On March 8, 2023

Pull the plug on Telephone Gap

By Jim Furnish and Zack Porter

Editor’s note: Jim Furnish served as the U.S. forest service deputy chief from 1999 to 2002. Zack Porter is co-founder and executive director of Standing Trees, a nonprofit working to protect and restore New England’s public lands.

An old saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” Sadly, the Green Mountain National Forest proposes more of the same with the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project at a time when we need bold, new approaches to public land management.

The U.S. Forest Service was born in 1905, at a time in American history when forests were still reeling from rampant clearing, burning, and intensive grazing. The agency’s motto, “The greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run” was a call for “wise use” of the nation’s public forest estate to guard against and atone for abusive logging practices that had become all-too-common across America. In many cases, this meant reforesting degraded and denuded areas to protect against catastrophic floods and droughts that threatened downstream towns and cities. It also meant re-growing a sustainable supply of timber for economic production.

Fast forward to 2023: Vermont, 80% deforested by the late 1800s, with few patches of woods left uncut since colonization, is now nearly 80% forested. Species that could not survive in Vermont a century ago due to habitat loss and hunting have returned to the land. 

But the recovery of New England’s forests is ongoing and unfinished. Pull back the green curtain, and one sees that the health of New England’s forests remains in doubt, even 150 years after large-scale agricultural abandonment. Common logging practices have eliminated the complex forest structure that supports healthy ecosystems, produces clean water, and maximizes carbon storage.

The global climate and extinction crises, as well as Vermont’s water quality crisis, are all signs of how far we still need to go to get our forests back on track. As of last year, it appeared that the U.S. Forest Service, with the Biden Administration’s leadership, was beginning to recognize the threat of status quo management. But now we aren’t so sure.

In April 2022, President Biden signed an historic executive order directing federal agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, to define, inventory, and develop policies to conserve mature and old-growth forests. A few months later, the US Forest Service issued a Climate Adaptation Plan that highlighted how mature and old-growth forests have a “combination of higher carbon density and biodiversity that contributes to both carbon storage and climate resilience,” and that “They are often viewed as ideal candidates for increased conservation efforts…” 

Then, last December, the Forest Service took its first project-level action to come into compliance with presidential direction, withdrawing a controversial timber sale in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest that intended to log forests up to 150 years in age. In a statement to the press, the Forest Service acknowledged “some parts of [the project] may be incongruent with recent directives and climate-related plans concerning conservation of mature and old-growth forests and carbon stewardship.”

The Green Mountain National Forest protects water supplies and provides essential habitat for imperiled wildlife like the Northern Long-eared Bat, recently added to the federal endangered species list. New England’s public forests are critical carbon reservoirs, storing ­ on average  30% more carbon than privately-owned forestlands.

All of these unique attributes and the recent positive steps by the U.S. Forest Service leave us scratching our heads about Telephone Gap, which is out for public comment through March 13. Of the 11,801 acres proposed for logging, 92% are classified as mature and old, including forests up to 160 years of age. Put simply: the project threatens exactly the forests that President Biden’s executive order intended to protect. 

Private forests, both in Vermont and across the nation, provide approximately 96% of the timber supply. This need not — and should not — be a debate about whether or how we will meet the demand for wood products.

President Biden put forward a bold call to action for federal forests. We think Americans are ready to go to work. Is the US Forest Service?

In 2001, Forest Service leadership answered a similar call to action by promulgating the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a farsighted measure that benefited 58 million acres of federal land. The clock is ticking for the U.S. Forest Service to implement a similarly durable rule to conserve mature and old-growth forests.

2023 is not 1905. “The greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run” must evolve to meet the challenges of present and future generations. It’s time for the Forest Service to embrace a new era of federal forest management. It begins by pulling the plug on Telephone Gap.

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