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Forestry that works: script

A film written and directed by Peter Donovan. To order this 29-minute film on DVD, contact Peter Donovan at 541-263-1888. For a youtube version, go here.

Bob Chadwick: And so there is no wild forest anymore. There are only ecosystems that have been altered by our activities. In order to manage those lands, you have to be on the ground. You have to know them. You have to know the people. You have to know the desires of the national public as well as the local public. And you have to engage people in the management of that land, because they're interested. It is, after all, their land.

Rob Zink: Everything is linked together. One thing will have an effect on another thing. Once you get into a chaos problem, there's never going to be a perfect answer.

Bob Chadwick: We need to create a new way of managing public lands. We need to do something different. It does not mean doing nothing. I don't think we have that choice.


Doug McDaniel: All major societies in history have failed when their land masses have failed. We're rapidly letting ours fail. We can no longer say that we are happy with one and a half percent of our population taking care of the land. That is not healthy for the land, it's not healthy for the people.

We're not managing for goals now. We're not managing for goals at all, it's just a big fight.

NARRATOR: In the 1800s, cut-and-run lumber operations devastated large chunks of America's forests. By 1891, Congress had come around to the idea that some of the nation's lands, in addition to the national parks, should be kept in public ownership and managed in the public interest.

Now the United States Forest Service manages almost 10 percent of the nation's land—an area the size of California, Colorado, and New York combined. Half the precipitation in the West falls on these National Forests.

From the second world war to about 1990, these National Forests supplied a good chunk of the nation's timber. With the concept of multiple use, these forests supplied recreation as well. But with competing goals, interest groups were in conflict over logging, over roads, over wilderness, over who gets to do what, where. We've spent billions on planning and litigation.

Richard Haynes: We've never been able to implement multiple use very well. As we made wilderness withdrawals, dedicating particular land uses, it introduced conflicts, and we never had a way of resolving those conflicts.

Randal O'Toole: The groups that are successful in the public involvement process are the groups that polarize it. There are huge incentives to polarize, and few incentives to come together.

Sophia Millar: And that's when things become expensive. Just alone, litigation can cost anywhere from $40,000 - $80,000 per project, and if we lose in court, there's a whole 'nother $100,000 that goes to attorney fees. The risk that a line officer has to take when making a decision is whether it will be appealed. That's why we end up with such a big document.

Randal O'Toole: Trust is a gigantic issue.

Daniel Kemmis: Finally the Forest Service began to clench like a fighter under a barrage, and say OK, what we're going to do is just keep from getting hurt here. More and more, I think that's become the objective of the Forest Service, which isn't what anybody wants.

Robert Monserud: A lot of folks are very risk averse, and that's understandable. Doing nothing seems to be a safe course. We're finding out, doing nothing—it doesn't follow that it is a safe course. Take the spotted owl. Population numbers are falling. Biscuit Fire—in the Siskiyous—destroyed half a million acres of habitat. Spotted owl habitat is gone, not from logging, but by the fire.

Rob Zink: we certainly haven't given the Forest Service those incentives to do what's best for everything.

"A healthy forest is a whole forest."

—Leo Goebel

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, a scattering of private landowners have taken the lead in forest stewardship. They are achieving simultaneous ecological, social, and economic benefits from their forests, both short and long term. They are showing that these values aren't just tradeoffs--they can complement one another.

Howard Johnson began managing the timber on his 3000 acres in northeast Oregon 25 years ago, when he retired from cattle ranching. He began his second career at age 65.

Howard Johnson: You know I'm 90 years old and still learning—a little bit, as I go along.

NARRATOR: This land wasn't exactly untouched. Around World War I, a logging company built a railroad through it. They took out the biggest and the best ponderosa pine. Each generation, the loggers came back for more.

Around 1970, Doug McDaniel worked for a logging company that had a contract on Howard Johnson's land. Doug McDaniel: I pretty much trashed about 25 percent of that forest for a company one time. . . My contract called for me to take out anything that could make a sixteen foot log and a six-inch top. . . . When we left this piece of ground, it looked pretty bad. We rucked it up hard. You can't even see the 25 percent that I did by the way that guy has taken care of that forest. By taking care of it, by having people out here, setting the goals on what you want to achieve on this piece of land, you can do it. It can be done.

NARRATOR: Instead of simply harvesting timber to supply a sawmill, Howard uses selective logging as a tool to achieve a healthy and productive forest.

Howard Johnson: One philosophy I have, you take out the worst every time and leave your best trees.

Howard Johnson: I kinda like to see some big timber. Aesthetic value is worth quite a bit.

