Boston Globe Editorial: Forest boondoggle

Page - April 29, 2005
From the Boston Globe, October 1, 2004. YEAR IN and year out, the politically powerful Alaska congressional delegation encourages the US Forest Service to build, at taxpayer expense, logging roads in the Tongass National Forest for the benefit of the state's dwindling timber business. It is bad enough that Congress goes along with this kind of corporate welfare make-work. Even worse is the fact that taxpayers are financing the destruction of the largest remaining temperate rain forest in the world.

A human banner at Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon.

Enter Senator John McCain of Arizona, who knows a boondoggle when he sees one. McCain favors an amendment to an appropriations bill that would ban logging subsidies in the Tongass, which was first protected in 1907 by another Republican conservationist, President Theodore Roosevelt. The House passed a similar ban on Tongass road-building in June by a 222-205 vote. Like McCain's, that amendment had the support of a coalition of conservationists, budget balancers, and sportsmen.

The Tongass already has 3,579 miles of timber roads, more than enough to span the continental United States. These roads, many of which need maintenance work, could easily accommodate current and future timber operations, which are languishing anyway because of a worldwide glut in the kinds of wood the forest provides.

Between 1996 and 2002, jobs related to logging in the forest dropped from 1,558 to just 195. This means that the federal subsidies for each position rose from $22,000 in 1997 to $178,000 in 2002. According to the budget watchdogs at the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, the timber companies have a 10-year supply of timber on roads that have already been bulldozed through the forest.

President Clinton's bold roadless rule would have exempted 9 million of Tongass's 16.8 million acres from commercial exploitation, but the Bush administration has acted to deprive the

Tongass -- and other national forests -- of that protection.

The Forest Service itself admits that much of its administrative work for timber leases as well as the road-building itself are for nought. Demand for the wood is so weak that the service is offering to let companies renege on old, existing leases. Regional Forest Service economists have argued, wisely, for a shift in emphasis from timber cutting to support of the growing tourism and fishing industries in an area that is a Shangri-la for hunters and anglers.

Wasteful Forest Service spending on Tongass timber operations is especially ill advised at a time when the federal government is facing a record deficit. The Senate should give at least as strong an endorsement to a ban on Tongass subsidies as the House did.