Enough! We Have All the Wilderness We Need

Published December 23, 1998

As the twentieth century draws to a close, many Americans would be pleasantly surprised to know that about two-thirds as much forest (731 million acres) exists now as in the year 1600. Some 13.2 million acres of trees 200 or more years old have been set aside as protected old-growth forest.

Net tree growth in the U.S. exceeds tree cutting by 37 percent, despite annual harvest of 16 billion cubic feet of timber by an American forest products industry that employs over 1.6 million people and generates sales of more than $100 billion annually. Annual growth has exceeded harvest every year since 1952.

America’s professionally managed forests are in significantly better condition now than at the beginning of this century. Managed forests include vegetation ranging from clearcuts to mature stands approaching old-growth characteristics.

Despite emotional rhetoric to the contrary, vast expanses of unbroken old-growth forest lack the biological diversity of a mix of age classes. The diversity sought after by environmentalists results from a host of physical, biotic, and ecological factors (including wildfire, blowdown, insects, and disease), as well as human actions. Recent clearcuts are better for rabbits, quail, and berry pickers, while a mix of forest age classes is better for deer, grouse, bird watchers, and hunters. Mature stands are better for bears and woodpeckers, but best for loggers and recreationists.

These facts, unknown to most Americans, are routinely and vigorously denied by the critics of forestry, many of them environmental activists. Rejection of industrial enterprise, including the forest industry, has been a hallmark of the environmental movement since its coming of age in the 1960s.

The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, and other like-minded wildernists now oppose all logging in the national forests, insisting that the only acceptable cutting is for domestic firewood, fire hazard reduction, and damage restoration. Steps in that direction include recent Clinton administration directives to feature recreation throughout the 191 million-acre national forest system.

The proposed elimination of logging would, in effect, convert the national forests to national parks, in the short run temporarily alleviating the wildernists’ insatiable desire to “preserve” ever more recreational lands. In the long run, though, that conversion probably will lead to financial and ecological disaster.

The National Park Service’s present budgetary shortfall already has resulted in deteriorating conditions in some of the most popular national parks, conditions that would rapidly spread to the new “parks.” On forested lands, the ill-effects of non-management cannot be avoided.

Neglect is no way to hold down costs or preserve wildlands. A better way is to direct people to areas more suited to their recreational needs.

Today, municipal and county parks and preserves account for about 60 percent of recreational use, state lands about 14 percent, private lands about 14 percent, and federal lands just 12 percent of all such outdoor activity. Use of congressionally set-aside National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) lands accounts for less than 1 percent of all outdoor recreation.

The pressing need is not for an increase in deep wilderness set-asides, but for more recreational facilities convenient to population centers, providing the average urbanite’s concept of wilderness experience. The U.S. has enormous resources of wildlands, and each kind can provide somebody’s version of a wilderness experience.

The NWPS is only one of many places for such recreation. But it should never be overlooked that forests do one thing no other land use can accomplish–they produce wood. An immensely useful substance, readily renewable and completely biodegradable, wood production expends less energy and causes less long-term environmental stress than the production of any other plant fiber or construction material.

Professionally managed forestlands may produce wood alone or, in the usual case, some combination of wood, grazing, water, minerals, and recreation. The key is management to protect the resource base while satisfying as many commodity and recreational needs as land, funding, and manpower permit.

Our country is headed down a slippery slope indeed when uninformed emotion, standards of urban esthetics, and polarized opinion supercede science, professional expertise, and economics as guides to our uses of wildlands. The latter, by far, are the better ways to manage these valuable resources in the new millennium.


James Patric is retired after a nationwide career in research with the U.S. Forest Service. Raymond Harbin is actively engaged in hardwood ventures and in ecological research on hardwoods. The two are the coauthors of “Whither Wilderness?” a Policy Study released by The Heartland Institute.

Published by The Heartland Institute as one of a series of short articles on important public policy issues. Nothing in A Heartland Perspective should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heartland Institute or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

Copyright 1998. Permission is hereby granted to reprint or broadcast this article, with appropriate credit given to the author(s) and The Heartland Institute. For more information about The Heartland Institute, visit its Web site at www.heartland.org, or contact Diane Bast, vice President, The Heartland Institute, 19 South LaSalle Street #903, Chicago, IL 60603; phone 312/377-4000; fax 312/377-5000; email [email protected]