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Can't See the Forest for the Trees?

Suppose you own an investment portfolio that contains valuable, goods-producing assets, some of which are too costly to buy, or may not even exist in the marketplace. The United States Forest Service [USFS] manages many taxpayer-owned natural assets. Among the best-performing is the Pisgah-Nantahala Forest, the most visited national forest in the nation—seven million people annually.

The USFS’s proposed new plan will establish a management agenda for the next two to three decades. Published in March, the proposal set a record for the number of objections. Among the most egregious insults to the forest ecosystem? Logging several old-growth tracts. The Southern Environmental Law Center laments that not only should some of these targeted areas be spared, but also, rather than restoring diverse species and ecological processes, the plan relies on “outdated and heavy-handed logging methods that produce unnatural results.”

Our portfolio manager, the USFS, says the methods make “commercial sense.” But the traditional concept of “commercial sense,” like some logging methods, is outdated and clumsy, and needs an overhaul. There’s reason to hope the USFS will thoroughly revisit new evidence about the forests’ economic value before publishing a final draft.

A new paper by scientists Jeannine Cavender-Bares and co-authors, including economist Stephen Polasky, both of the University of Minnesota, suggests that trees in the contiguous United States produce “far more valuable services as climate and air quality regulators than they generate as wood products, food crops, and Christmas trees.” The authors estimate the value of five eco-system services generated by forest in the United States at $114 billion annually in 2012.

Trees in the pine and oak family provided 42 percent of that. Trees store carbon. This accounts for 51% of net annual value. Trees filter dirty air and mitigate damage to human health—respiratory illnesses and deaths. This tree service represented 37% of the annual net value. The remaining 12% of the net annual value came from “provisioning services,” such as wood products. The authors assessed these forest services to establish a base, as climate change threatens the services they provide, at risk from “pests and pathogens.”

Compromises had been worked out among stakeholders during the public comment period. SELC worked with conservation groups in the The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, including timber and hunting interests, in recommending some increases in timber harvests to restore “degraded forests, and it paired those increases with strong protections for our healthiest forests.”

Those efforts may have protected old growth and rare habitats, to sequester more carbon. The USFS didn’t see it the same way. Common sense as well as $114 billion in services should make the USFS scrap original recommendations, targeted logging areas, and methods. Why not submit a plan to solve 21st century problems?

The U.S. Forest Service manages our portfolio. Our resources deserve a thorough analysis to manage the earth's future.

Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia. She writes journalism and fiction from Charlottesville. In 2017, the University of New Mexico Press published Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, a book of short stories she co-edited with a colleague. The stories probe Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. For more information, see

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