Man's Folly Magnifies Nature's Power

by Tim Hermach,
President, Native Forest Council

This winter, the seasonal storms came as they always do to the Northwestern region of the United States. In early December 2007, heavy rains and wind buffeted the fragmented forest landscapes and clear-cuts that now make up our public and private lands, snapping off the weak, fast growing, genetically altered trees that have replaced our once-great forests. Landslides and debris flows cascaded down the steep, barren slopes.

Further downstream, the mud, trees, stumps and other debris plowed into bridges and plugged culverts—creating temporary dams, which then burst, wiping out houses and roads. Some of the debris dams did not break, and those remaining held back millions of cubic yards of mud and debris, choking streambeds, flooding farmlands, killing livestock, and destroying infrastructure, businesses, houses and barns.

Over the last century, logging has been an ongoing activity on the heavily forested lands that make up the Pacific Northwest rainforests and the dryer inter-mountain regions. Logging interests, in an endless pursuit of money, and with a callous disregard for the harm to others, have engaged in extreme logging practices and a form of asset stripping. This practice has left the land looking like a war zone and has stripped its protections from both the sun and rains that regularly fall in the Northwest. Strip-mine logging, when combined with the steep slopes common in the region, causes the number and severity of landslides and mudflows to skyrocket.

The clear-cutting also disturbs and compacts the soils, and the water runs off into the streams and rivers much faster and muddier than if the forest canopy was still in place. Erosion of roadbeds and logged areas sends millions of cubic yards of mud and sediment into our streams and rivers, wrecking drinking water sources, choking spawning beds, and filling reservoirs while reducing their mitigation and flood control capacity. This acceleration of the runoff creates a rapid spiking of river levels and hence does not allow much time for the farmers, residents and businesses in its path to prepare or evacuate.

Some preliminary estimates of monetary damages in five western Washington counties this year exceed $175 million. However, the figure is just a fraction of the total dollar value of damages done by the most recent storm alone. Estimates of the damage just to the Tillamook railroad bed, located in northwest Oregon, were thought to be as much as $30 million. Losses included hundreds of farm animals and family pets. One dairy lost over 50 of its specially bred milking goats. The tragedy of a situation like this is surreal.

Nature has a way of sculpting our lives and forcing the growth of our compassion and empathy toward others. There are many stories of tragic situations in which no amount of valor could stand in the face of the destructive torrents washing downstream. Numerous acts of heroism were successful. Many people, some holding small children in their arms, were rescued from their rooftops by helicopters and boats during the rapid rise of the floodwater.

But there was something other than the force of nature at work during the tragic events that unfolded during that storm in December. The destructive aspects of logging have been well-known for centuries. We have known that clear-cuts dramatically increase the number and severity of landslides. No one should be surprised that areas downstream from heavily logged lands will be adversely impacted in a storm event like this. These forest practices have been destroying complex ecosystems and creating huge swaths of semi-sterile forest ever since they were implemented.

In the 1990s, the near-extinction of wildlife and fish stocks finally resulted in enough litigation to slow down the process on the public lands. Unfortunately, the private logging interests bribed politicians, mounted enormous advertising and propaganda campaigns, and provided anti-environmental "science" curriculum to our public schools, then continued to strip their lands of trees much faster than they are able to grow back—setting the stage for events like the ones that wreaked havoc in Washington and Oregon. The logging industry counts on communities pulling together with goodwill and faith in these times of disaster. It tries to deflect its culpability by saying that these are natural events, and the public should not overstate the impact of corporate practices.

The question is how can we possibly overstate the damage that the logging companies have done and continue to do? They have slashed and burned hundreds of millions of acres of land, public and private, nationwide. They are putting humanity's survival at risk and driving many species to the brink of extinction. They have devastated the commercial salmon fishing industry by wiping out the spawning beds where the salmon lay their eggs. They have raked in billions, if not trillions, of our tax dollars and wealth as hidden subsidies while they strip our country of its assets.

And they want more. The Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service both have plans in the works that would increase logging on our public lands by 200 to 300 percent. At a time when our forests are more important than ever for their life support system attributes, the corporate interests and their political lackeys are pushing hard to clear-cut the last of our irreplaceable ancient rainforests into "genetically improved" monoculture fiber farms that amount to nothing more than row crops in a form of soil mining.

The time has come to say "enough." As we begin the New Year, we can take a stand for our public forests and the wild beings that live inside of them. Our forests are the lungs of the planet, supporting all terrestrial life. It is time to stop all logging on our public lands and create strict rules banning export and regulating the practice on private lands, eliminating the damage that it does to our forests and watersheds. By doing this now, we will also lessen the damage to our farms and cities when the inevitable winter storms roll across these landscapes. We will never stop all the damage done by extreme weather, but we can be responsible for and minimize the self-inflicted part of the destruction.

No corporation or person has the right to make money by stripping the commons and putting others in harm's way—downhill, downstream, downwind or even downtime. The loggers have known for hundreds of years about the tragic damages they inflict. But with 95 percent of the native forests strip-mined and clear-cut, it is obvious that not many of them care. Teddy Roosevelt gave them an earful when he set up the Forest Reserves, saying that there is no more deadly, destructive or dishonest industry in America. Loggers lie, cheat, steal and worse—and they will take our very last tree if we let them.