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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Timber Roads at Issue

Air Date: Week of

Logging roads have become a lightening rod for controversy nationwide. In recent weeks forest advocates in Congress tried but failed to end federal subsidies for road building in the national forests. Thomas Lalley reports from Colorado on one proposed timber sale where road building is a bigger issue than cutting trees.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
The US Forest Service plans to log more than 14,000 acres of timber in Colorado over the next 10 years. That's a decline in logging from just a decade ago, but conservationists contend it's still too many trees. And what's worse, they say, are the 82 miles of new roads planned for now pristine areas so the logs can be hauled out. The public pays for logging roads that private loggers use to make a profit, and this subsidy has generated a lot of controversy. Despite efforts to nix their construction, money for new logging roads remains in the latest Federal budget plan. Thomas Lalley of Colorado Public Radio visited one proposed logging site where road building is an issue.

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LALLEY: The trees on Sheep Flats in the Grand Mesa National Forest are getting old. The Forest Service believes that if the trees are not cut soon, they could die, considerably reducing their timber value. So, local Forest Service officials recommend cutting more than 4,300 acres: a relatively large cut for Colorado. Carol McKenzie is one of the foresters who devised the Agency's position. She says logging will preserve the health of the forest in Sheep Flats.

McKENZIE: The majority of the stands up there are mature to over-mature. When you get stands in that condition, you get an increase in the insect activity and in disease activity up there. We want to leave some of the landscape in old growth and over-mature and decadent; it is valuable to us and to the critters that use that. But we also want part of that landscape in young trees.

LALLEY: And to make room for the young trees, the old ones will have to be logged, ensuring a steady supply of trees for future cuts. After all, the Forest Service is mandated by Congress to provide timber to the nation's industries. But to get to the trees in Sheep Flats, the Forest Service also recommends constructing nearly 24 miles of new roads and improving 10 miles of existing roads. Conservationists find this the most disturbing element of the proposed Sheep Flats deal.


JORDAN: We're walking along right now on a really rugged 4-wheel-drive road that's going to be improved for about 10 miles.

LALLEY: Sharon Jordan is a librarian in nearby Collbran, a town more reliant on hunting and recreation than logging. She says if the Forest Service gets its way, roads like this one, now barely passable, will invite cars, trucks, and other vehicles into this nearly pristine area.

JORDAN: So many roads have been built up here already, that the impact of the humans to this environment is has just been major already, without all of the new roads they're going to put in here.

LALLEY: The Forest Services promises to destroy many of the roads after the loggers are finished, but conservationists doubt that pledge. They say the Forest Service has a terrible track record of keeping motorcycles, 4-wheel- drive trucks, and all-terrain vehicles off closed roads in the National Forest. Rocky Smith is with the Colorado Environmental Coalition. He says roads lead to erosion, mud slides, water pollution, and fragmented wildlife habitat.

SMITH: And the Forest Services does not have the enforcement personnel to come up here, warn people first and write tickets for flagrant violators. They just don't do much of that. Congress will not appropriate the money for that.

LALLEY: And in this roads debate, Rocky Smith has the Forest Service leader on his side. The chief of the agency, Mike Dombeck, told a Senate committee in February that avoiding timber cuts in roadless areas is, quote, "simple common sense." Yet while officials could have called for fewer roads or less logging at Sheep Flats, they opted for a relatively large amount of road building. Local officials explain the contradiction between their recommendations and Mike Dombeck's wishes by pointing to their management plan. They say this 7-year-old document requires them to manage certain areas for timber production, and that means cutting old trees, even if it takes building roads. Pam Bodey represents the office in charge of the Sheep Flats timber sale. She says her office has not
heard any complaints from Washington.

BODEY: As soon as we get a word through the official channels to stop harvesting in roadless areas, the Forest Service will stop harvesting in roadless areas.

LALLEY: That order may be on the way. Alan Polk is a spokesman for the Forest Service in Washington. He says the Clinton Administration wants to cut the road building budget, even though Congress continues to fund it. But Mr. Polk says the Forest Service may end road building on its own.

POLK: We're currently reviewing whether or not a timber moratorium on roads would be feasible or not, and if it would be anything that we would want to consider at this time.

LALLEY: But logging companies say they and their home communities are suffering from the public's changing tastes. Eric Sorenson is the general manager of the Delta Timber Company. He says logging and road building has already been severely cut in Colorado and today stands at only a third of what it was a decade ago. That, he says, has put many mills in the state out of business.

SORENSON: It used to be common to see timber sales in the neighborhood of 5 to 10 million board feet, which would offer some security of resource for 2 or 3 years for a small mill. Now it's more common to see sales in the neighborhood of half a million to a million board feet, and it poses some problems with securing enough timber for an operation to run.

LALLEY: But today Mr. Sorenson's voice competes with many others. So as the Forest Service weighs public comment on the proposed Sheep Flats timber sale and a dozen or so others in Colorado, they will find it harder to justify the kind of logging they say is best for the forest. For Living on Earth, I'm Thomas Lalley.



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