Review of the Draft "Public Land Management Responsibility and Accountability Act"

Idaho Senator Larry Craig has issued a discussion draft of his proposed reform of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). The entire bill, plus a section-by-section description of it, is available on Senator Craig's website.

At 18,000 words, the bill is probably longer than NFMA itself. Very briefly, its six major sections would do the following:

  1. Title I revises the forest planning process by, among other things, setting deadlines for plans; limiting planning to two levels (forest and project, but no region or ecoregion plans); and limits appeals and judicial review of plans by, for example, requiring that lawsuits over plans be filed in the circuit in which the forests are located and not in the (more environmentally sensitive) DC circuit.
  2. Title II gives the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management the authority to review their own actions to see if they harm any threatened or endangered species. This effectively takes from the Fish & Wildlife Service much of its authority to protect endangered species on federal lands.
  3. Title III authorizes the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to develop "ecoregion assessments" (but not plans) for the ecological resources on federal lands.
  4. Title IV creates a "land improvement fund" out of public land receipts; creates a "forest health credit" system similar to the purchaser road credit program but aimed at forest health activities; and makes the Chief of the Forest Service an appointment that must be confirmed by the Senate.
  5. Title V eliminates the RPA planning process and substitutes a "global renewable resource assessment" (but not plan).
  6. Title VI allows any state to apply to have all of the lands in any national forest or BLM district to be transferred to the state. Such a transfer would require Congressional approval.
Even before seeing the bill, major environmental groups have taken the position that no reform of NFMA should be allowed to take place while people such as Senator Craig and Alaska Representative Don Young are in power. For this reason you can expect to hear environmentalists suddenly endorse Forest Service activities (subject, of course, to environmental lawsuits) and express surprise that anyone should want to change the existing laws.

In fact, the National Forest Management Act and its parent law, the Resources Planning Act, have completely failed to accomplish anything they set out to do. The original goals of these laws were to improve public forest management and reduce controversy over that management. If anything, the exact opposite has taken place.

In particular, the forest planning process is a complete failure. Ideally, as defined in the forest planning rules and in any planning textbook, planners should:

In actual practice, most national forest plans: Even if plans did not suffer all of these defects, the fact is that the idea of preparing ten-year plans is a fantasy. Forest planners can no more predict forest needs for the next ten years than meteorologists can predict next year's weather. The result, as Chief Jack Thomas admitted, is that "plans were good for only three or four years."

It would be even more accurate to say that most plans were obsolete the day they were printed. Indeed, one of the reasons that Senator Craig is so concerned is that many Idaho plans were almost immediately junked when on-the-ground managers couldn't find the timber that the Forest Service computers said they had.

The Forest Service has undergone tremendous changes in the two decades since the National Forest Management Act was passed. But virtually all of those changes happened in spite of, not because of, the planning process. In many cases, the planning process actually became a cause for delaying those changes.

The factors that really influenced changes within the Forest Service included such things as:

The one part of the NFMA planning process that has had an effect on forests is the minimum viable population rule. But that is contained in the planning regulations, not in the law itself.

RPA and NFMA should be junked entirely as wasteful, cumbersome processes that end up being obstacles to, rather than vehicles for, necessary changes in national forest management. Genuine reforms would fix the incentives that pervert forest management and clearly insulate forest managers from political meddling.

As dramatic as the Craig bill appears to be, it is in fact too timid when it comes to reforming the Forest Service and NFMA.

Tinkering with Planning

The bill's changes to the planning process--the elimination of national, regional, and basin plans; setting planning deadlines; limits on appeals and lawsuits; and other changes--sound dramatic. In fact, they do nothing to fix the real problem with planning, which is that planning doesn't work.

The first three national (RPA) plans were hotly debated both among interest groups and in Congress. But people soon figured out that these plans had no effect on the ground. So the last couple of RPA plans were ignored by both the public and Congress. Craig's bill is right to repeal this part of the process.

When Congress passed NFMA, which created the forest planning process, it gave the Forest Service broad discretion to determine how the plans should be written. We now know that the forest plans were an even bigger waste of time and money than the RPA plans. But rather than repeal forest planning, Craig's bill attempts to "fix" it by reducing the agency's discretion in the process.

One of the big problems with planning is the difficulty of introducing new information. One Oregon national forest started planning using obsolete timber inventory data. Halfway through the planning process, a new inventory found that the old data were completely wrong. Rather than start the planning process over, the forest elected to finish using the wrong data.

Craig's bill would actually make plans even more of an obstacle to new information or change. Section 105 forbids the Forest Service from applying any new policies or decisions to a forest until that forest goes through a forest plan revision. If a scientific study finds that implementing a plan is destroying the health of a watershed or some other resource not anticipated by planners, forest managers must continue destroying that resource until they have revised the plan--a process that can take years.

