Roadless ruckus: When loggers, greenies unite

Mark Woodall is an unlikely environmentalist. After all, he makes his living growing trees so he can cut them down.

But Woodall and other small tree farmers are aligning themselves with the Sierra Club and other "green" groups as the White House proceeds with its plan to open roadless forests to commercial logging.

While they care about the earth, Woodall and his counterparts care about their livelihoods, too.

They're expecting to get aced out of the massive government contracts by the timber, oil, and gas goliaths. And if that happens, the ensuing lumber glut means lower prices for the little guys.

"It's bad for the environment and bad for the pocketbooks of the tree farmer," said Woodall, who grows about 6,000 acres of trees near LaGrange in west Georgia.

The Bush administration is reversing the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a 2001 executive order by President Clinton, that prohibits road construction on almost 60 million acres of federal forestland. No roads has meant no logging, mining, or oil and gas development.

The new policy, announced last month, calls for governors to decide in early 2006 whether to petition Washington to permit new roads in their forests or keep them untouched.

Although the decision affects more than 30 percent of national forests, the more than 700,000 acres in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia are a relatively small portion compared to the huge tracts in the West.

Those forests are worrisome to farmers such as Woodall, who has enjoyed the rising price of saw timber pinewood over the last 15 years. Prices now reach almost $40 a ton.

"The restrictions doubled our prices, so if you went back it could cut our prices in half," he said. "A 50-percent cut in our paycheck could not be good."

The logging business has not been all solid, though. Timber prices fluctuate with droughts, and beetle infestations can devastate acres of farmland. Products made from small wood chips melded together are draining the market demand for timber, and business is being exported to places such as China and South America where the climate encourages quicker timber growth.

Groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center– which has offices in Atlanta, Chapel Hill, and Charlottesville– are hoping to harness the power of concerned loggers before the two-month comment period on the roadless restrictions ends September 14.

"We're trying to get the information out widely," said David Carr, the head of the center's public lands project. "There are folks out there getting the information out to tree farmers and landowners."

Foresters and environmentalists have allied in the past, particularly to fight encroaching urban sprawl, and both groups applauded the Clinton action.

Supporters of the reversal insist it will help preserve forest health by allowing forest thinning to clear out the potentially dangerous undergrowth that can fuel fires.

New roads, they also contend, will provide access to campers, bikers and firefighters.

Environmental groups, though, point to about 9,500 roads that already cut into forests in the South. "There's already tons of access," Carr said.

The lobbying extends beyond tree farmers, of course. Critics don't expect responses to equal the hundreds of hearings and at least 1.5 million responses gathered over a two-year period that welcomed the 2001 executive order. They're trying to mobilize outdoorsmen as well as politicians to fight the rule. They point to protest letters from both houses of Congress addressed to President Bush.

Some tree farmers have already started to lobby governors, even though they couldn't appeal to the federal government until 2006.

"I think here in the South all the governors we've talked to have said this could be bad for the economy down here," said Woodall, a member of the Sierra Club. Virginia's governor, Mark Warner, calls Bush's proposal "unduly burdensome."

David Carr appreciates roadlessness.