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Old 29-12-2002, 03:54 PM
Donald L Ferrt
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Strategies to boost water yield must focus on the long term
By Mike Dombeck

Sunday, December 29, 2002 - Water has emerged as one of the most
vexing environmental, social and political issues of the century. This
observation became ever clearer to me in September at the World Summit
on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, where water
was a top issue.

According to the United Nations, up to two-thirds of the world's
people will face significant water shortages in the next 25 years, and
major water conflicts will surely erupt. Here in the United States,
water restrictions have become the norm, even in parts of the East
where supplies once seemed inexhaustible. In the arid Southwest,
tensions between the states and Mexico over the badly depleted
Colorado River will worsen with time. Solutions are badly needed.

Enter logging-for-water in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Advocates tell
us that clear-cutting 25-40 percent of high-country forests will
increase water yields and ease regional water shortages. The idea is
that cleared mountain slopes generate more runoff than intact forests,
largely because less water escapes to the atmosphere and less soaks
into the ground. In simple terms, it is a bit like the difference
between a woodlot and a parking lot.

While the idea sounds good at first, upon careful inspection it loses
its appeal for several reasons.

First, although research has shown that clear-cutting mountain slopes
leads to higher water yields, it has also shown that intact, mature
forests are most reliable at providing water over the long haul. How
can science paint two very different pictures? The answer has to do,
in large part, with the age of the forests being studied and the time
periods over which water yields are measured.

Young forests absorb more water for growth in the summer. That water
then evaporates from the leaves. Young forests lose more snow directly
to the atmosphere in the winter. When young forests are cut, water
yields increase greatly. But as vegetation regenerates, the increases
quickly disappear. Thus, to maintain high water yields through
logging, forests must be cut and re-cut in a never-ending cycle.

When stream flows over many years are compared, mature forests display
relatively steady and high yields, whereas clear-cut forests display
extreme highs and lows, with an overall lower long-term average than
mature forests.

Second, forests are partly responsible for the precipitation that
falls on them - and on the land downwind. If we take away forests,
nearby precipitation declines.

The Fertile Crescent of ancient times, now the heart of arid Iraq, was
once more humid and agriculturally productive than it is today. Now,
it is anything but fertile or humid, due, in part, to centuries of
environmental mismanagement that included the loss of the natural
plant cover.

Mature forests are an important link in the hydrologic cycle. It is no
surprise then that two-thirds of the runoff in the United States flows
from forests, which cover only a third of the land. The
vegetation-precipitation feedback mechanism is real - and it should be

Third, healthy forests not only produce the most water, but also the
best water. The vegetation and plant litter on the soil surface keep
water on the land longer, allowing more time for aquifer recharge
versus surface runoff. As water percolates through soils, it is
naturally filtered. Clear-cutting forests, regardless of how carefully
it is done, results in higher peak flows following spring thaws and
heavy rains. These higher flows lead to more erosion and higher
sediment loads in streams.

Healthy forests also are better at maintaining water chemistry and
temperature. Clear-cuts lead to more nutrients in streams and higher
summer water temperatures, not to mention chemical pollution
associated with the herbicides that may be needed to keep deforested
slopes clear.

Wildlife, especially sensitive species like trout, suffers in these
degraded habitats.

Fourth, clear-cuts and the roads needed to access them impact geology
and soils. Intact forests reduce mass movements of rock, soil and snow
by stabilizing slopes. Although planners target areas with less risk,
the chance of mass movement occurring is always higher where roads are
built and the forest cover is removed. Landslides, avalanches and
rockfalls can devastate surrounding landscapes.

Even if mass movements do not occur, soils are adversely affected. The
community of topsoil-building organisms is altered, nutrients become
depleted, soil moisture drops, soil is compacted and erosion

Fifth, the direct costs of logging for water are high. The
never-ending cycle of cutting, clearing and perhaps applying chemicals
- again and again - is capital- and labor-intensive. The reservoirs
needed to store the water from high-flow periods to augment the more
extended low-flow periods are expensive to build and dredge. Dredging
would also be needed in navigable streams and behind downstream
hydro-electrical dams. Water purification costs would rise due to
increased sedimentation. And costly cleanups would follow the floods
and mass movements that would periodically arise.

Finally, the historical mission of the national forests asks us to
identify "the greatest good for the greatest number for the long run."

A century ago, when the national forests were first designated, the
idea was to provide a sustainable supply of timber and secure
favorable conditions for water flows. This was in response to the
"cut-and-run" era of timber harvests that left the United States with
80 million acres of denuded "cutovers," mostly in the East and
Midwest. Huge post-logging slash fires, raging flash floods and soil
erosion devastated the forests.

Forest policy shifted to science-based forest restoration and
management. If policies are shaped around forest health and watershed
function, land managers will be able to arrive at the most equitable
and sustainable management strategies.

Given the growing demand for water, forest policy must consider
long-term water quality and supply as an ever-increasing priority -
perhaps a top priority in the spirit of "the greatest good."

History tells us that when we try to manipulate nature for narrowly
focused outcomes, we are often surprised by the unintended
consequences. Our efforts to manipulate the Florida Everglades and to
dam rivers in the Pacific Northwest serve as poignant examples. Few
would have predicted the high social, economic and environmental costs
that we struggle with today because we built canals, levees and dams
in the name of development.

With these realities in mind, forest management should be geared to
the long haul. Yes, fuel reduction to protect communities in
high-risk, fire-prone areas should be done, and yes, the wood
harvested should be used to meet our ever-growing needs. But this does
not mean that we should clear-cut millions of acres - and we certainly
should not do so under the guise of water production.

