The Lore of the Pines

Politics, myth, and money in Minnesota's dwindling north woods.

In other words: Clearcut larger stretches of land--forest regulations allow up to 200 acres in some areas--and don't bother leaving too many large trees standing. "We need to meet our output targets," Filius continued, "and we need not worry about overharvesting because that won't happen."

One more thing bears noting about Filius's memo: His reference to the "below-cost situation." This has been a sore point with the Forest Service ever since it became known that what with the cost of building roads, doing paperwork, and surveying, it actually loses money on much of its timber--thus, in effect, providing a giant subsidy to the forest-products industry. According to a study by Congress's General Accounting Office, that subsidy amounted to more than $1 billion between 1992 and 1994. Both of Minnesota's national forests, according to the study, were big losers; Superior at one point made as little as 27 cents on the dollar.

The Forest Service has other figures, which show it making money or at least not losing as much. According to those figures, Superior for two years has turned a profit on commercial timber. What puts it in the hole, to the tune of $160,000 in 1995, are things like letting people cut firewood, Christmas trees, and boughs for wreathmaking.

Critics, in turn, say both sets of numbers underestimate actual losses by glossing over a key detail: That unlike farmers, who have to grow their crop before they can sell it, U.S. foresters are still drawing on a resource "account" built up over centuries without much human intervention. This is one reason why American logs are so desirable for export to countries that depleted their reserves centuries ago. "What the forest service tells us is that if they spend $500 on roads, $500 on forester time, and $500 on planting, and they get $1,600 for the sale, they've just made $100 profit," notes Don Arnosti, who heads the Minnesota chapter of the Audubon Society. "But those trees grew for 70, 80, 100 years--or, in the case of a Douglas fir in the Pacific Northwest, 800 years. That ecological capital is not being accounted for."

Regardless of how the numbers are spun, it's clear that the main reason for selling timber from public lands isn't to make money for the Treasury--which actually hasn't seen a penny of the revenues in years--but to supply raw materials. Forest Service officials readily acknowledge as much; they've calculated that by the end of the decade only 2.7 percent of the income generated by national forests--including jobs created in surrounding areas--will come from timber sales, compared to almost 75 percent from recreation.

All of which four years ago was enough to get the Clinton administration to propose killing the timber programs in 62 unprofitable forests, including Superior. The idea caused a howl of protest from industry and didn't go anywhere. But it did give a lot of foresters the downsizing jitters and made them all the more determined to fix the "below-cost situation."

Now back to Little Alfie: Because sawtimber is so valuable, forests by and large make the most money when they sell big, old trees. And in the Superior, that pretty much means pine. In 1996, pine (red, white, and jack) made up less than 1 percent of the total volume of timber the Superior National Forest put up for sale, but 24 percent of the value. The 3,500 pines marked for harvest at Little Alfie, Strand says, are expected to bring in $195,000 on costs of just over $52,000.

As it turns out, though, Strand and others weren't always convinced it was worth it. Strand says he noticed the problem when he reviewed the documentation for the sale after starting at Lacroix in 1994: Little Alfie had never had the environmental analysis required under federal law. It was part of a larger area for which such an analysis had been prepared in 1989, but that study was overly broad and possibly outdated.

According to a memo Strand put together in early '95, the original plan for Little Alfie had been to clearcut. That was changed after the district's wildlife biologist, Don Potter, sounded the alarm, warning that this kind of old stand was too valuable to eliminate. "The decision [to thin] was a compromise to keep from losing the stand altogether, it is not silviculturally or ecologically the best we could do," Potter wrote, "but those that have [timber-harvest] targets backing them have the biggest stick."

Strand seems to have agreed; he was, according to another memo, "very concerned about [environmental] documentation and silvicultural soundness of the decision." And whatever it did, he correctly predicted, the service was in for trouble.

"In a worst-case scenario," Strand concluded, "the implementation of this sale may contribute to the deterioration of our credibility to the public or lead to the loss of our timber program altogether... I'm at wit's end." The final decision was up to then-Superior National Forest Superintendent Kathleen McAllister. She gave the go-ahead. McAllister has since been promoted to a deputy regional forester position in Montana.

It was this series of memos (marked "Do Not File in Public Files") that Ray Fenner--head of the Superior Wilderness Action Network and probably the most dogged watcher of national forest issues in Minnesota--discovered by chance last fall. Fenner asked that the sale be withdrawn. When it wasn't, he sent the documents to the press.

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