this argument in the past.

It is an old controversy. It takes on urgency in view of the devastating fires and of Bill Clinton's roadless lands initiative, an all-but-done deal to ban further road-building on 43 million acres of national forest — Clinton's bid to be remembered as the greatest conservationist president since... Teddy Roosevelt.

Conservationists expectedly take a view quite different from that of the timber folk and the myriad locals who see the roadless lands plan as clueless Washington authoritarianism shoved down the throats of the people who know what's really going on.

An embarrassing hole in the loggers' argument: The forests were successfully in business for themselves, fires and all, for thousands of years before loggers arrived. Further, as John McCarthy, of the Idaho Conservation League, points out, "We have had intensive logging for years, and that has not prevented forest fires. More roads do not lead to healthier forest, but simply to more logging."

Conservationists make these points:

  • It would be impossible in any case to thin out millions of acres of rugged forest. Not enough money or manpower.
  • Logging creates its own fire hazards — enormous piles of slash, for example.
  • Forest fires are not nearly as devastating in the long term as they seem at the fiery moment. The big 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, hyped by media pictures and ineffectually fought with the largest fire-fighting army in history, did not go out until heavy snow and rain came in mid-September. The burned areas are regenerating nicely, as nature intended.

    A mere either/or is simple-minded, however; there are nuances, and third ways. Companies like Boise Cascade work much more responsibly in the woods than they once did. Anti-logging zealots live in wooden houses; where do they think the stuff comes from?

    Two opposing views of America — almost two religions — do battle in controversies like this. One is the conservationist Thoreauvian faith ("In wilderness, there is preservation of the world"), an essentially spiritual longing that comes to the sacred American landscape as to an Eden that can only be dirtied by the enterprise of man.

    The other religion is vigorous entrepreneurialism that regards the natural bounty of America as a resource to be enjoyed in a more material way — organized, exploited, developed and tamed with chain saws and hotels and jet skis and snowmobiles. The Book of Genesis grants dominion. It is a proprietary faith: No one better tell me what to do with my own land.

    Each side aims squintingly at the other and fires like Teddy Roosevelt trying to hit the wild white goat in western Montana at 300 yards. The trick is not to shoot ourselves in the collective foot.

    A solution will be grindingly worked out. But the roadless lands plan is a basically good start. Always err on the side of the sacred. The profane will take care of itself.