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Do We Get What We Pay For?

  • Holly Fretwell
  • “The concern for forests today is not simply that trees will die from bugs or diseases–it is that entire forest systems are so far out of normal ecological range that virtually every element in the system is affected, and may be at risk.”


    Americans and public land managers both want healthy forests on our federal lands. Indeed, the guiding philosophy of our public agencies is to preserve wilderness, biodiversity, and landscape beauty as well as to protect the soil, water, and air quality (FS 1998c, inside front cover). The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are mandated by Congress to provide for multiple uses–for the hunter and the hiker, for the logger and the four-wheeler.1 And the mission of the National Park Service is to conserve the scenery, the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife.2

    These goals are supported with hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated each year by Congress. There can be no question that forest health is a high priority for the land management agencies, and with generous funding the expectation should be for the highest quality land stewardship. But we are not achieving our goals. Something has gone wrong in the federal estate, and one does not have to be a forest ecologist to see that our national forests are at risk under the current management system.

    Despite romantic calls to save old-growth forests, most of us have never seen the forests as pictured in old photographs and described in pioneer journals. A hundred and fifty years ago, ponderosa pine covered nearly 40 million acres of the American West. Fires occurring as often as every 7 to 25 years burned the understory while leaving the hardy, fire-resistant pine unharmed (Arno, Scott, and Hartwell 1995, 21). Early settlers drove their wagons through parklike savannas under towering trees and paused to rest in the open meadows that dotted the forest landscape.3 Grasses flourished, berries soaked up the sun, and willows sent up tender shoots providing food for abundant wildlife.

    Today’s forests bear little resemblance to these earlier visions (Wickman 1992, 1). In many forests an understory of shade-tolerant Douglas fir has grown so dense it is difficult for man or animal to squeeze through the thickets of limbs. The trees compete for moisture and nourishment, leaving them in poor health and vulnerable to insects and disease. The grassy meadows and small, sunny openings have disappeared and along with them the willows, berries, and other forage for wildlife. As the forests have grown dense and the food supplies dwindled, the wildlife in many areas has also vanished.

    Why aren’t we getting what we pay for? Though hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked for federal land stewardship, the public is getting neither multiple-use benefits, fiscal responsibility, nor good resource stewardship. Our federal land managers are responding to perverse incentives and government obstacles that reduce the economic and ecological value of our national forests. Current Forest Service management would like us to believe that the agency is on the road to solving many of the problems in our forests by changing focus from timber production to healthy forests and fish and wildlife habitat. But the agency’s new emphasis on resource protection may in fact exacerbate some forest health problems. The problem is not simply the result of too much commodity production and too little wilderness protection.

    Federal Obstacles

    While some of our public forests meet high standards for health and vigor, many more are sick and ailing. Too often the problem can be traced to obstacles that frustrate managers who are attempting to apply sound science to their management practices.4

    Politics. Land management agencies are dependent upon Congress for their budgets. They must respond to political pressures to protect their budgets. Land managers may have to oversee expensive pet projects supported by influential congressional delegations, while other public resources under their care deteriorate for lack of funding. Standard forest management practices such as harvesting, thinning, and prescribed burns may have to be canceled or postponed when constituents complain. For example, it is widely known that fire is an integral part of healthy forest ecosystems, yet Congress provides unlimited funds for fire suppression. Public opposition to fire, which began with the great fires of 1910 in western Montana and eastern Idaho, virtually eliminated fire as a management technique, despite its proven scientific value (Peterson 1995, 9).

    Regulations. During the last thirty years, more than two hundred new regulations have been passed that impede managers from responding promptly to changing forest conditions. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Land and Management Policy Act, the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Public Range Improvement Act, among others, have the expressed goal of protecting the environment. But in some cases they have the opposite effect. Public comment periods and citizen appeals allowed under NEPA can result in lengthy delays to land management decisions that are critical to forest health. For example, insect infestations require immediate action by forest managers, but they face lengthy delays from regulations resulting in irreparable damage to millions of acres of national forest land.

    Short-Term Goals. Federal land managers are required to meet dozens of short-term goals for habitat and stream restoration, road construction and maintenance, timber sales, recreational visits, and more (FS 1998c, 3). A manager’s annual performance is measured by quantifying these goals. How many miles of roads were constructed? How many million board feet of lumber were sold? Managers meet such goals by dedicating resources to short-term projects. For example, a large cut that produces a high volume of timber at a low cost might be the best way to meet an annual goal. On the other hand, it could be detrimental to the long-term health of the forest. Instead, a selective harvest could provide openings attractive to wildlife, encourage forage, and reduce the dense structure of the forest. But because it would cost more, require more time, and produce less timber, such a harvest would not help a forest manager meet short-term goals.