Craig's bill supposedly minimizes such delays by imposing deadlines on all planning activities. Plans should take no longer than 30 months to write, 24 months to revise, and 12 months to amend. As reasonable as these deadlines seem, they are completely unenforceable. What happens when a forest fails to meet its deadline: Will the supervisor go to jail? Will Congress cut the forest's budget? Will someone lose their job? The answer to all three questions is "no."

Craig's bill also has provisions for of plan "balance," community stability, ecosystem management, budgets and costs, and monitoring. All of these will simply make the plans more vulnerable to appeals and litigation and may have serious unintended consequences if the courts interpret any of them in ways that Craig did not expect.

Craig would limit appeals to people who had participated in the planning process and place deadlines (again largely unenforceable) on deciding appeals. In contrast to these relatively minor changes in the appeals process, the bill creates an entirely new process: citizen petitions to revise or amend plans. If such petitions are used to their fullest by a wide range of interest groups, they could end up costing more time and money than the appeals process.

Despite the fact that the Thoreau Institute has helped people all over the country file successful appeals and lawsuits against forest plans, I am not sympathetic to those who say we need to preserve existing appeal and litigation rights. For all of the efforts of environmental groups, appeals and lawsuits have affected relatively small number of national forests (and even fewer BLM districts). We need an entirely new process that will improve management of all federal lands, not just those under the thumb of a sympathetic judge.

Changing Incentives

The real problem with the Forest Service is that its budgetary process biases it to losing money on environmentally destructive activities. The Craig bill will only make this worse.

The "land improvement funds" allows the Forest Service and BLM to keep all public land receipts that are in excess of the receipts projected by "the baseline budget of the President" and to spend those receipts on facilities maintenance, inventories, "or other land improvements." This will create or enhance all sorts of perverse incentives:

The "forest health credits" system is expressly copied from the purchaser road credits program. The problem with purchaser road credits is that, since the "timber is paying for the roads," forest managers have little incentive to keep road costs down. So they typically direct purchasers to build excessively wide roads to very high standards, even though those roads are not needed by recreationists, loggers, or other users.

A forest health credits system will have the same result. Forest managers will direct timber purchasers to do all kinds of work, some of it useful, some not, but never with regard to the cost efficiency of the work. The Treasury will get less money and agencies will be as or more bloated than ever before.

The bill also affirms continuation of expanded Forest Service and BLM salvage sale funds (which partly expired with the lapse of the 1995 salvage rider). These funds will allow managers to keep all receipts from salvage sales and spend them on forest health activities, including more salvage sales. Again, there is no incentive for managers to be efficient or to turn money over to the Treasury.

Politicizing the Forest Service

Several provisions of the Craig bill will directly or indirectly make the Forest Service more political, rather than less. Requiring senate confirmation for the Chief's office is one of the more direct steps. But the increasing micromanagement of the planning process and transfer of endangered species authority from a relatively independent agency to the Forest Service and BLM will both act to politicize the Forest Service.

Transferring Federal Lands to the States

Craig's bill offers national forests and BLM lands only one escape from increasing political meddling, micromanagement, and red tape. That is in title VI, which allows states to seek the transfer of national forests or BLM districts to them. The bill specifies that: This is an imaginative proposal that will no doubt receive the brunt of demonization by environmental groups. And fundamentally, their objections will be correct: There is no evidence that states, by virtue of being states, are fundamentally better land or fiscal managers than the federal government.

In 1995, the Thoreau Institute reviewed nearly 150 state forest, parks, and fish & wildlife agencies to see if they were consistently better than the Forest Service, Park Service, or other federal land agencies. While there were exceptions, our findings were that, in general:

The exceptional cases revolve mainly around the state trust lands, which are managed by the states for the benefit of schools or other state or local agencies. In some cases, these trust lands earn huge amounts of money for their beneficiaries, and their management is at least as sensitive to environmental concerns as the federal lands. Moreover, potentially at least, environmentalists have the option of outbidding timber purchasers or other land users for state resources--an option that does not exist on federal lands.

There are two problems with going from the trust lands to the idea that states should manage national forests and BLM districts. First, most state lands aren't trust lands, and they aren't managed any better than the federal lands. Second, many, if not most, state trust agencies lose money or do little better than break even and have proven resistant to environmental protection even when environmentalists are willing to outbid other uses.

The unique feature that makes state trust lands attractive is not that they are state lands but that they are trusts. Moreover, the best run trusts, such as the Washington Department of Natural Resources, are run with incentives in mind: Washington's DNR gets its funding exclusively out of a fixed share of its receipts.

So trusts and incentives, not state control, are the keys to improving federal land management. That is why the Thoreau Institute's proposals for reforming federal land agencies (described in more detail in Run Them Like Businesses) use those concepts but retain federal lands in federal ownership.

Senator Craig plans to hold a series of workshops on his bill before formally introducing it to Congress. This is an unusual step and Craig deserves credit for seeking such participation. Despite the flaws in the bill, Craig clearly understands that the Forest Service is broken and needs fixing. We need a solid public debate on how to fix it, and these workshops can provide the forum for such a debate.

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