Red-ink roads in U.S. forests Timber losses: Money from forests doesn't grow on trees, federal regulators admit.


NO LONGER is the U.S. Forest Service eager to appease the logging industry. The federal agency is putting a new emphasis on using its 192 million acres for recreation and tourism, instead of favoring exploitation, which last year cost taxpayers $88 million in subsidies.

An 18-month ban imposed last year on new logging roads on federal land gave rise to this change.

Recreation now accounts for three-quarters of the economic activity generated by Forest Service lands. Meantime, timber sales have plummeted 75 percent.

Logging over the years has left a legacy of 380,000 miles of roads on federal land that must be maintained at taxpayer expense. Logging firms build these access roads, then deduct the building costs from the timber royalties they owe the government. This creates a net loss for taxpayers.

Once an area is logged, the roads can be used for hiking and forestry management. But these roads and logging can destroy wildlife habitats and promote soil erosion and poisonous runoff.

For years, the net return on federal timber rights has been questioned. The General Accounting Office estimated public losses of $1 billion during 1992-1994, yet last fall the Forest Service estimated a $15 million annual loss. The latest update seems more realistic.

The government's skeptical view of logging is shared by environmentalists and fiscal conservatives. The new Forest Service chief, biologist Mike Dombeck, supports this more critical approach.

No longer is the Forest Service acting like the servant of the timber industry. The road moratorium and more honest cost accounting of timber contracts put the industry on notice that future bids will be harder to justify. This is responsible stewardship of public funds and natural resources.

Pub date: 6/18/98

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