    Lack of Positive Incentives. Federal land managers lack positive incentives to respond to consumer demands. Recreational users pay trivial or no fees, giving managers little incentive to change management practices.5 Instead, managers respond first to Congress, which funds their budgets. The recently created fee demonstration program is beginning to change some incentives. The ability to charge user fees and keep at least 80 percent of that money at the site for use at the managers’ discretion provides a positive incentive that has long been missing. Many of the projects funded by these fees have been in direct response to demands of paying visitors.

    Private and State Results

    Managers of state and private lands who must generate revenues show that it is also possible to produce healthy forests with abundant wildlife habitat, clear streams, and aesthetic beauty. They face fewer obstacles than federal forest managers and respond to strong financial motives. They are clearly getting different, and often better, results in their forests–a fact that might surprise some critics.

    State laws regulating forest management and environmental health issues are generally less burdensome than federal laws.6 Managers of state trust and private lands have more flexibility in responding to the changing conditions of the forest. State trust lands are required to generate revenue for the benefit of the public schools and other endowed institutions.7 To meet this mandate, state land managers have the freedom to use more discretion to enhance the long-term productivity of the land. A study by Don Leal (1995) shows that state timber land managers generate greater receipts at lower costs than federal timber managers while being more environmentally sensitive.

    Much like the states, individuals and corporations who manage private forest land are motivated by sustained long-term profits. Forest health becomes a top priority when management goals are to maximize long-term asset value and when market conditions support that goal. This report shows many examples of better resource stewardship on state and private lands than on similar federal lands, although the converse can occur. Poor markets, as well as restrictive regulations, can inhibit a manager’s incentive for long-term forest health. On the federal side, scientific research labs throughout the national forest system are showing improved management methods on experimental areas.

    A Sharper Image

    The following pages provide a image of our nation’s forests, both public and private. The photos illustrate how different incentives can result in different forests. Understanding the incentives that produce healthy, robust forests and the obstacles that are responsible for our sick and threatened ones can help us draft new policies for federal land management. By removing the barriers and providing the right incentives, we can return environmental health and vigor and economic viability to our public forests.

    Wildlife Under Fire

    After nearly a century of fire suppression, many of our forests are in grave danger of wildfire. A dry year and a spark can be the impetus for crown fires that take out millions of acres of forest land. The result is a devastated landscape prone to accelerated erosion. Among the many victims are fish and wildlife.

    In the summer of 1992, east of Boise, Idaho, a rare population of bull trout was destroyed by catastrophic fire. As the crown fire raced across the landscape it took more than timber resources; it took every living thing in its path as it spewed tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The fire scorched the stream down to the bedrock, wiping out the entire fish population.

    In eastern Oregon, the endangered spring chinook salmon makes its home in the Grand Ronde River. In 1989, a raging inferno known as the Tanner Gulch Fire triggered a debris torrent 36 miles upstream that wiped out the entire population of salmon. Dr. Victor Kaczynski, a fresh water biologist working on salmon recovery strategies, says, “No single forest practice–not timber harvesting, nor road building–can compare with the damage wildfires are inflicting on fish and fish habitat” (Evergreen, 1995, 53).

    A charred mountain slope devoid of vegetation leads to increased spring runoff and lower summer water volumes. The low water and lack of forest cover translate into higher water temperatures in the summer and colder water temperatures in the winter. Fish populations suffer from these extremes, and increased erosion chokes spawning beds with sediment. At the same time, valuable nutrients are removed from the forest floor.

    Attempting to eliminate fire from the natural forest ecosystem has also changed the composition of many public forests, thus increasing the risk of intense wildfire and disruption of wildlife. The forest types at greatest risk are found in the Inland West where historically frequent, low-intensity fires thinned the forest. Today satellite images of these forest lands show unusually large areas of dense growth with no openings or clearings. The greatest problems exist on public lands (Clark and Sampson 1995, 2).

    Much of the private forest land in the region is owned by timber companies that manage their land to protect the commercial value of the timber (Clark and Sampson 1995, 2). These forests are thinned and treated to reduce the threat of infestation, disease, and catastrophic fire. Selective harvesting creates a patchwork of openings that can serve as favored habitat for many plant and animal species. The clearings allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and encourage a variety of plants. Commercial cuts can be designed to resemble the patterns typically found in historic forests.

    Although natural fire cycles do not exist in most commercial forests, alternative treatments can protect the timber and the wildlife from catastrophic fires. Commercial forest managers have an incentive to provide quality wood products, but the same management techniques can also create forests that are hospitable to wildlife.

    Burn It!

    In 1988, fire burned nearly one-third of Yellowstone National Park, an area greater than the state of Delaware. “The changes in light were rapid, intense and immediate. From orange to startling white, to sepia to gloomy gray, the air itself seemed to take on a new color and texture as the wind-whipped fire sprinted toward Old Faithful” (McMillion 1998, A-30). Half a century of fire suppression had stoked the forest with fuel and turned the fire process that is a natural part of lodgepole pine regeneration into a roaring inferno. At a cost of $120 million, 25,000 firefighters risked their lives to control the blaze. Despite costly suppression efforts, the fire burned almost unhampered for months until seasonal rain and snow snuffed it out. “It was ultimately uncontrollable no matter what you did” said Bob Barbee, Superintendent of Yellowstone at the time (McMillion 1998, A-10). Yet it was the largest firefighting effort in the history of the United States.

    Scientists recognize that fire is a natural and necessary part of a healthy forest ecosystem. Ironically, the policy of fire suppression that has been in effect for nearly a century on our national forests has led to the catastrophic fires that cause massive damage to vegetation, wildlife, and watersheds. Smaller, less intense fires at more frequent intervals are known to have a restorative effect on forest ecosystems and certainly are less hazardous to human health. Harvest, thinning, and prescribed fires can mimic what were once naturally occurring small fires. They reduce the fuel load and the risk of catastrophic fire, thus protecting trees from death or injury from intense wildfire.

    Still, Congress continues to provide a blank check to cover firefighting services. The total firefighting bill is paid with tax dollars from emergency funds, not from the Forest Service budget. At an annual cost of $1 billion in 1996 (Nelson 1999, 2), battling summer blazes also provides a reliable stipend for many seasonal workers and is a politically popular economic boost to remote communities where firefighting efforts are based.

    Firefighting costs an estimated $400 to $500 per acre, often with little success. This does not include the additional costs associated with the destruction of wildlife habitat, soil erosion, water quality degradation, and forest restoration. The Forest Service projects an average increase in firefighting expenses of $19 million a year into the near future (Nelson 1999, 16).

    In contrast, fire prevention projects must be paid from the annually appropriated budget. Congress allots just $1.25 per acre for fire prevention on Forest Service land that is considered at high risk to wildfire. Little can be accomplished for that price, but for $40 to $50 per acre the Forest Service could manage the land to prevent inferno-type fires (Glickman 1997, 19). Using controlled burns, thinning, and other silviculture techniques, managers could provide healthy forest ecosystems as well as potential value from timber harvesting. Despite these benefits, the multimillion dollar emergency fund for firefighting provided by Congress is a powerful incentive to the Forest Service to make firefighting, not fire prevention, a high priority.

    A Bug’s Buffet

    Early named the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington for the constant haze of wildfire smoke that surrounded them. Frequent, small fires cleared the understory, allowing the stately, fire-resistant ponderosa pines to flourish. Wagon trains traveling west along the Oregon Trail rolled easily between the widely spaced trees of the open forest landscape.

    Today, these mountains are covered with grey ghosts. Nearly six million acres of trees are dead and dying from insect infestations (Peterson 1992, 4). Fire suppression, historic logging practices that removed many pines, and lack of intensive management turned the once open pine forest into a dense thicket of fir crowding beneath the remaining pines. Without fire to knock it back, the shade-tolerant fir proliferated under the mature pines. In the late 1940s, much of the pine overstory was logged, followed by a series of insect infestations.

    By the 1980s, the dense nature of the fir stands in the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests in the Blue Mountains made it ideal habitat for the western spruce budworm. The infestation spread rapidly, sometimes reaching epidemic proportions, yet it was seven years before national forest managers could respond to the onslaught. Speedy timber removal in some areas could have disrupted the infestation, but managers were restricted from taking immediate action by federal regulations and a lengthy public comment process (Committee on Agriculture 1997).

