Forest Health, Not Timber and Roads, is the Key Issue, Nation's Chief Forester Says

April 23, 2003

by Kathryn Stelljes

View a webcast of Bosworth's lecture at

BERKELEY — Commercial logging and associated road construction are not the primary issues in today’s national forests, the nation’s chief forester told a packed hall on Tuesday (April 22) at a University of California, Berkeley Earth Day lecture.

Dale N. Bosworth, chief of the USDA Forest Service, said forest management should focus instead on improving forest health and reducing the risk of catastrophic forest fires, slowing the spread of invasive species, maintaining ecosystem integrity amid rapid land conversion and managing off-road recreation.

Bosworth’s comments, at a talk sponsored by the College of Natural Resources, were met with skepticism by some in the audience, who questioned the soundness of long-term forest management plans and the Forest Service’s relationship with the timber industry.

Bosworth cited concerns about logging, individual endangered species, livestock grazing and road construction as "great diversions," or "relatively unimportant matters that take up a lot of our time and effort."

"Much of the debate surrounding national forest management is stuck in the past," he said. "The Forest Service faces some big issues in land management, but timber harvest just isn't one of them."

In fact, Bosworth said, today's national forests produce less than 2 billion board feet of timber per year, compared with up to 12 billion board feet in the past. And while about 150 miles of new forest roads are added each year, Bosworth said the road system in national forests is actually shrinking.

"For every mile of road we added, we've decommissioned 14 miles — more than 10,000 miles in the last five years," he said.

Bosworth, a second-generation civil servant, became the agency’s 15th chief on April 12, 2001. His father, Irwin, graduated from Cal in 1939 with an Agricultural Sciences degree and also worked for the Forest Service.

In the Q&A session after the talk, members of the audience, which included students, faculty and members of the public, questioned whether the structure and funding of the Forest Service would allow the agency to meet Bosworth's aggressive goals.

Some students challenged Bosworth to guarantee that U.S. forests would be protected in the future from commercial timber harvesting. Bosworth said the deciding factor will be public consumption of timber products, and he asked whether it was ethical to import timber from other countries that don’t have stringent environmental regulations in order to conserve our own resources.

In fact, he said that public demand for timber, as well as congressional priorities over several decades, have fueled a misperception of the Forest Service as an arm of the commercial timber industry.

"Fifty years ago, we thought we faced a timber famine. State and private timber stocks were exhausted following World War II, and there was a huge postwar demand for lumber to help fulfill the American dream of owning a single-family home. Every administration for 30 or 40 years, with strong bipartisan support, placed high demands on the Forest Service for national forest timber," he said.

But public values changed in the 1960's and 70's, symbolized by the first Earth Day in 1970. Today, except in Alaska and the Southeast, timber harvests in the national forests are primarily to reduce fuel load rather than for commercial gain, he said.

As the agenda for the forest service has evolved, Bosworth indicated that the relationship between timber companies and the Forest Service has not always been rosy.

"People have accused us of being in bed with the timber industry," he said. "Let me tell you, it's not the kind of place I want to be in bed."

At a reception following the talk, faculty provided a mixed review."He did a good job of giving the party line, but he wasn't asked the difficult questions. Everyone was being nice," said wildlife biology professor Reg Barrett.

Barrett and other biologists, for example, question the appropriateness of shifting shifting focus away from individual species.

"It is not possible to scientifically evaluate the health of a forest ecosystem without looking at the health of its component pieces — species,” said Professor Steven Beissinger, chair of the College of Natural Resource's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “Some species have a proportionately greater role in maintaining the functions of a forest ecosystem and, in addition to threatened species, their viability needs to be evaluated."

Other researchers stressed the need to ensure that current large-scale management plans like the Sierra Nevada Framework are scientifically sound. The framework is a comprehensive plan to reduce the risk of wildfire, particularly near communities, and protect old forests, watersheds and wildlife in the 11 national forests in the Sierra Nevada region.

"We need to do more experiments on moderate-sized areas before techniques such as prescribed burning and thinning are applied to millions of acres," said Scott Stephens, assistant professor of fire science. “This would allow the public to see what is planned at larger spatial scales and may improve public trust."

Still, Bosworth's long-term approach to national forests — rather than total support of the current administration policies — and his efforts toward consensus-building were well received.

Bosworth spoke as part of the College of Natural Resources’ William Main Distinguished Visitor Program. The semester-long series provides an opportunity for students to meet with leaders from industrial, governmental, and other public organizations concerned with forestry and related natural resource issues.