Whittling away our forests

By Policy Director Jim DiPeso

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: The following op-ed was published on January 1, 2003 in the Albuquerque Tribune.


“Overreaching Don’t Pay” is the title of a chapter in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Like much else in America’s greatest novel, the Huck Finn chapter title contains a nugget of wisdom. The Bush administration ought to remember the perils of overreaching as it goes about junking carefully crafted rules in order to open up national forests to more logging, mining, and other commercial activities.

The administration’s proposed rule changes for managing national forests are disturbing on four counts.


First, the proposal is a radical departure from established forest planning practices, contradicting the administration’s purported interest in “sound science” as the basis for environmental management.

Under a federal law passed in 1976, each of the nation’s 155 national forests and grasslands must adopt a management plan that is revised every 15 years. The plans must spell out how forests will comply with their “multiple-use” mission, which includes wildlife conservation and protecting wilderness.

Current regulations specify that an environmental impact statement detailing the expected outcomes of alternative management strategies must accompany a new or revised plan and must be open to public review. Such documents ensure that Forest Service proposals receive independent scientific scrutiny and that forest managers have the information they need to make good choices.

But the Bush administration’s proposal would allow forest supervisors to skip the environmental impact statements. Eliminating the requirement for environmental studies is a prescription for “don’t ask, don’t tell” mismanagement that would clear the way for forest managers to boost commercial development at the expense of wildlife conservation and wilderness protection.


Second, the draft rules betray the administration’s penchant for cronyism — all-too obvious rewards for well-connected, well-heeled special interests that for years have gorged at the federal trough with a sense of entitlement. For timber producers, the new rules would mean a return to the socialist paradise — generous helpings of federal wood at artificially low prices.

The new rules came out of the bureaucratic shop run by Mark Rey, the Department of Agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service. It is no coincidence that Rey spent nearly 20 years with timber industry trade associations lobbying to manage the national forests as little more than taxpayer-subsidized wood lots.


Third, the philosophical compass guiding the proposal seems to be a nostalgic yearning for bygone days when the West was a colonial economy dominated by natural resource extraction. Such an obsolete vision doesn’t square with today’s facts. Empirical research shows that in the last few decades, the West’s economy has become more diverse and less vulnerable to the boom-and-bust instability typical of overdependence on resource extraction.


Finally, the proposal sends an off-putting message to citizens by insisting that objections to forest plan changes must contain “original, substantive comments” in order to be considered. The rule drafters’ intent may have been to make the forest planning process more manageable. Fair enough. But decreeing that simple letters or postcards will not be considered sounds too much like arrogant bureaucrats telling ordinary folks that their opinions are unimportant and unwelcome.

National forests are the property of those ordinary folks. Every citizen benefits from the vital services that national forests provide — clean water, clean air, fish, wildlife, open space, and recreation.

The administration’s proposals, however, would enable the Forest Service to return to its old, squandering habits of liquidating the public’s forests with little accountability.

The proposals are an overreach that won’t pay. Rushing through a deeply flawed proposal will result in more litigation, more political battles in Congress, and more civil disobedience in the woods.

We will return to the timber wars of the 1980s. The consequences will be disastrous for the national forests that are the heritage of every American, including the unborn future citizens for whom we are duty-bound to leave a clean, healthy world.