    On a neighboring forest owned by the Boise Cascade Corporation, loss from insect damage has been minimal.8 In northeastern Oregon, Boise Cascade’s timberlands have been continuously managed for many decades. Active forest management has been key to enhancing forest resiliency and resistance to disease and insect infestation. These same management practices have also protected the high commercial value of the timber. Working within current private land-use regulations, Boise Cascade forest managers have encouraged seral species such as ponderosa pine and Douglas fir and in many cases have maintained timber stands that are a close replica of the forests that stood in the Blue Mountains one hundred years ago.

    Industrial forests cover about 10 percent of the nation’s forest land. Managed to produce wood and paper products, they are generally maintained in young to middle-age stands, less susceptible to insects and disease. Forests managed in this way may lack the species diversity associated with more complex forest structures, but this problem is increasingly being addressed by streamside management zones. This allows for the development of old forest structure, thus producing multi-aged stands (Sampson and DeCoster 1998, 26).

    Growing Old Gracefully

    Giant trees crash to the forest floor crumbling beneath their own weight. A once magnificent forest is reduced to a jumble of dead timber. Each lost tree thins the overstory, which reduces the closed canopy. As a result, the Forest Service is losing the wildlife habitat it is attempting to preserve. Known as the “Valley of Death,” this region of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest of Northern California was designated a late successional reserve under President Clinton’s Pacific Northwest Forest Plan. These reserves were intended to serve as habitat for late successional and old-growth species including the northern spotted owl. A single pair of owls remains nested in the vicinity, but in the future it is unlikely that other species requiring mature forest habitat will find a home in this reserve. Opportunities for preserving late successional habitat are better on private lands less prone to catastrophic loss, says a forester with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

    Under the president’s forest plan, the thinning and salvage harvesting that would normally take place are not permitted. The result is higher mortality from disease and insects as well as greater risk of catastrophic loss due to fire. In the McCloud region of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest root disease and bark beetles have reached epidemic proportions, resulting in tree mortality as high as 80 percent in heavily infested areas. The consequences include severe fire hazard and the elimination of the very habitat for which the area was preserved.

    How to save what is left of the forest has been the subject of ongoing discussions for ten years. A late successional reserve assessment, required by the forest plan, is under way. Upon its completion, a federal impact analysis threatens to further postpone action as the controversy boils again. Frustrated by the maze of regulation, forest managers predict that it will be at least several more years before any treatment to halt the infestation takes place. Meanwhile, the area of tree mortality continues to expand, destroying approximately three hundred additional acres each year. Future plans for restoration must now include the high cost of removing the fuel buildup of dead trees, rather than the revenue that could have been generated from a thinning or salvage operation to improve forest health.

    Intermixed with the national forest land are private lands. Like the national forest, the land was originally logged at the turn of the century and has since grown into a forest providing late successional habitat. The private forests, however, have been thinned and salvage timber has been harvested, promoting optimum growth and forest health. These forests support habitat for northern spotted owls and carry low fuel loads, thus reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The landowners’ primary objective is to grow and harvest forest products while still providing a variety of other forest values, such as wildlife habitat, clean water, and recreation. Active management is the only way to ensure these values today and into the future.9

    One Spark From Disaster

    As the road dropped out of the Sierras into the Lake Tahoe basin below, the scenery made an abrupt change from healthy, green forests to dead and dying stands of timber. The congressmen on their way to the June 1997 Presidential Summit on the problems facing the lake and surrounding basin were taken aback by what they saw. Later, during a session on forest health, U.S. Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada exclaimed, “This forest looks like hell!”10 It appeared as if someone had drawn an imaginary line across the landscape and then nurtured the trees on one side, while destroying those on the other.

    The Tahoe Basin was once forested with well-spaced Jeffrey and ponderosa pines (WCSHF 1997, 3). Moderate intensity wildfires burned thousands of acres each year, preventing shade-tolerant fir from taking hold in the soils of the basin. In a tragedy of the commons, early settlers and silver miners razed most of the pines. Ensuing years of fire suppression and restricted harvest enabled fire-prone fir to grow in dense stands, replacing the earlier pines. The Forest Service estimates that basin forests are 82 percent denser today than in 1928 (WCSHF 1997, 3). Now, after eight years of drought, bark beetles and disease have ravaged overstocked stands, killing more than 80 percent of the trees (WCSHF 1997, 4).

    In jeopardy is Lake Tahoe, known as one of the clearest, deepest lakes in the world. Its beauty has drawn 60,000 residents to the basin area and attracts 3.5 million visitors every year. Deteriorating air quality is a growing concern, and the pristine quality of the lake is being threatened by erosion and pollution. Studies show it is losing nearly a foot in clarity each year.

