By Robert T. Hilliard
Excerpt for Ruffed Grouse Society Magazine
Trying to end logging on the Allegheny National Forest, the Allegheny Defense Project dragged the US Forest Service into court nearly continuously for the better part of a decade. However, in 2001, as ADP announced a lawsuit against the Allegheny’s East Side logging project, an unexpected ally emerged on the Forest Service’s behalf.
Says Mark Banker, [former] Regional Biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, “We started to feel that there was a scientific perspective we could bring in the courtroom that wasn’t there previously.” It was the first time since its 1961 inception that RGS involved itself in such a suit.
“People think you should have old forests and old growth everywhere,” Banker says, his voice rising, “but there is a real and serious decline in early successional forest nearly everywhere in the East. And a lot of that is because the prevailing attitude is keeping the Forest Service from cutting trees when they need to.”
With Banker presenting evidence that young forests – so critical to ruffed grouse, woodcock, and non-game species such as the yellow-breasted chat, eastern towhee, and field sparrow – are on the decline and that commercial timber cutting can be part of an ecologically sound approach to forestry, the US Third District Court ruled in favor of the USFS on nine of ten counts in the East Side Project decision.
“Based on the success of the East Side Project,” Banker says, “RGS became involved in the Bark Camp [Project] lawsuit on the Jefferson National Forest [Virginia], a state lawsuit in Michigan, and more recently on a group of National Forests in the Lake States, where the Sierra Club wanted to stop aspen management.”
So far, his application of science has a perfect record. The USFS, with RGS support, won the East Side and Bark Camp suits. And though the other two suits never made it to court, “We came out ahead,” says Banker.
Banker and I met in early November for a day of grouse hunting. As we unloaded the dogs, he mentioned that RGS had done a lot of work on the Allegheny over the years, but on-the-ground projects have stopped recently due to the lawsuits and resultant moratorium on active management. “We’re really anxious to start working up here on the Allegheny again,” he said. “The lawsuits make it tough though.”
As we entered a small clearing bounded by tall hemlocks, a grouse flushed wild in front of Banker. I never saw the bird and wasn’t even sure I had heard it until he fired. Although that shot missed, it prompted a second bird to flush from the same spot. This time Banker didn’t miss.
His English Setter Bode glided toward the downed bird, but at the last minute had a change of heart and moved on to look for the one that escaped. Banker started the long walk over to pick up the downed grouse.
At this moment I noticed my Weimaraner standing in front of me. Hunter had been off to my right when the shooting started and had come out of the trees at the sound of Banker’s shot. Sorting out the commotion, he looked up and saw Banker moving toward the fluttering bird. This was apparently more than the gray dog was willing to tolerate.
Crashing across the clearing like a runaway train, Hunter beat Banker to the downed grouse by less than a step. Lifting the bird into his jaws, he brushed by Banker again and trotted toward me, head held high. Fairly prancing across the little meadow, Hunter proudly delivered Banker’s grouse into my waiting hands.
That, I shouldn’t have to tell you, cheered me up immensely.
After our hunt, Banker stressed that RGS doesn’t support logging every inch of the National Forest. But the point that seems to gall him most is that the concept of eliminating commercial logging is based largely on emotional ideals rather than empirical data. In discussing a zero-cut policy, he is blunt: “It’s just not supported by any science that we’re aware of. It just makes no sense.”
When sifting through the claims of both sides, it’s virtually impossible to get a clear answer. As one of the judges in the East Side lawsuit said, the case was “absolutely the most complex I have ever dealt with.”
However, a few months spent on the Allegheny – truly looking at the woods and the life within them – can provide the kind of insight not found in a courtroom. Seeing the regenerating clearcuts, feeling the sting of saplings whipping your ears, hearing the wingbeats against still air as a grouse bursts from thick brush and churns skyward, you can sense for yourself that cutting timber on the Allegheny is not ruining the Forest. It’s renewing it.
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