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"There is no right way to do the wrong thing."

-- Jim Furnish

Jim Furnish didn't plan on an epiphany. His forest management credentials had been hard won and were the result of both cooperation and collaboration with his peers. He was moving logically along a career path, begun in 1965, tending to the forests in his charge to maximize timber production, the dominant practice in the woods of the Forest Service. The "multiple-use" mandate under which the agency was supposed to operate was a feel-good public relations statement, while in reality, timber ruled. Early in his work, he did not recognize this inequality in values as an issue.

In his memoir Toward a Natural Forest, Furnish describes a slow awakening as he saw clear-cuts and logging roads destroy habitat, watersheds and water quality: "Although it didn't occur to me then, I might have wondered whether we could manage forests in ways that replicated ecosystems, sustained their function and accommodated important phenomena like fire and flood."

When timber harvests were approved at unprecedented levels, he says, "I felt a queasy discomfort about the consequences of decisions in which I would be complicit. I sensed that higher powers would roll us, trading away environmental principles for economic values." He was discovering within himself a land ethic not shared by many of his co-workers.

Not far into his career, pesky environmentalists were appealing Forest Service timbering plans, causing foresters to have to justify their sales. Also, adequately supplying local timber mills with wood, while not cutting more than the markets demanded and not messing with the sustainable capacity of the land to produce, was a tricky business. Fortunately after a couple of years, Furnish figured out how to calculate what harvest level was sustainable and environmental noise stopped. Examining what had been accomplished, his supervisor told him that environmental groups were not the enemy, and Furnish felt, "my head and my heart were turning."

Turning points sometimes come from places we least expect them, and then we have to choose whether to get along by going along or to buck the system. Epiphanies help with that decision. Listening to a forest researcher's lecture on how forests function, Furnish says, "I sat enraptured as [Chris] Maser talked about old-growth forests, squirrels and their poop, fungal spores, mycorrhizae (fungi that grow along-side tree roots to dramatically improve a tree's uptake of water and soil nutrients), lichens, soil-dwelling insects, forest productivity, and by inference, how just about every aspect of our forest management approach was naive and simplistic -- in a word, wrong."

During a period at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., Furnish and others began work on ecosystem management guidelines, learning that old-growth forests had far more complex values to overall land health than managers and planners had ever comprehended. This knowledge became very useful at his next assignment, the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon, during the controversial spotted owl issue. At this point in his life he turned to land stewardship like never before in order to oversee the Siuslaw's reversal from heavy timber production to multiple use and restoration principles instead. This meant nurturing forest elders rather than eliminating them, which would have destroyed wildlife, like the spotted owl, that requires old-growth habitat for survival.

Upon a return to D.C., this time as deputy chief of national forests, Furnish worked during the Clinton years creating protections for 58 million acres under the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. He left the Forest Service after Bush was elected and a philosophical and political changing of the guard took place.

On the sidelines now, but not voiceless, Furnish gave testimony last June to a committee hearing on Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman's "Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017," which has now passed in the House. The up-front excitable pretext for this bill is to blame wildfires on forest management, but buried in it are numerous legislative fixes that actually will "take us back to the old days when logging dominated public lands," Furnish says. "We cannot log our way out of this difficulty. The scale of biologic forces associated primarily with climate change -- longer, dryer burning periods, increased insect mortality, and decades-long suppression policies -- have created a landscape at higher risk."

Westerman should have listened to experienced foresters like Furnish about fire and land use. We citizens now need to tell Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton that we do not want our public forests to become tree farms for timber corporations ever again. Don't delay contacting them.

Commentary on 01/16/2018

Print Headline: The land speaks

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