    Ironically, forest management practices on surrounding federal lands have put at risk the very qualities they were supposed to preserve: the integrity of the forest and the clarity of the lake below. Environmental regulations have delayed some management actions and restricted timber harvests and forest treatments.

    Meanwhile, the forest has changed dramatically, resulting in high tree mortality. This tinderbox of dead and dying trees is at grave risk to wildfire that could threaten the basin with even greater erosion and air quality degradation, while destroying homes and vacation getaways sprinkled throughout the forest. The potential for loss of property and life to wildfire is higher than nearly anywhere else in California (WCSHF 1997, 3).

    To prevent increased erosion from wildfire, the Forest Service has estimated that 10,000 acres need to be treated annually–far more than the 200 acres now treated each year. As trees sicken and die, the once green forest is turning to shades of brown. A single spark could destroy the recreational opportunities and economic stability of the Lake Tahoe basin. Only through selective thinning and prescribed burn can the risk of conflagration be reduced.

    On adjacent lands just above the national forest, the trees remain vigorous and healthy. With a similar history of early forest clearing followed by fire suppression, these stands have escaped the bug infestation and high mortality. These privately owned timberlands are intensively managed to ensure vigor and high productivity. Unlike federal forest managers, private timberland managers responding to the bottom line have protected their forest assets overtime.

    The Invisible Harvest

    On gold-tinged hills covered in tall grass just outside Bozeman, Montana, developers planned a new housing development that would be environmentally sensitive, provide communal open space, and protect migratory routes for wildlife. It also offered magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. At the same time, the state was making plans of its own in the form of a timber harvest on Mount Ellis, which rises directly behind the new development offering residents a striking view of its forested slopes and snowy summit. Real estate developer “Hurricane Harry” raised a ruckus about the proposed cut as did the new property owners at Eagle Rock Reserve. They did not stop the logging, but they did change the way the timber was harvested.

    After the initial uproar, the state offered to stop the harvest if the homeowners agreed to pay for the timber as well as for what would normally regrow on the site during the next twenty years. The price for this “viewshed easement” came to $430,000. This may have been an accurate reflection of the value of two timber rotations, but it was more than the homeowners wanted to pay. The state continued to work on solutions and came up with a less expensive alternative that saved the view and earned a profit. The harvest was designed to mimic the natural mosaic of meadows caused by wind and fire. This effort added only 1 or 2 percent to the overall logging costs, making the sale of 1.1 million board feet profitable for both the state school fund and the logging contractor.

    Solutions of this sort are not so easy to come by when dealing with federal agencies. Just over the ridge in the Gallatin National Forest, the Forest Service harvested an unsightly clear cut that became known as the “diaper line.” When covered with snow from October to April, the large rectangular scars strung below a straight logging road resembled diapers hung out to dry. The public outcry was deafening and continued for years. Local groups petitioned the Forest Service to harvest additional timber around the edges of the cut to soften the harsh lines and make the openings appear more natural. This proved impossible, however, because the Forest Service had imposed a moratorium on timber harvesting to protect the watershed.11

    Thirteen years passed before the Bozeman Creek sale was reharvested to feather the edges of the clear cut. While working toward its timber volume goal, the Forest Service apparently did not anticipate the public backlash from the highly visible clear cut. Caught in the political turmoil that followed, the agency found that it was hamstrung by its own regulations, unable to modify the cut and quell the outcry for more than a decade.

    The Profit Motive

    Summer campouts, fall hunting trips, and year-round rambles in fragrant pine forests were a treasured part of life for thousands of residents of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Without free access to large areas of public lands such as in the West, these outdoor enthusiasts relied on the generosity of the International Paper Company (IP) to provide them with free use of its 1.2 million acres of private timberlands in the mid-south. Despite this heavy recreational use, the company managed its lands with one goal in mind–timber production, the main source of its revenue.

    By the early 1980s, however, the steadily increasing demand for recreation convinced company executives that charging fees for recreation made sense. Through the sale of daily use permits, seasonal family permits, and multi-year leases to hunting clubs, the company generated significant revenues (Anderson and Leal 1997, 4-8). From zero in 1980, revenues grew to $2 million in 1986, representing 25 percent of the company’s total profits in that region (Anderson and Leal 1997, 6). By 1999, the earnings from non-timber sources were $5 million.12 As the profits grew, so did the incentive to manage the forests for recreation as well as timber.

