Trees like to grow where it is warm, wet, and low. That is why the best timberland in the United States is in the Southeast and the coastal regions of California, Oregon, and Washington State. And it is why there is very little commercially viable timber in most of Alaska or in Rocky Mountain states such as Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming where it is high, dry, and cold.

Yields an acre of lodgepole pine in the Rockies are a small fraction (from one-fifth to one-fiftieth) of that harvested in the Pacific Northwest.But thanks to the perverse incentives of government bureaucracies, woodlands of the fragile back country of the northern Rockies and Alaska are being chopped down at taxpayer expense. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service sold half a billion board feet of timber from Colorado, Wyoming, eastern Montana, and southern Idaho.

The federal treasury will collect from these sales less than 5 percent of the expenses associated with roads, logging, and timber management. In Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the Forest Service is calling for $2 a thousand board feet timber that cost $92 a thousand board feet to manage.

Private companies that behave this way are called bankrupt. They are driven out of the free market economy. But the U.S. Forest Service, with custody over 190 million acres of federal forest and grassland, an area the

size of Texas, has access to the pockets of taxpayers. To maximize its political support and its discretionary budget, it is committing environmental atrocities that never would occur under private ownership.

Initially set up to manage timberlands and protect watersheds, the Forest Service is best understood as the world's largest socialized road building company. Over 340,000 miles of roads have been constructed under its auspices, more than eight times the mileage of the entire U.S. Interstate Highway System. Another 60,000 miles are projected to be built over the next 15 years.

This road-building wins support for the Forest Service from construction interests and their allies in Congress. The timber subsidies win support from the logging companies and employees that benefit. And Forest Service management of timber sales provides well-paying government jobs to mountainous areas with few economic opportunities.

The environmental consequences, however, are severe. To build roads in mountainous terrain, it is necessary to strip rights-of-way of their vegetation, and then move vast quantities of earth in constructing cuts, fills, and switchbacks and installing pipes and culverts.

This leads to massive soil erosion, which is worsening over time. As the timber at lowerelevations and in easily accessible valleys is harvested, the Forest Service builds its roads on even higher and steeper slopes, where there is a greater danger of land slides, slumps, sloughs, and earth flows.

Some of the northern Rockies' finest trout and salmon rivers, among them the Gallatin and the Salmon, have been severely damaged by siltation (as much as 10 feet in the case of the Salmon) resulting from Forest Service roading and logging.

Reproduction of new trees is often unsuccessful after "clear-cutting" - a Forest Service practice that removes all trees from an area. By stripping woodlands of cover for animals and plants, clear-cutting also lessens their ability to absorb water, thus increasing the spring runoff of melting snow.

During the late 1960s, the Forest Service cut wide terraces for replanting after clear-cutting in the Sula Ranger District of the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana. Today only 35 percent of the logged area has been sufficiently replanted, and valuable cover for elk and bear has been lost. Yet the Forest Service has no plans to reduce future timber cuts.

Perhaps the greatest destruction has been in the Tongass National Forest, a 16.4 million acre paradise in southwest Alaska, which holds the earth's last significant stands of northern hemisphere virgin rain forest. Giant Sitka spruce up to 800 years old, with diameter sup to 10 feet, tower 250 feet in the air.

The forest is home to the greatest concentration of bald eagles and grizzly bears left in America. Its waters provide important spawning grounds for salmon. Its moss and lichens on old growth timber are critical to the survival of Sitka black-tailed deer.

Today, thanks to an annual Forest Service subsidy of $50 million, the Tongass forest is being cut down at the horrifying rate of 450 million board feet a year. The Forest Service plans to crisscross nearly all of the ''suitable timberland" with roads, and to cut down all but 161,000 acres of the ancient groves of Sitka spruce.

Siltation caused by the road-building is jeopardizing the region's most important industry, fishing. And the devastation of old-growth timber is

destroying habitat for the grizzly, and according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, will cause more than 50 percent decline in the Sitka black- tailed deer population.

Timber companies logging their own private forestlands do not build uneconomical roads into ecologically fragile areas to cut down uneconomic trees. It is time to reconsider the idea of public ownership of our forest treasures.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe