The Allegheny National Forest was taken to federal court Thursday by a small watchdog group called the Allegheny Defense Project, which wants to halt logging to protect the endangered Indiana bat.
They are opposed by both the U.S. Forest Service and the Allegheny Forest Alliance. The Alliance is a community group that includes the timber industry as one component. It has asked for and received financial aid from the school districts and communities that share 25 percent of the forest's timber revenues. To date, five of the seven school boards and four of the 34 communities that benefit have agreed to send back 5 percent of their timber revenues to the Alliance for court costs to fight the ADP.
"We feel strongly that the multipurpose mission of national forests is being well implemented here," Dave Martin of the Alliance said. "And we believe that the environmentalists have already cost more than $5 million in lost revenue with their delaying tactics."
The situation is emblematic of what many people feel is wrong in our national forests: A commitment to provide cheap lumber for America's loggers.
Anyone who's ever driven south from Allegany State Park has probably ridden through chunks of the national forest. Many of us have camped there, fished in its streams, hunted grouse, turkey or deer, or used its many miles of logging roads for ATV, snowmobile or even sports car rally events.
Sprawling over four Pennsylvania counties and comprising more than a half-million acres of woods, it is one terrific outdoor recreation resource, and unlike a park, motorized recreation and hunting are allowed. For some folks, that means a lot.
It has some near-wilderness and plenty of room for the rugged foot traveler, too.
But mostly it produces logs. And that, according to the ADP, a group of dedicated volunteers, is the real problem.
"The biggest threat to bio-diversity in the East is the fragmentation of forest lands," says Rachel Martin of the ADP. "And logging is the chief cause of that. The Indiana bat returns to specific stands of trees to breed and to roost each year. When it was discovered here, the Forest Service agreed to stop future timber sales until an assessment was made, but said it would allow the '99 contracts to go forward -- and that's why we went to court."
The problem for national forest managers is that, by law, they are supposed to provide timber at a non-profit rate. Still, Allegheny National Forest, which produces an average of about 58 million board-feet of timber annually, is a money-maker.
"Last year, timber sales generated $23 million," said Dale Dunshie, a spokesman for the Forest Service. "One quarter of that -- $5.7 million -- went to the counties in which we are located -- the rest goes to the national treasury.
"Environmentalists like to say that timber is sold at a loss, but the law says we are not to make a profit. Besides every other program we run is 'at a loss' too," Dunshie said.
Last year, however, the $17.25 million that went to Washington more than covered the total $12 million operating costs of ANF, "so yes, you could say we are a profit center for the Forest Service."
Although Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck may want more emphasis placed on wilderness and recreation than on logging, rules are rules, and Congress makes those.
Besides, in wilderness forests, like Alaska's Tongass, cutting new logging roads surely costs taxpayers more money to build than the timber sales net.
But in Allegheny, 95 percent of the forest already is accessible by logging road. "ANF is the heaviest-cut, per acre, in the Forest Service region that stretches from New England to Wisconsin and south to the Virginias," said Jim Kleissler, the ADP's forest watch coordinator.
"Moreover," he says, "the checkerboard cutting patterns adopted here -- allegedly an aid to producing wildlife browse -- do not stop as much erosion as they should, and definitely fragment the forest."
Worse than that, Kleissler claims loggers abuse their contracts.
"They are supposed to leave 50-foot buffer strips to prevent siltation of streams, but they don't. Besides, in steep terrain, that's not enough of a buffer zone.
"A couple years ago I was hiking the woods adjacent to the School House area of Allegany State Park and saw trees marked for cutting right in the stream bank as part of the Riverview timber sale," Kleissler said.
"We saved those trees, but as a volunteer group, we can't be everywhere. Even the forest's own people can't oversee every cut made by the commercial loggers who bid on the timber."
The Allegheny Defense Project can be contacted at Box 245, Clarion, Pa., 16124.