Planted Hollywood

Welcome to the American forest, where the trees have been arranged for your viewing pleasure

Imagine you're driving through your favorite national forest. It's trees, trees, and more trees, as far as the eye can see. "Isn't nature grand?" you sigh, unaware that the U.S. Forest Service has used a sophisticated computer program to determine precisely what parts of the landscape you can see from the road, then designed a plan to log in areas you can't see.

Facing a public increasingly critical of logging in national forests, government forestry officials and private companies that log on or near public land are turning to state-of-the-art software and a technique called "seen-area analysis" to help them keep controversial logging activities out of the public eye. The software helps foresters tuck clear-cuts behind ridges, shield them from view with "beauty strips" -- veneers of trees maintained to hide bare patches -- and identify areas where they can use one of several "partial cut" techniques to subtly thin the forest without ruining the view.

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Using geographic information systems (GIS) technology, which can assemble and manipulate geo-spatial data to produce detailed environmental maps, as well as imaging programs with names like Virtual Forest and Smart Forest, foresters are able to take into account a mind- boggling amount of information about a specific stand of trees -- including species, diameter, height, topography, and viewer perspective -- in determining where to cut and where to site logging roads so as to hide them from forest visitors. The software necessary to perform such tasks is being installed, at a cost of $3 million, in all 800 Forest Service offices. (Forest Service officials stress that there are many uses for the software that are unrelated to logging.)

Government agencies and private industry also use seen-area analysis to create flashy 3-D presentations of timber-harvest plans for public hearings (which are required prior to approval of major cuts in national forests) and as a public relations tool. "You can capture the seen area and do an animated film" from the perspective of a car driving down the road, says John Steffenson of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, a private firm that sells seen-area analysis software to the Forest Service. For those who would cut trees, it's a potential win-win situation: Agencies and companies can get feedback from the public, and at the same time assuage fears about harvest practices.

Says Robert McGaughey, a Forest Service researcher: "[Companies] are trying to figure out how much change can be done on a landscape before it pushes buttons and sets people off." That public-sector insight is echoed by David Buckley of Innovative GIS Solutions, which makes customized software for the Forest Service and private companies. "The foresters don't give a shit what it looks like after [they log]," he says. "But the public looks almost entirely at the visual-impact side."

Is a concerted effort being made to deceive the public? "It's not as much to hide what's happening," says McGaughey. "It's more to make what's being done look less offensive."

"Once we've decided we're going to [log], why don't we make it as aesthetically pleasing as we can?" says Terry Daniel, who heads the Environmental Perception Laboratory at the University of Arizona. "People might even appreciate the fact that it has no effect on the view."

Peter Morrison, a former Forest Service employee who now runs the Pacific Biodiversity Institute, views the trend as a "totally cosmetic" means of blunting public opposition to logging in national forests. "People are able to design their silvicultural practices in more sensitive areas [and] take out the maximum number of trees. [To claim that] this is what the public wants them to do [is] a very self-serving justification."

Some environmental groups are trying to counteract the lulling effect of scenically sensitive logging operations. The Lands Council, a group that opposes clear-cutting in national forests, passes out a brochure to travelers at Washington's Spokane International Airport titled Above the Beauty Strip: Your Aerial Guide to the Forests and Clear-cuts of the Northwest. Using the forest industry's favorite graphical technique against it, the brochure contains a GIS map highlighting areas that have been clear-cut and asks that people look out the window for a "view of the forest you can't get from the ground."