Howard Johnson: It's profitable in this way, because you got the stand you want. I don't owe a penny out here.

It is not necessary to destroy the forest to extract timber. It is a matter of method.

—Merve Wilkinson

NARRATOR: Bob Jackson and Leo Goebel manage 160 acres of conifer forest near Joseph, Oregon. They too are managing their forest for wildlife, recreation, and economic return. Thousands of people have toured their land.

Leo Goebel: Used to be a sawmill here in 1925. The only thing they cut was the great big pine, that didn't have any limbs for 20 feet. My dad had a contract north of Wallowa, and it says cut two 16-foot logs, and leave the rest of the tree, cause they wanted clear wood.

Leo Goebel: Trees are a 200-300 year crop, minimum. These trees I hope are growing 100 years from now.

Leo Goebel: I'm sure that I'm doing it quite a bit different than I did 20 years ago because I'm learning a little bit.

NARRATOR: Leo and Bob have learned from scientific experts, but their most valuable knowledge comes from taking responsibility, day by day over the long haul, for the health and productivity of their forest.

Leo Goebel: I learn probably more from other forestry owners.

Leo Goebel: If you're on a north slope you're managing different than what you're managing on a south slope. It depends upon the age of the trees, it depends upon the site, going from one acre to the next you change habitat. It depends on what's been there in the past.

NARRATOR: When a tree is dying, or about to die, Bob and Leo either leave it as a snag for wildlife, or harvest it and sell it to a sawmill, as with this tree killed by insects.

Bob Jackson: I feel that where we have a complete system, the rodents and things aren't our enemies, but our friends.

Bob Jackson: We consider a lot of the small animals all part of the system. One pellet of vole manure had 25,000 nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Leo Goebel: when the hawks are flying around, if they see a chipmunk, boy they can grab him, but if you've got brushpiles for them to hide in, you'll have more chipmunks and pine squirrels, and therefore more nitrogen-fixing bacteria. So I have not burnt brushpiles in years. A two-inch limb, in six to eight years, will be pretty well rotted. If it's up in the air it will be hard as this board here even ten years later. But if it's down on the ground it will rot fairly fast.

Young man: what are your goals . . . Are you doing it just for the money?

Leo Goebel: No I'm not. Doing it for the land. I've never let money dictate what I do on this property, ever.

Young woman: do you think it's possible to manage a forest with this much consideration for the ecology and make it profitable for those who are working in the forest? Leo Goebel: Yes and no.

Leo Goebel: Yeah, there's money in it, if you do it right. But you can't start out on a 200-year crop with bare ground, because it's going to take you 50 years to get even the little trees up to where they're starting to put on the volume. Then if you cut them, you're wiping out your growth. Most of these trees are over 100 years old, these bigger trees here.

Leo Goebel: I do think they're places where they haven't done any logging, and then there's other places where they've logged it real, real heavy. Personally I don't think either one of them is correct. I think there's an intermediate zone.

Bob Jackson: Care is between neglect and abuse, you know.

"Concepts of desired future condition that neglect the basic ecosystem processes by which they are achieved have little value."

—Bob Jackson Doug McDaniel: So it's very possible for us to have the kind of forests that we want. The models that show that are there for people to go visit and observe.

Doug McDaniel: These forests are producing an income for these people, and they're just getting healthier. There's no reason why we can't do that on the federal forests, because you're getting a poorer forest every year, for the 5 billion dollars you're pumping in right now. And I don't think that's what people want.

NARRATOR: In the 1970s, Congress passed laws that required detailed planning procedures in the National Forests. These laws were intended to solve conflicts between timber interests and environmental protection, and they took control away from local Forest Service managers. But the polarization and conflicts did not go away. In the 1990s the Forest Service again tried to solve the gridlock with more planning and zoning, using abstract concepts of ecosystem management.

Bob Chadwick: It was trying to find a mechanical way of solving these problems. They can't be solved that way. They just can't be solved that way.

Randal O'Toole: When you're given a choice between following your incentives or following your mission, you're going to follow your incentives. What we need to do, is think about not just what mission do we want for the Forest Service, but how do we align the incentives of the Forest Service so that they're the same as the mission? That's something that very few people have ever done, and something that people are often not willing to do. They just want to prescribe the end result, without thinking about how you attain that end result.

NARRATOR: For a century, we've actively suppressed forest fire. On some federal lands, extractive logging has simplified timber stands and interrupted decay cycles. We now have a man-made buildup of dry, dead wood on millions of acres, which makes both prescribed fire and wildfire difficult to control. With increasing hot dry weather over much of the West, fires have been larger, hotter, and more destructive. Congress has responded with increasing appropriations for prescribed burning, fuels reduction, and fire suppression on National Forest lands.

Randal O'Toole: So fire again, in the 2000s, has become the number one source of the Forest Service funding, the number one source of its incentives. . . . Congress has shown that if the Forest Service just goes out and rains money on fires to try and put them out, that Congress will always reimburse it, now matter how much they spend.

NARRATOR: The Forest Service now spends more on fire-related activities than on management, maintenance, and stewardship combined. As more money is invested in fire, there is less for fish and wildlife habitat, trail maintenance, or stewardship in general. Prescribed fire has not run into the litigation and procedural delays that have limited the use of other tools by the Forest Service, such as logging, thinning, or livestock grazing. Many Forest Service professionals continue to advocate the return of fire. But fire remains a controversial tool, one that highlights differing incentives and understandings.

Doug McDaniel: Fire is cave man forestry! We stopped bleeding people years ago for injuries and diseases and things like that. The problem with forest management is not going to be solved with a match. The chances of us doing some real bad damage in the forest and to the atmosphere are too great to just continue to buy onto lighting it afire. It's just like any garden, there's more to it than just planting a seed and walking away. There's a lot of tending that has to take place. We can't wish health onto this ground. I think we're responsible to help bring it about.

NARRATOR: In 2004, only 2 percent of the national forest acreage received some sort of treatment, mostly for fuels and weeds. In this National Forest district, there are more than 40,000 acres for each full-time employee. There have been four rangers in five years. But on private land, timber production from well managed forests often pays for the costs of management. Tree growth depends on water retention in the soil, and on an invisible food web of microorganisms that recycle nutrients. Fire puts all this at risk.

Leo Goebel: I would be very, very, very careful about a prescribed fire. Most of them get away from them and do more damage than what they want to. They kill an awful lot of trees. They'd be better off to log and lop the slash or pile it.

Howard Johnson: I don't like fire. All we're seeing is what grows on top of the soil. We're not even thinking of what's under the soil, mycorrhizae and things like that.

NARRATOR: Mycorrhizae are fungi that form a sheath around the fine roots of trees. Both the trees and the fungi benefit from the relationship. Even in dry pine areas, nearly 200 species of mycorrhizae live in the top few inches of soil and organic material.

Doug McDaniel: I dug down in this forest duff here, decomposed, rotting vegetation. This is the stuff that makes this forest function, that acts like a sponge for any moisture that falls on it, and it also keeps the ground shaded and cool in the summertime. It's just like putting a big insulation blanket over this ground. I liken it to a healthy skin. And when you burn these fires, you burn that off. That top 2-3 inches of accumulated duff over the last 50 to 100 years is not here any more. This fire smoldered around and was hot enough that it took all of that material off with it. The ability for the ground to take on moisture is not here. And when you remove all of that, and have nothing but the mineral soil sitting here, when a raindrop falls here, a good part of it runs off into your water drainages, your creeks, your salmon streams.

NARRATOR: Half the dry weight of the forest is the element carbon, drawn from atmospheric carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. Almost all of this carbon will cycle back into the atmosphere in one of two ways: it can rot, or it can burn.

The rot or decay pathway of the carbon cycle provides food and habitat for an enormous range of biodiversity. Almost all forest wildlife, as well as countless invertebrates and microbes, depend on these grazing and decomposing foodwebs. Decaying material provides a protective and absorbent cover for the soil.

The fire pathway of the carbon cycle, though it does favor fire-dependent species, destroys habitats and foodwebs, and often the organic matter protecting the soil. Fire releases dioxins, mercury, methyl bromide, formaldehyde, benzene, ammonia, methane, and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, which in the decay pathway are held in the soil or rendered harmless. In the Pacific Northwest, biomass burning, whether accidental or intentional, is the largest emitter of atmospheric pollution and greenhouse gases. Fire releases carbon suddenly into the atmosphere, whereas the decay pathway holds it, sometimes for centuries.

The fire pathway can also heat our homes and buildings, or generate electricity. However, only a small percentage of the forest biomass that burns is now harvested for energy.

The decay pathway depends on moisture. In the eastern United States, the humid summers favor microbial decay, and fire is rare. But much also depends on human decisions. Many excellent forest stewards in dry climates promote decay of woody material by conserving shade and moisture, and maintaining good microclimates and habitat for fungi, microbes, and the larger animals that break apart and shred woody material. Aggressive and unambiguous fire suppression prolongs the opportunities for decay.

In most forest areas, we humans choose whether the carbon cycle follows the decay pathway--with all its benefits to biodiversity, moisture retention, and timber growth--or the fire pathway.