We continually seek more from the land than it can sustainably
provide. I would hope that as the Bush administration takes up new
forest-planning regulations and Colorado policymakers consider the
fate of the Rocky Mountain forests, water quality and long-term supply
become the foremost performance measures. The seductively simple
logging-for-water concept should be abandoned.


Mike Dombeck is former head of the Bureau of Land Management and chief
of the U.S. Forest Service and currently professor of global
environmental management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.



Goal should be healthy forests, healthy debate on how to get there
By Greg Walcher

Sunday, December 29, 2002 - It must take a great deal of nerve for
Mike Dombeck to criticize Colorado's approach to healthy forest
management. We caught his act during the years he ran the U.S. Forest
Service and the BLM, and he ought to at least start by admitting that
his approach (no management at all) helped create the mess our public
lands are in.

Our national forests are vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires because
they are in such an unnatural condition - a result of years of
management based on no action at all. It's an unnatural forest
condition created by years of neglect, taken to the extreme under the
Clinton administration, including its forest chief, Mr. Dombeck.

The Western wildfires of the past three years have generated
unprecedented public awareness of the impacts of wildland fire and the
conditions of our nation's forests. National media exposure,
finger-pointing and armchair experts have all added to the
discussions, and there are numerous ideas about what needs to be done
to mitigate the human and environmental effects of these fires. The
public is fed up with letting the forests go, only to have nature
clear with an angry vengeance what public land managers should have
taken care of.

One recent rash of articles concerned the management of Colorado's
forests to produce water, a "red herring" designed to take informed
conversations in unproductive directions, and further confusing a
complex set of issues by inflaming an opposition to "clear-cutting."
Clear-cutting on a landscape scale is a discredited strategy from the
past. It is not supported by Gov. Bill Owens and his administration,
and it focuses the debate entirely on the wrong issue.

There is no question that Colorado's forests are vitally important to
our economy, history, culture, environment and unique quality of life.
Healthy forests require management and cannot simply be ignored. The
debate ought to be about the goal of forest management. As Dombeck's
successor, Dale Bozworth, has said, we should start with an idea of
what we want the forest to look like and debate the ends, rather than
concentrating the whole discussion on the means to get there.

There should be no debate about the goal in Colorado. We need to
return our forests to their natural condition. We are a long way off
right now. The U.S. Forest Service now classifies 75 million acres -
half of all national forests, including those in Colorado - as
unhealthy and clogged with overloads of fuel, at risk of unnatural
catastrophic fires.

These unnaturally dense forests create problems all too familiar in
Colorado: wildfires that devastate the environment, destruction of
wildlife habitat, deterioration of water quality and drastic
reductions in water runoff. These are results of bad management, and
returning the forests to health will produce the opposite results. But
the primary goal is natural forest condition. All positive results
will follow.

Some say that tree density is not a problem. However, reports from
resource professionals across the country indicate one of the leading
problems affecting forest-health conditions today is, simply put, too
many trees. Some thinning must be accomplished. That means returning
fire to the toolbox, which loggers opposed for a century, and it means
some mechanical treatment, which environmental activists have opposed.

Thinning is simply a means of forest regeneration. It plays an
important role in sustainable forest management and can be used
effectively to produce desired forest conditions.

Others like to criticize the flawed concept of "logging for water," as
some uniformed individuals have incorrectly put it. Water yield cannot
be the primary goal of forest management, but an incidental and
beneficial result of it. If the only goal were water yield, we would
clear all trees. Similarly, if fire prevention were the only goal, we
would suppress all fires. We tried that for 150 years, and it led
directly to the problems we're experiencing today. Give us healthy and
natural forests, and we'll live happily with the results.

In 2002, Colorado was ravaged by more than half a million acres of
catastrophic forest fires. These unnaturally hot fires tore through
384 homes and 624 other structures. They incinerated elk, endangered
species and their habitat, enveloped communities in smoke and killed
four people. It took 16,000 fire fighters and more than $152 million
to contain the fires. Immediate restoration costs on U.S. Forest
Service land alone amount to more than $50 million. Long-term costs
will be much higher.

In a place like Colorado, people must learn to live with nature,
including its bad temper. We must learn to live with natural
wildfires, as we live with floods and droughts.

But these fires are not natural. The abysmally low level of water
runoff is not natural. We noticed it more this year because of the
drought, but it's also a fact that little water falling on these dense
forests flows out. Some experts say the number of trees per acre in
national forests is 25 times greater than what is natural. That has a
direct and immediate impact on water flows, since so much snow
evaporates without ever reaching the ground.

Returning our forests to their natural condition, as Gov. Owens has
asked us to do, will reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires,
return a more natural flow of water to our rivers, and improve
wildlife habitat. Most important, it will improve Colorado.

Mr. Dombeck and his friends helped put into motion a system that makes
it virtually impossible to manage our forests on any meaningful scale.
It's a process Mr. Bozworth calls "analysis paralysis" because the
agency studies every project literally to death.

The new common-sense approach to forest management is President Bush's
Healthy Forests Initiative. This plan is a balanced and bipartisan
approach to cutting through some of the excess federal red tape that
has stopped virtually all management and led to the disastrous impact
on the Colorado we all love.

For example, the president's plan mandates that the Forest Service
examine the costs of "inaction" when weighing the costs and benefits
of a proposed project. This is long overdue because, as we now
understand, taking no action has dire consequences.

Balanced management should have just one primary goal - to return
forests to their natural state. We should discuss and debate that,
rather than lobbing grenades and jockeying for partisan advantage -
and we should all work together on it. The future of the Rocky
Mountain West may depend on our ability to put the resource first, to
do right by nature, and to leave Colorado better than we found it.


Greg Walcher is the executive director of the Colorado Department of
Natural Resources.

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