    To enhance wildlife production, corridors of trees were maintained between harvest areas for wildlife movement. In areas that previously would have been clear cut, clumps of trees were left standing to provide greater age diversity. The overall size of the timber cuts was reduced and the perimeters made irregular, thus more attractive to a greater variety of wildlife. Riparian areas were protected by restricting harvests along streams. Long-term contracts with hunting clubs provided an incentive for the club members to act as stewards of their leased land and work cooperatively with IP managers.

    These efforts have paid big dividends to wildlife and stockholders. Game surveys in 1996 showed that populations of whitetail deer increased fivefold and turkey tenfold, along with substantial increases in fox, quail, ducks, and nongame populations. The incentive for IP to change its land management came from the revenues generated by fee-based recreation programs and the growing interest in sustainable forest management.13

    Until recently, most of the fees collected on federal lands were returned to the treasury. Visitor demands for more recreational opportunities or increased wildlife were not addressed. Forest managers had no incentive to spend the money appropriated by Congress on visitors who made no direct financial contribution.

    The good news is federal officials are beginning to recognize the importance of revenues from recreation. The bad news is, they have yet to learn what IP has discovered: Integrating timber production and wildlife conservation can be beneficial.

    What A Difference Fees Make

    Located deep in the red rock canyon country of southeastern, Natural Bridges National Monument is the destination of nearly 150,000 visitors a year.14 Meandering streams have cut through sandstone walls to form some of the world’s largest natural bridges. Hiking the trails of this remarkable monument is the main attraction for tourists, and it has also been the source of serious damage to the area’s fragile ecosystem.

    The delicate surface soils found in this arid region form a living crust that is particularly vulnerable to the compression stress of footprints or tires. Visitors who leave the designated trails damage the crust, making it vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Impacted areas are slow to recover, taking fifty years or longer. Despite deteriorating conditions in many areas of the monument, managers have received no money from Congress for trail improvements or repairs for the last thirteen years.

    Historically, recreation fees collected on federal lands such as Natural Bridges were returned to the national treasury except for a small percentage that was retained to fund the fee collection program. Since none of the money was available for use at the site, managers had no incentive to operate a rigorous fee collection program. The Fee Demonstration Program, authorized in 1996, has begun to change management incentives. Pilot sites are allowed to keep at least 80 percent of the fees earned at the site with the remainder returned to the land agency for use at nonparticipating units. In fiscal year 1997, the National Park Service collected $45.1 million, the Forest Service collected $8.7 million, the Fish and Wildlife Service collected $2.1 million, and the Bureau of Land Management collected $419,000 (USDI and USDA 1998, 2-4).

    At Natural Bridges, the fees have allowed the managers to hire a trail supervisor and crew and to buy tools and materials to operate a sustainable trails program. Already the crew has reconstructed 5,000 feet of trails that were hazardous to visitors and damaging to the natural resource. They have also made repairs to another seven miles of trails. Plans for 1999 call for more reconstruction of trails that are literally falling apart and repairs to eroded areas.

    The new fees paid by recreational users have allowed managers to respond to the needs of the visitors and also protect the natural resources in ways that were impossible when all funding for the monument was coming from congressional appropriations.

    A Tale of Two Forests

    As darkness fell over the weary hunters returning to camp, the grins on their faces told the tale of a successful hunt–five trophy-sized elk harvested in five days. The largest bull scored 404 points, easily surpassing the 375 points required for entry into the Boone and Crockett record book. Because of today’s crowded hunting conditions, this would be considered an extraordinary hunt in most parts the country, but it was typical for the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona.

    Prior to 1977, the Arizona Game and Fish Department had managed hunting on the reservation. Its goal was to maximize hunter days, which translated into 700 annual elk permits at $150 each. When the White Mountain Apache tribe took control of hunting on the reservation, it made some drastic changes. In its first year of operation, the tribe issued just 12 permits, but the price was $750 each. Today, through careful management of wildlife habitat, the tribe has arguably the best elk herd in North America. Only 70 permits are now issued each year for trophy bull elk and they cost upwards of $24,000 each. The waiting list for a permit is five years (Anderson and Leal 1997, 150-53).

    To improve the quality of the herd, the tribe not only reduced hunting pressure, but hired biologists to assist with land management. Open meadows that provide abundant forage were protected, livestock grazing was reduced, and logging was restricted in the high country, riparian zones, and mountain meadows. But timber is still a top-revenue producer at $7 million a year (Cornell and Kalt 1992, 224).

