As AFRC’s field forester in western Oregon I am responsible for reviewing vegetation management projects with a timber harvest component across four national forests. All four of these Forests provide some level of timber products every year as a component of these projects. I stress the word ‘component’ here as these are integrated projects, meaning that their objectives are numerous and diverse. A garden-variety project may aim to improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation opportunities, and provide timber products. A good project strives to strike a balance of these diverse objectives and offer up a sort of symbiotic relationship amongst them. Naturally, the first step in achieving this symbiosis is to identify and acknowledge the various objectives. For many years, the Forest Service took this first step in a straightforward and tacit manner: they knew what their objectives were and they listed them in no particular order. Over the past few years I have noticed a change. The change is simple: the omission of timber as an explicit objective alongside the other objectives. Timber products are still being provided on these projects, they’re just not being acknowledged in the blueprints. It’s almost as though the Forest Service is a bit ashamed of harvesting and selling logs.
Faced with this trending practice of veiling timber harvest from small-scale projects, I decided to turn to the forum where the agency is most visible and accessible at the large-scale: their website. This is where most people would go if they were interested in what the Forest Service does and what its mission is. Sure enough, the agency’s mission is identified clearly on the web: The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Like most mission statements, this one is a bit abstract. What are these “needs” that our generation gets from our forests? Fast-forwarding past my trudge through the agency’s webpage I came to the conclusion that our generation apparently does not need wood products; at least not according to the Forest Service, otherwise I would have been able to locate the word “wood” or “timber” somewhere on their website. I read about other resources: air, water, soil, recreation, wildlife, etc. In this regard, the Forest Service’s website mirrors those vegetation management projects that I review in western Oregon. By that I mean they provide wood products to the American public, they just don’t like to boast about it.
I suppose in an age where it seems that image is everything and substance is an afterthought, the Forest Service’s policy of hiding the fact that they permit the cutting of trees to provide wood products to the American public shouldn’t come as a shock. Although it does to me. Why not take pride in the fact that they are providing a renewable resource that every member of the public uses every day? Why not take pride in the fact that this provision comes via integrated projects that achieve a swath of other resource objectives? These are loaded questions of course. I’m not that naïve. The cutting down of trees, regardless of the reason, makes most people at worst distraught and at best a bit uncomfortable. This is fine. What isn’t fine is that the lead government agency tasked with providing the nation with all of its needs from our national forests seems to be tailoring it’s messaging to assuage these sentiments rather than tailoring it to reflect what the nation’s needs actually are. In other words, their website, and the messaging it contains, seems to be handling the public with kids gloves. Not only is this approach disingenuous, and a bit insulting to their audience, but it’s also leading down a questionable path. If the Forest Service treats their timber products resource with such shame, why shouldn’t the rest of the American public? -Andy Geissler