Sorry Sonny: National Forests Are Not Crops

Secretary of Agriculture Perdue has prioritized logging, mining and grazing on the National Forests that shelter many threatened species.

Adam Rissien August 29, 2020

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tours the Idaho Panhandle National Forest with Forest Supervisor Mary Farnsworth in 2017. USDA photo by Michawn Rich

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle was pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished on Brave New Wild, the offi­cial blog of WildEarth Guardians, and is repub­lished here by permission.

Returning to the past, when resource extraction and exploitation ruled the land is hardly a blueprint for the future.

Trump’s Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Son­ny Per­due flew into Mis­soula on June 12 to sign a mem­o­ran­dum direct­ing the U.S. For­est Ser­vice to essen­tial­ly dou­ble-down on its con­tin­ued push to pri­or­i­tize log­ging, min­ing, drilling and graz­ing, all while lim­it­ing envi­ron­men­tal reviews. Dur­ing the cam­paign-style sign­ing event, Sec­re­tary Per­due — a for­mer agribusi­ness CEO whose pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal cam­paigns were bankrolled by Mon­san­to and Big Ag inter­ests — not only bragged that we see trees as a crop,” but also iron­i­cal­ly com­pared America’s bedrock envi­ron­men­tal laws to bub­ble wrap.” Appar­ent­ly it was lost on Sec­re­tary Per­due that bub­ble wrap pro­tects valu­able things from being destroyed.

Miss­ing from the secretary’s state­ments was any recog­ni­tion that America’s nation­al forests, 193 mil­lion acres in all, are actu­al­ly diverse ecosys­tems that are home to hun­dreds of imper­iled fish and wildlife species, and con­tain the last rem­nants of wild­lands in this coun­try that mil­lions of peo­ple cher­ish. The sec­re­tary failed to men­tion how numer­ous com­mu­ni­ties rely on nation­al forests to pro­vide clean drink­ing water, or the fact that intact forests do more to remove atmos­pher­ic car­bon than do stumps. In fact, nation­al forests have a cru­cial role to play as part of glob­al, nat­ur­al cli­mate change solutions.

Return­ing to the past, when resource extrac­tion and exploita­tion ruled the land is hard­ly a blue­print for the future. Yet, this is exact­ly what the sec­re­tary ordered and what the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been pur­su­ing from day one. In fact, Perdue’s mem­o­ran­dum came on the heels of two recent Trump exec­u­tive orders allow­ing indus­try and fed­er­al agen­cies to waive com­pli­ance with long-stand­ing envi­ron­men­tal laws that safe­guard fish and wildlife. These orders fol­low Trump’s whole­sale rolling back of rules requir­ing fed­er­al agen­cies to involve the pub­lic, take a hard look at the envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences of its actions, and con­sid­er alternatives.

A recent Jour­nal of Forestry arti­cle demon­strates the ratio­nale for these roll­backs and attacks is base­less. Even with­out fur­ther stream­lin­ing process­es,” the For­est Ser­vice approved over 80% of projects between 2005 – 2018 by cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly exclud­ing them from envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis. The same study also showed that less than 1% of all projects were chal­lenged in court.

Of course, this admin­is­tra­tion and indus­try pro­po­nents would nev­er let facts change their sto­ry, espe­cial­ly when it plays on people’s fears and hopes. For years, those opposed to pub­lic land pro­tec­tion keep weav­ing nos­tal­gic hints of return­ing to the good ol’ days when the mills were hum­ming and the log­ging trucks filled with big trees, all the while know­ing eco­nom­ics and automa­tion make this impos­si­ble. At the same time, they use fear of wild­fires as cov­er for indus­tri­al log­ging, side­step­ping the real­i­ty that cli­mate change and the his­toric drought grip­ping much of the West increas­es wild­fire risks far more than cut­ting trees will ever address. The wild­fires we see today match­es what cli­mate sci­ence tells us. If we tru­ly want to see few­er large-scale wild­fires, then we need to stop burn­ing fos­sil fuels and do more to pre­serve intact, mature forests. Fur­ther, it is hubris to believe, and irre­spon­si­ble to pur­port, that tim­ber har­vest will pre­vent wild­fires. No one talks about hur­ri­cane-proof­ing the Gulf Coast, or tor­na­do-proof­ing Okla­homa, but the For­est Ser­vice sug­gests if giv­en enough lat­i­tude it can reduce for­est fires — though the degree of which is left to the public’s imag­i­na­tion and that’s the point.

Ulti­mate­ly, Sec­re­tary Per­due and the Trump admin­is­tra­tion believe nation­al forests are lit­tle more than crops and the best, high­est use for pub­lic lands is to exploit them with more log­ging, graz­ing, min­ing and drilling. The fact is, nation­al forests and pub­lic lands are com­plex, liv­ing ecosys­tems with inher­ent val­ue that deserves our moral con­sid­er­a­tion. These pub­lic lands are homes to griz­zly bears, moun­tain goats, elk, trout, salmon and a whole host of oth­er icon­ic wildlife species. Their sur­vival depends on us, and we need to be bet­ter envi­ron­men­tal cit­i­zens with our non-human neighbors.

Amer­i­ca does need a mod­ern­iza­tion blue­print” for the future of nation­al forests, one that re-envi­sions their pur­pose so we can move beyond view­ing forests sim­ply as sources of lum­ber. In the 21st cen­tu­ry, we need to strength­en for­est pro­tec­tion, max­i­mize the abil­i­ty of nation­al forests to serve as part of nat­ur­al cli­mate change solu­tions, and heal the scars left from decades of exploita­tion through true restora­tion, which can­not be done with a chainsaw.

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