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Good news rang through the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest of western North Carolina last week. The U.S. Forest Service announced it intends to amend its policy and encourage local loggers to use alternatives to clear-cutting where possible. The change, perhaps timed to coincide with Earth Day, should appease environmentalists, including the Western North Carolina Alliance and other groups that have pressured the service for the last few years.Announcing a proposal to change is one thing, of course, and adopting other methods of logging is quite another. The Forest Service has declared a 30-day public response period before the decision will go into effect; after that it will take months before logging practices show new trends.

Environmental campaigns have threatened rural communities where economies rest on logging. Loggers say clear-cutting is the most efficient way to harvest trees; in areas like Graham County, where the unemployment rate is 26 percent, that's hard to argue. Too, many loggers fail to be moved by environmentalists' old saw about tourism being the most important industry in national forests.

Furthermore, forestry officials have no real consensus on the best methods of forest management - of which there is a variety.

But there's no question clear-cutting changes the landscape. Certainly it destroys the cover for animals, sending them away in search of new homes. Opponents say it also encourages erosion and disturbs the soil's organic life. They maintain that in areas where unwanted plants are treated with herbicides, the chemicals linger to prevent those species from regenerating later. When an area is replanted after clear-cutting, the resulting forest is sometimes a stark, even-age stand unlike the area's original ecological balance.

Foes of clear-cutting have adopted a whole menu of tactics, some which block any dialogue on the issue. The dangerous practice of tree-spiking reached North Carolina forests this year.

But many opponents take a more moderate approach, accepting theinevitability of logging in national forest areas and pressing for selective harvesting and uneven-age forest management. Boiled down, their requests are few: They seek multiple uses of national forest areas, and they want those areas to retain their biological diversity. Sound principles, really.

The Forest Service has taken an important step in encouraging varied techniques. If it's serious, we'll know it in the next few months. Alternative techniques, such as group selection harvesting and uneven-age management, will appear. Replanting could involve a variety of Southern hardwoods, such as red oak, hickory, ash and cherry.

If those things happen, we can be assured the announcement didn't have a hollow ring.


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