While the debate over the future of American forests has become increasingly polarized in recent years -- with timber companies and environmental groups facing off in frequently tense confrontations -- a new constituency of 10 million small-woodlands owners is now bringing a conciliatory perspective to the overwrought debate.
Whether they own vacation cottages in the woods, homes in residential areas where forests are coming back, or tree farms of a few hundred acres, these individuals are seeking ways to be good stewards of their land. They are also becoming more vocal about forest management practices in an attempt to balance enjoyment of the surrounding beauty with rising timber values.
In fact, non-industrial woodland owners with properties as small as two acres and as large as several thousand acres accounted for nearly a third of the 1,580 delegates attending the Seventh American Forest Congress in Washington, D.C., in February, according to Yale scientist John C. Gordon, who co-chaired the event. Since 1882, only six other forest congresses have been held, with the most recent in 1975. The 1905 congress, convened by Teddy Roosevelt, led to the formation of the national forest service, but this year's congress was the first open to citizens.
The timber company executives, lumber mill workers, environmental activists, university scientists, students, urban foresters, private land owners and U.S. Forest Service officials who attended the Forest Congress were seeking a common ground for shaping American forest policy in the 21st century. Seating assignments, 10 to a table, were drawn from a computer program intended to maximize diversity. "The organized chaos of it was delightful," says William R. Bentley, the congress's executive director.
Nationally, about 58 percent of forests are owned by small property owners, many of whom are applying for lower property tax rates or claiming new federal cost-sharing subsidies for planting trees and improving wildlife habitats under the Stewardship Incentive Plan. Another federal program, the Forest Stewardship Program, is administered by state forestry officials with input from local citizens. While states vary widely in defining who qualifies for a variety of assistance programs, most of the new federal programs apply to tracts of between 10 and 1,000 acres that are 75 percent wooded.
"This is the first forestry meeting I have attended in which small woodland owners truly emerged as a major force," says Professor Gordon, the Pinchot Professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who noted that one of the strongest trends in forestry today is the splitting up of large tracts into private residential lots.
Women also turned out in force for the Forest Congress. A 64-page report on the Forest Congress issued last month noted that 30 percent of the delegates were women -- a statistic that reflects their increasing prominence in all areas of life, ranging from timber company executives and scientists to land owners and environmental leaders, notes Professor Gordon. Native Americans also were well represented, and 20 percent of the delegates received scholarships designed to increase socioeconomic participation.
The participants at the Forest Congress, described by its planners as "the most diverse national gathering focused on forests in the country's history," jointly developed a set of 60 principles to guide the formation of forest-management policies. These principles offered suggestions on a range of topics, from protecting old growth in public forests, to assuring full debate and public involvement in the legislative process, safeguarding property rights of U.S. citizens and putting human needs first. Among the topics on which the delegates showed the greatest agreement were the need for both public and private investment in long-term, sustainable forest management, and recognition that forests must meet a variety of sometimes conflicting needs.
Despite the congress' many accords, there were still rumblings of discontent. Some environmental groups threatened to walk out, for example, when delegates voted four to one against seeking a repeal of the Emergency Salvage Rider, a recent Congressional provision designed to encourage the salvage of fire-damaged and diseased wood. The rider reopened old-growth forests in western Oregon and Washington for logging, thus alarming environmentalists. In an action that seemed to appease foes of the rider, delegates strongly supported a principle stating that people have the right to seek review of land management decisions.
A full 29 percent of the delegates refused to endorse the principle that "conflicts over forest issues will be resolved through nonviolent processes," an indication of the high emotional level these debates inspire. Also, despite the diversity of the delegates, only 23 percent agreed that "active and informed participation by people of all cultures and socioeconomic levels enriches and is imperative for balanced, equitable and viable forest decisions and practices."
"A negative vote sometimes meant many different things," explains Mr. Bentley. "It could have meant that the person disagreed with just one word, or accepted the principle, but had mixed feelings about it. The important thing is that people found a great deal of common ground on which they will be able to build. Given the diversity of the group and the contentious nature of many forest policy issues, the levels of agreement on the vision elements are truly remarkable."
Five standing committees will continue to work on ideas generated at the congress, says Professor Gordon, including two major initiatives to develop an educational program for children in kindergarten through grade 12, and to recommend areas for additional scientific research. Some of the regional groups also are continuing to meet and to lobby for local legislative changes. For example, the Louisiana group is seeking a restructuring of tax laws to encourage private owners to delay harvesting trees, a practice that eventually would increase the amount of timber harvested per acre.
For more information or a copy of the final report, contact the Office of the Seventh American Forest Congress at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 205 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511, telephone 203 432-5117.