There are unfortunately many times when the United States Forest Service is doing the wrong thing out there on public lands. Often this is due to bad science, or corruption, or just plain incompetence. Many environmental activists know that, in general, the Forest Service is screwing things up. But frequently the specifics are unknown. The USFS releases reams of paper describing their studies and surveys of land where they want to have timber sales - where they give award a contract to a company to log. These studies are full of data and often have conclusions about what is "healthy" for the forest. How do activists and just normal members of the public know if these studies and conclusions are correct? By doing groundtruthing.

Groundtruthing is the practice of actually going out into the forest and looking at what's there, and comparing what the government says about a piece of land to what you see with your own eyes. You look at their maps of a proposed timber sale, and you go there and see if there are any discrepancies, or things about that area that the Forest Service study did not mention or look at closely enough. If you're an activist looking for a way to stop a timber sale, finding corrupt data or missing information in a Forest Service survey is often a great opportunity. The government is required by law to answer every challenge, but you must have "standing," or some credible backing for your challenge. So, by actually going out there and looking at things, you can often force them to re-do a study, or even cancel a timber sale completely.

Things to look for while groundtruthing are often very simple: for instance, endangered or threatened species, or potential habitat for those species. If you see some lynx tracks or some muddy rocks that salamanders might hide under, and the Forest Service has not already addressed these things in their report, then you're on your way to fighting them. Often there needs to be detailed work done while groundtruthing, like counting average canopy coverage, measuring tree diameters, and making notes of terrain details.

But usually, the truth is obvious, once you're on the ground. For example, the Forest Service may claim that a forest is "diseased" and must be thinned to make it more healthy. But once you get to that forest and spend some time there, it's clear that the forest is already healthy. The USFS is simply making up whatever hare-brained justifications they can think of to provide an excuse to cut trees, simply because they are, for the most part, under the thumb of the lumber industry.

There are actually some people at the forest service who are not twisted cronies of big business. But these few good biologists and rangers are few and far between, and they have too much to do. So, it's up to all of us to pick up the slack. If you love nature, go out to the parts of it that are threatened, see where the government is lying to you, and call them on it. It can make a difference.

If you live near Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon, you can learn more about groundtruthing by getting involved with an organization called BARK. They lead groundtruthing hikes every second sunday of the month. For more info see bark-out.org

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