    By combining market incentives with a tradition of land stewardship, the White Mountain Apache tribe has developed a flourishing wildlife community, recreational activities, and 700,000 acres of productive forest land in east central Arizona. Through careful management, the tribe has further enhanced its already substantial income from natural resources.

    In contrast, elk are disappearing from the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, once considered a mecca for wildlife. Much of the Clearwater basin burned in the great fires of 1910 that were the impetus for the fire suppression policies adopted by the Forest Service. Since then, the forest has been managed in the absence of fire, resulting in an even-aged stand of dense fir. Without the openings and meadows historically created by fire, the elk have nowhere to graze. The dense thicket of undergrowth blocks the sunlight and prevents the growth of essential forage. Over time, elk and other wildlife have virtually disappeared from the forest ecosystem.15

    Only recently has public dissatisfaction prompted federal managers to act. A working group composed of local citizens, the Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has formed to create solutions and lure the elk back into the Clearwater.

    Harvest for Habitat

    The Reserve, 40 miles northwest of Charleston, North Carolina, harbors the oldest wading bird rookery in North America. Owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy as a wildlife sanctuary, the 1,040-acre site also is habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker which makes its home in the long leaf pines.16 The woodpecker excavates cavities in the living trees when they reach about 80 years of age. There are few documented cases of the birds being found in stands less than 30 to 40 years old, but the number of woodpeckers increases dramatically as the age of the stand reaches 80 to 100 years.

    With that in mind, the managers at the reserve encourage the growth of large, mature pines with mechanical thinning to reduce competition for sunlight and nutrients. They use prescribed burns to inhibit underbrush growth, create small openings in the forest, and improve the forage for wildlife. Timber revenues from selective cuts help pay for the management of the reserve. And, of course, the Nature Conservancy depends upon its members for contributions, thus providing an incentive to pursue its conservation activities.

    Other private landowners who have provided habitat for endangered species have been thwarted by the very law that was designed to protect these species. Many private pine forests in the south are managed for their long-term timber asset. These pine stands also provide wildlife habitat, and are often managed for hunting and other recreation. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), however, permits the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restrict landowner rights if endangered species habitat exists on the land.

    A private landowner with a known red-cockaded woodpecker nesting site may be prohibited from harvesting land after decades of investment in timber management. Ben Cone of North Carolina is a case in point. Cone managed 7,200 acres of timberland with 70-80 year harvest rotations, small cuts, and controlled burns, which aided not only the return of the wild turkey, but also created habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker. When the endangered woodpecker took up residence on Cone’s land, more than 1,500 acres were placed under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (see Stroup 1997). In response, Cone began a harvest rotation of 40 years on the rest of his land in order to eliminate the mature pines favored by the woodpecker and also remove any possibility that the federal government would take control of his remaining land.

    Ben Cone’s experience is not an isolated incident, as a study by economists Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael (1999) confirms. Using data from hundreds of forest plots in North Carolina, they found that the more red-cockaded woodpeckers in the vicinity, the more likely the landowners were to harvest younger trees. If no colonies were found within a 25-mile radius, the harvest age was 58 years. When 25 colonies were present, the harvest age fell to 36 years and with 437 colonies (the maximum density in North Carolina), the harvest age was just 16 years (Lueck and Michael 1999, 36). The landowners’ incentive for using this shorter rotation was to ensure the birds did not move onto their property, possibly leading to land-use restrictions. Clearly, the ESA is creating perverse incentives.

    If You Build Them, They Will Come

    September is a month of stunning beauty at the Snow Bank Recreation Area in southwestern Montana’s Gallatin National Forest. The vibrant yellows and oranges of the aspens and cottonwoods mix with the deep greens of pine and spruce to create an arresting tapestry. Thousands of recreationists are drawn into the forest for a weekend drive or an end-of-season campout. Cars, trucks, RVs, ATVs, and mountain bikes crowd the road sending plumes of dust into the air. This Forest Service road and many more like it are thoroughfares providing millions of Americans with easy access to the nation’s forests.

    In fact, there are 380,000 miles of Forest Service roads, a distance eight times longer than our interstate highway system. And like our interstates, they are built to carry heavy traffic and remain in perpetuity. These high-quality roads are expensive projects; in 1997, the average cost for one mile of Forest Service road was $64,000 (FS 1998a, 163). Although originally built for timber removal and paid for with congressional appropriations for the timber harvesting program, 98 percent of their use is for recreation. Yet recreational users pay nothing for these roads–neither for their construction nor their maintenance.

