Forest Service Report Documents Gridlock

June 13, 2002

A new report documents gridlock on the national forests, but fails to offer any solutions. The presentation of the issues could tempt Congress into accepting superficial solutions that benefit the Forest Service without solving any underlying problems.

On June 12, 2002, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth testified before a Congressional subcommittee and presented a report titled "The Process Predicament" to Congress, documenting "how statutory, regulatory, and administrative factors affect national forest management." While the report accurately describes many serious problems, it fails to dig into the underlying causes of those problems.

"Despite a century of devotion to conservationism" (sic), opens the report, "the Forest Service today faces a forest health crisis of tremendous proportions." It is more accurate to say that the forest health crisis is DUE TO decades of Forest Service devotion to fire suppression, clearcutting, and other questionable practices. Yet the report's rarely alludes to past agency mistakes.

Instead, the report focuses on the laws and regulations written in the past thirty years, often in response to outside criticism of Forest Service mismanagement. While written with good intentions, these laws and regulations, the report accurately notes, have led the Forest Service to "excessive analysis, ineffective public involvement, and management inefficiencies."

A previous study estimated that 40 percent of all the work done by national forests--about a quarter billion dollars a year--consists of planning and assessment. "Although some planning is obviously necessary," says "The Process Predicament," a substantial portion of this quarter billion dollars could be reprogrammed to actual on-the-ground work.

The report lists many examples of how regulations and red tape delay or prevent necessary work from being done. But basically, they come down to this: Environmental and other interest groups that want to stop most or all national forest activities can use procedural requirements to stop or delay projects.

The report cites one environmental group as saying, "We will require the Forest Service to follow the letter of the law." But following "the letter" of NEPA and other environmental laws may require years of work writing environmental assessments that are hundreds of pages long for relatively insignificant (and, claims the report, often highly beneficial) projects.

As one example, the report describes a plan aimed at reducing the fire hazards in a municipal watershed that cost $1 million and five years to write. "A suspicious public demanded more information than technically needed to justify a relatively simple fuels reduction project," says the report.

I reached many of these same conclusions more than a decade ago. In a 1990 report titled, "The Case for Repealing RPA and NFMA," I argued that "forest planning is too complicated and can't be done in a reasonable period of time or at a reasonable cost." Plus, I added that "public involvement doesn't work."

Instead of a central planning process, I argued, the Forest Service needed "forest perestroika," new incentives that would reward forest managers for doing good things and penalize them for doing bad things.

"The Process Predicament," however, makes no such recommendations. As Chief Bosworth said in introducing the report to Congress, "By design, the report I'm giving you today does not contain specific recommendations." Bosworth felt recommendations would be "distracting" from "the more immediate task at hand," which is "fully appreciating" the gridlock facing the Forest Service.

But the result of "appreciating" the gridlock is a desire to remove the superficial causes of the gridlock: the laws, regulations, appeals processes, and so forth. This fails to treat the underlying problem, which is that the Forest Service is not properly managing the national forests.

"Local constituents simply do not trust the Forest Service to do the right thing," observed the supervisor of the forest that tried to treat fuels in a municipal watershed. Those "constituents" have a good reason for their mistrust: The Forest Service has done the wrong thing so many times before.

"In the past, land managers have made mistakes," admits the report. But it claims these mistakes happened "because they (the managers) did not adequately understand natural systems."

In fact, as so well documented by Nancy Langston's book, "Forest Dreams Forest Nightmares," managers often knew they were doing exactly the wrong thing when they did it. Ashley Schiff's 1962 book, "Fire and Water," reveals that the Forest Service knew all along that fire suppression was bad and that private forest management didn't cause floods, but it publicly insisted on suppressing fire and blaming floods on private management so that it could maintain and expand its empire.

As I described in my book, "Reforming the Forest Service," perverse incentives built into the Forest Service budget:

None of these incentives have been changed, so the public still has no reason to trust the Forest Service. For example, one of the case studies cited by "The Process Predicament" deals with a huge timber sale planned in the Tongass National Forest. Ever-changing standards and directions caused delay after delay to the timber sale as sale planners scrambled to revise environmental documents to reflect the new information.

The problem with this example is that this sale should probably never take place. I am not familiar with this particular sale, but I am very familiar with the Tongass National Forest. I am 99 percent certain that this sale will cost taxpayers' money and that its negative effects on wildlife, watershed, recreation, and fisheries will be far greater than any benefits. Even if the Forest Service continues to waste money trying to arrange this sale, gridlock is saving taxpayers' money if it prevents the sale from ever taking place.

It is possible that the Tongass Forest could sell some timber at a profit and do so in an environmentally sound manner. But given the Forest Service's current incentives, which reward managers for losing money and penalize them for making a profit, that will never happen.

The environmentalists' solution to this problem is to maintain the current gridlock with the eventual goal of banning all commercial and many non-commercial activities from the national forests. Even if those activities could sometimes produce more benefits from harm, environmentalists rationalize that the likely harms under the current system are so great than it is worth it to forego any potential benefits.

The Forest Service's response is to complain about gridlock and claim that agency managers have learned their lessons and will do the job properly today if only they are given the freedom to do so. Managers will be sensitive to ecosystem health, potential resource conflicts, and public opinion. On their own, they will develop a new public involvement process based on collaboration rather than conflict.

This is at best wishful thinking and at worst highly deceptive. Managers today are just as human as ever, which means they are much more sensitive to their budgets than to ecosystem health or values. Since, as "The Process Predicament" takes great pains to point out, huge uncertainties will always remain in ecosystem management, managers will tend to resolve those uncertainties in ways that maximize their budgets. As in the cases of clearcutting and fire suppression, this tendency will in the long run push management farther and farther away from what both the public and scientific experts regard as a sound program.

With regards to public involvement, the report reassuringly claims that "the Forest Service increasingly sees itself as a partner in natural resource management" that "works within collaborative groups" to resolve controversies. Yet the report insists that "the final decision still rests with the agency," which means that collaborative decision making may be nothing more than a sham. Even where forest managers are sincere, collaboration won't work so long as one member of the public holds out--as Chief Bosworth's testimony shows in a case on the Hiawatha National Forest.

Solving forest gridlock will require something more than just relieving forest managers of red tape and paperwork. It will require an understanding within Congress that managers will always try to maximize their budgets. Sound on-the-ground management therefore requires new incentives that reward managers for producing a mix of resources that reflect public values and public need.

In the case of marketable resources such as timber and recreation, those incentives can be provided by user fees and a budgeting process that funds forest management out of the net income earned by those fees. In the case of non-marketable resources such as habitat for rare and endangered species, those incentives will have to be provided in other ways, perhaps through the trust concept or through the dedication of a certain share of user fees to non-market values.

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