Bob Jackson: We want good habitat, sustainable ecosystem, and some economic benefit from the land. I don't think it's possible to have those things and have a fireproof forest.

Rob Zink: when you're doing what's best for timber you're doing what's best for everything.

Doug McDaniel: I logged when we just went in and got a log. However in hell you could, you went in and got it. You rooted, and pushed, and you made a colossal mess. These guys are a lot smarter, with better equipment, and they're capable of putting a stand in any condition you want it to be in. You just can't do that with fire.

Doug McDaniel: We're certainly not going to be able to burn our way out of our forest health problems. Good forest management is far more complex. The models for this management are available, they are working, and they are economical. If we're going to do anything in our National Forests, we're certainly going to have to find a way to do it economically.

"Trust building is based on performance in the forest, not on promises, paper, or politics."

—Jim Smith, Creston Valley Forest Corporation, Creston, British Columbia

NARRATOR: The gridlock that afflicts our public lands is deep seated. The government cannot fix it. Scientists can’t fix it. Neither can the people, through the usual strategies of citizen involvement.

A new synthesis, sometimes called the community conservation movement or the radical center, is emerging in many places around the public lands. It is a decentralized, local phenomenon, seldom in the national news. In some places it is reframing the debate between environmentalists and loggers, going beyond positions to the questions of goals and values, where people tend to be able to find common ground.

Dan Kemmis: More and more people are saying, if we just got the science right, we'd know what to do. That's almost never right. There's a limit to what science can do. People have to make value judgments. You just can't get rid of those decisions by getting better and better science.

Dan Kemmis: You've got forces on both sides that benefit from things operating they way they do. At the same time you've got growing numbers of people who a) are very frustrated with the way things work right now, and b) are more and more aware that there really are better ways to do things.

Dan Kemmis: The real challenge: just start recognizing that if you give people the responsibility and the opportunity to bring their local knowledge to bear, and if you insist that there be a broad range of interests at the table, that you just give them a chance to figure out what to do with a particular drainage, people have a tremendous capacity to work that out. . . people do a whole lot better when they're sitting down problem solving than when they're going to court against each other and hiring competing scientists.

Nils Christoffersen: A lot of people talk about the public lands as being the crucible of our democracy, the testing grounds of our democracy. But it gets to be pretty difficult to manage 192 million acres of National Forest lands out of Washington, DC, if that's where democracy is playing out. Because then we get the dominant power shifts battling for control and decision making across these very different lands and ecosystems and species and rural communities. So you move from big cut years and timber booms to more preservationist strategies and conservation strategies and then now we're totally focused on fire.

Nils Christoffersen: And you think about the diversity from the hardwood forests of Pennsylvania to the southern pine forests to the beautiful forests here in the Pacific Northwest, and there's no way we can manage these lands effectively with those kinds of simplistic and single-minded strategies. It's very important that we allow for democracy to play itself out here at the local level, involving the local people, the people with the long term knowledge of the conditions and the changing trends of these lands and the immediate needs of each place.

Nils Christoffersen: And that the public that is interested across the country is allowed to engage democratically in the decisions of each place like this, rather than through the processes of Congress, or worse yet, the processes of our legal system in deciding the future and fate of these lands.

NARRATOR: Taking responsibility for a whole forest and managing toward a comprehensive goal, with multiple uses and complementary benefits—this is beyond the capacity of science, or an issue-based organization, or a public agency. It begins at a local scale, and is led by people who care deeply about the future of the places and landscapes where they live.

In Wallowa County in northeast Oregon, a community organization called Wallowa Resources, with the county commissioners and other local agencies, has brought together local Forest Service people, loggers, ranchers, and environmentalists around a common agenda. It's a slow process, but people can and do learn the new behaviors that are required.

Nils Christoffersen: Everyone is a little more humble and a little more willing to listen to each other's perspectives and learn together, and find more creative solutions rather than bickering about opposing solutions. We're beginning to see progress. It's taken a lot of investment in relationship building, in building trust and understanding between the different groups. We've spent a lot of time out on the ground together, trying to understand what the real needs are, and how we can address those needs, those ecological needs, in a way that also generates jobs and business opportunities for our community.

Bob Chadwick: In the end, management of forested lands is done on the ground. It's done on the ground by people who stay there long enough that they understand the system. Not just the plants and the animals, but the local people too. You can't manage that land with people who are just there two years and leave. They have to be there long enough that they see the consequences of the actions they take.

Bob Chadwick: What has to happen is that the communities just have to say, "Enough. This land exists around us. We want people here on the ground who manage this area." You have to trust the people. You have to keep them there long enough that they build the trust of the local community and the community trusts them.