By Carol Pierson Holding
Countries around the world are working harder than ever to save their forests. Brazil's president recently announced that the country's 80 percent Amazon deforestation reduction target will be met by 2016 -- four years earlier than promised. In 1998 China banned tree cutting to preserve its forests after the loss of trees caused flooding along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. The ban is now extended to 18 of its 23 provinces, according to CQ Global Researcher. Here in the US, environmentalists backed by the EPA’s Endangered Species Act have reduced national forestland logging by 75 percent from its peak 20 years ago.
So imagine my shock when I opened the Seattle Times and saw the headline “GOP seeks more logging on national forestlands.” The GOP’s goal: to set minimum requirements for timber sales and annual revenue for each national forest. In other words, to force logging. And also driving home its favorite issues: cutting federal subsidies and rolling back environmental regulation.
The GOP’s truly unassailable argument? The bill creates U.S. jobs! Not in sawmills or other finishing stages that require skilled labor — US lumber demand is so low that many sawmills are closed, at least here in the Pacific Northwest — but in cutting down trees to sell to China.
That’s right, we’re logging our national forests to export raw timber to China. According to a Fox News article, exporting timber is a “surprisingly bright spot in the US economy.” Exports to China grew by 300 percent in the first half of 2011. And in these desperate times, it’s all about the economy.
But is selling our natural resources really the way to go? The logging industry's 2010 net profit after tax was only 1.1 percent, according to a Western Washington University study.
These low profits are from timber harvested on private forestland, where costs are already lower. Writer/entrepreneur Christopher Swan, who specializes in infrastructure design, explains that, “The reality is that forestry strategies are driven by the cost of roads.”
Private land carries no restrictions about where roads can be built. Logging in national forestland, where road building is restricted, increases costs, cutting into the already slim profits from timber. In some years, the US Forest Service actually loses money on timber sales – as much as $15 million in 1997. So it’s not a good investment from a financial or tax revenue perspective.
Why then would lawmakers in Washington State, home to so many rabid tree-lovers, lead the charge to log national forests? Because the new bill calls for an irresistible incentive: paying localities 75 percent of logging revenue, as opposed to the 25 percent they’ve gotten historically under the forest-payment program.
Originally, the program generated enough to fund schools and other rural services. But after logging declined, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was established to allow affected counties to opt in to a payment program that did not depend on US forestland timber sales. Some Washington counties like Skamania, which the Seattle Times reports is 90 percent national forest, still rely heavily on the program. Without it, the county would have to close half of its school districts.
Federal officials often cite recreational opportunities as rationale for protecting forests, but the benefits of forests go much further than that. Two Japanese studies recently reported on the health benefits of “shinrinyoku” or “forest bathing” – a practice we call walking in the woods. The studies found that shinrinyoku lowered pulse rate and blood pressure and caused a reduction in the stress indicator cortisol. Other studies have demonstrated an increase in cells that fight cancer and a reduction of glucose levels in diabetics. Forest walking is practiced all over the world. While Americans go hiking, China is building “Forest Bathing” resorts.
Forests are our treasures whose value to recreation, health and happiness is immeasurable. With financial returns from logging our national forests uncertain at best, how can we even think of cutting them down?
Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHUB.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.