title>Subsidies Anonymous #18

Salvage Sales and Forest Health

The Salvage Sale Rider and the Knutson-Vandenburg Act

The salvage sale rider has had the same effect on the Forest Service as deregulation had on the savings & loan industry. Before 1980, savings & loans were allowed to make loans only on home mortgages, which tend to be low-risk loans. In exchange for this restriction, they were allowed to pay depositers higher interest rates and had their accounts protected by federal insurance.

Then deregulation took away the restrictions on the loans they could make without changing the deposit insurance. S&Ls could make as risky loans as they liked at no real risk, since the federal government insured their depositors. The result was disaster.

In the national forests, environmental appeals and lawsuits played the role of regulator, making sure that forests did not sell especially destructive sales. The Knutson-Vandenberg Act played the role of deposit insurance, giving the agency an incentive to sell timber no matter what the risk. Take away the regulator and the agency goes wild.

The effects are best seen not on the ground but in the Forest Service offices. Until 1990, timber was king because timber had all the money. K-V money could be spent on recreation, watershed, wildlife, and other resources--but the decisions to do so were made by timber people. So everyone had to bow before timber.

After 1990, environmental lawsuits combined with a cultural revolution within the Forest Service to knock timber down several pegs. With sales down to a quarter of historic levels, timber was no longer handing out much money, and no one felt they had to abide by the preferences of timber staff.

University of Arizona forestry professor Jon Souder tells what happened next. "Timber staff on Arizona forests were demoralized because everyone who resented their former power could now tell them what they really thought--that the timber people were assholes. When Congress passed the salvage sale rider, the timber staffs arranged sales not because they had any forest health problems but so they could get back their former power: the power to hand out money from the K-V fund."

Certainly there are forest health problems in the national forests. Sometimes--though probably not most of the time--timber sales may be an appropriate treatment for those problems. But under current incentives, managers are selling trees not to treat forest health but to augment their budgets.

More on Forest Health

The best book I have seen on the forest health issue is Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West, by Nancy Langston. Starting more than a century ago, Langston reviews all the effects people have had on western forests and how people's actions have often backfired.

Although she focuses on the Blue Mountains of Northeastern Oregon and Southeastern Washington, what she says has a lot of application for much of the Rockies as well. The book really shines when Langston reviews historic Forest Service documents showing what early foresters saw when they studied these forests and how they decided to manage them.

Contrary to popular belief, the early Forest Service was not ignorant of the role of fire in these forests. In fact, many forest officials knew well that keeping fire out would harm them--yet they did it anyway.

Langston documents two kinds of errors in forest management (this is my classification, not hers). First, foresters looked at the forests through a veil of their own preconceived notions. This often led them to make mistakes about how to manage the forests. For example, foresters assumed that, since fire killed most ponderosa pine seedlings, fires were bad for ponderosa pine. In fact, ponderosa seedlings had a higher survival rate than seedlings of other species, so fire was actually good for pine. Such scientific errors might eventually be corrected.

The second type of error was more spectacular: Foresters would correctly identify a problem, and then do the wrong thing anyway because it was in the agency's best interest to do so. For example, ponderosa was the most valuable species in these forests. Foresters in the teens and twenties knew that cutting pine but not the other species--a practice known as "high grading"--would result in forests dominated by the less valuable species. Yet the Forest Service repeatedly decided to allow timber purchasers to high grade Blue Mountain forests because it was the only way it could sell the timber and generate revenue for itself.

In other words, the scientific errors were self correcting as more data became available. But the real errors to actually proceed with the wrong prescriptions even when scientific data showed them to be wrong were not self correcting. In fact, the agency was reinforced in making those wrong decisions by the budgetary rewards it received from them.

Unfortunately, Langston does not evaluate the role the Knutson-Vandenberg Act and other budgetary laws had on the early Forest Service. All of the files she drew upon for research are apparently at the University of Washington on microfiche or film. Similar files--federal archives from regional and forest offices--are probably available at other universities and certainly at federal records centers.

Despite this analytical gap, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares should be a valuable tool for anyone trying to understand and influence the forest health debate. Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares was published in 1995 by the University of Washington Press.

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