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After 100 years, Forest Service still grappling with timber cutting and wildfire

Through trial and error, through evolving perspectives on the environment, and through 18 presidential administrations, the U.S. Forest Service has spent a century trying to determine the “greatest good” for the nation’s woodlands.

Timber harvesting and wildfire protection are two of the agency’s most publicly debated issues today, and they also were two of the key reasons the Forest Service – and Nevada County’s Tahoe National Forest – came into existence.

The Forest Service, like the nation itself, has changed its views and policies often since its inception, and the agency’s 100th anniversary this year provides a chance for forest officials and residents alike to look back at how the United States has grown to view its natural resources.



To commemorate the centennial of the Forest Service this year, there will be a number of events in and around the Tahoe National Forest, spokeswoman Ann Westling said.

They are tentatively set to start May 10 at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City with the showing of “The Greatest Good,” a new documentary on the history of the Forest Service. The film, which just premiered at the Smithsonian’s annual environmental film festival, is a timeline spliced with old photos and beautiful new views of national forests shot from helicopters.




Other events throughout the year include panel discussions and a treasure hunt across the Tahoe National Forest’s 1 million acres, Westling said.

“As we move into the next century, I hope that we can continue the dialogue about what is the greatest good when it comes to managing national forests, now and into the future,” said Steve Eubanks, supervisor of the Nevada City-based Tahoe National Forest.

In the beginning

The term “the greatest good” comes from the original handbook for the national forests, “The Use of the National Forest Reserves,” issued in 1905 by the first leader of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot had just taken over the old Bureau of Forestry from the Department of the Interior, which had forest reserves in the Sierra including The Tahoe Reserve and the Yuba Reserve.

Those two were combined the next year to form the Tahoe National Forest. The Tahoe Reserve had been formed in 1899 in reaction to uncontrolled logging, mining and grazing around Lake Tahoe, according to Forest Service records.

After that, concerns switched to watershed protection for the entire northern Sierra. Miners had heavily harvested the timber in the Sierra, and it had also been overgrazed.

The first rangers were called forest guards, and their initial task was to set boundaries, according to the documentary. They also had to control wildfires with few roads and little help. Soon they began stringing telephone lines through the mountains, establishing modern communications – and quicker fire response – for the first time.

In 1910, huge fires burned 3 million acres in Montana and Idaho. “The Big Blowup” caused the Forest Service to go into a full fire suppression mode and essentially removed fire from the ecosystem.

That move saved national forest trees from devastation, but it also resulted in today’s choked forests that sometimes burn with such intensity that they leave behind utter devastation.

How to reintroduce fire into the ecosystem without destroying it is the dilemma national forest officials still face today.

Split over timber

In the 1920s, automobiles brought two major components to the national forests: more roads and recreation. Most timber was still cut on private lands until World War II, when the demand for wood skyrocketed.

The war effort needed docks, gunstocks, crates and barracks, and the country turned to the National Forests, according to regional and national records. That need did not stop when returning veterans created babies and a historic demand for wood homes.

Logging dominated the national forests during the 1950s, and the war veterans created a virtual conduit to the timber industry.

That did not stop until the 1960s, when the issue of clear cutting created a split between conservation groups and the Forest Service. A nation leery of government in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate began to use the National Environmental Protection Act to have more of a say in national forest decisions.

Under President Ronald Reagan, timber cutting increased again in the 1980s. But by then, things were changing in the Forest Service as biologists, hydrologists and others began butting heads with those within who clung to the philosophy of timber first.

Women also started having more of an influence, and in 1985, Geri Bergen became the supervisor for the Tahoe National Forest. She was the first female forest supervisor in national history.

In the early 1990s, spotted owl protection issues and a new philosophy of ecosystem management came into being. That seriously curtailed timber cutting in the Sierra, and many sawmills closed, removing the timber economy that many small towns had relied on for decades.

The Sierra Nevada Framework of 2001 may have kept that minimal-cutting philosophy going for the Tahoe National Forest, but last year it was amended by a team of Forest Service officials, including Forest Supervisor Eubanks. The officials contend the new framework will allow timber cutting that will avert wildfires and protect watersheds and wildlife habitat.

Environmental groups disagree and fear the amended framework will simply mean more profits for timber companies. Controversy remains – over issues surprisingly similar to those of 1905 – as the Forest Service and the Tahoe National Forest embark on another century.

Coming Tuesday

A look at how life differs for today’s Tahoe National Forest Supervisor compared to a century ago, when Richard L.P. Bigelow began his stint with the Forest Service by illegally building a home on federal lands.


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