    Congressional appropriations for road building create an incentive to build more and more roads in the national forests. The projects provide work for Forest Service engineers, planners, and other staff, expanding the size of the agency. Furthermore, forest managers must add roads for recreational use in order to meet their annual goals; the more roads, the higher their performance rating.

    The excessive number of roads running through the forests are beginning to take their toll on the environment. During the first half of the century, roads were built to much lower standards. Many of these roads are now deteriorating, causing hillside erosion, water quality degradation, and other environmental problems. Congress continues to appropriate money for road building but little for maintenance. As a result, there is now a maintenance backlog of $10 billion (FS 1998b, 19).

    Recreation fees could help maintain roads and also ration visitors in congested areas. Without these fees or a bottom line where operating costs are funded from revenues, federal forest managers have no incentive to reduce road building, make repairs, or obliterate timber roads. In fact they have the incentive to do just the opposite.17

    Alternatively, state timber roads cost less and are less damaging to the environment. Building specifications are much lower than federal standards because of the planned short-term use. For example, in Montana a state timber road costs about $5,000 per mile and is built solely for the purpose of timber removal and reforestation. The fact that state managers must adhere to a bottom line prevents overinvestment in roads. Furthermore, state forests are required to generate a positive return for public schools. Thus, many roads are routinely obliterated, eliminating the threat of environmental damage or the need for maintenance. Some are retained as foot trails for recreational use and in some states, such as Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico, a small fee is charged for recreation on state lands (see Fretwell 1998, 13-14).

    Healthy Forests=Healthy Profits

    In May 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted violently in western Washington. More than 1,300 feet of the mountain’s top cascaded into the Toutle River Valley below. The blast killed 57 people and devastated 150,000 acres of private, state, and national forest land. Weyerhaeuser Company, the largest private landowner affected by the eruption, lost 68,000 acres of its St. Helens Tree Farm. Quick action by the company, however, has been handsomely rewarded by the healthy forest that is growing there today.18

    Salvage harvest operations begun that fall saved 850 million board feet of timber, enough to build 85,000 three-bedroom homes. Extensive restoration followed and by June of 1987 more than 18 million Douglas fir and noble fir seedlings were growing on company lands ravaged by the eruption. These young trees, many now over 45 feet tall, are rebuilding a healthy forest ecosystem.

    The commercial loss to the company was an incentive for quick reforestation to return the land to productivity. Although the restoration work was primarily motivated by economics, it also returned environmental quality to the blast area by preventing erosion, improving water quality, and restoring wildlife habitat.

    Adjacent to the Weyerhaeuser lands, Congress set aside federal land as the National Volcanic Monument, an outdoor museum that would document the natural restoration process. The accompanying educational programs and displays have drawn millions of visitors to the site. The Weyerhaeuser land next door is an education in a different respect. Nearly twenty years after the eruption, a new forest is growing on the private land, while the monument land shows few signs of recovery. Allowing nature to take its course is not always the best alternative, unless the objective is to create a living museum. With the right incentives, man can lend a helping hand to nature.


    Americans are not getting what they pay for. Although hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on our federal forest lands every year to ensure ecological health, productivity, and biodiversity, the photos and stories in this report show forests that exhibit almost none of these values. Instead, they are inhospitable to both wildlife and recreational visitors and at risk of devastation from disease, insects, and catastrophic wildfire.

    Our federal land management system is clearly dysfunctional and harmful to the health of our national forests. Forest managers must respond to a multitude of demands that are contrary to their goal of healthy forest ecosystems: political interests, short-term bureaucratic goals, perverse incentives, and stultifying layers of regulations that reflect neither local nor regional differences.

    Yet other timber lands exhibit healthy, vigorous forest ecosystems. Private land owners who grow trees for commercial harvest have a long-term commitment to the value of the timber and a strong incentive to manage for a productive forest. In recent years, the growing market in outdoor recreation has created additional incentives for private owners to manage their lands for wildlife, recreational opportunities, and other environmental amenities. Similarly, the managers of state trust lands have shown that with less political interference and clear mandates to generate revenues for public schools, public timberlands can be managed to benefit both forest health and the state residents.

    The solution proposed by environmentalists and being rapidly embraced by the Forest Service is to stop logging and focus on recreation. But this report and the recent GAO report show that logging should be part of the ecological and economic solution.

    Federal forest managers could restore our public forests to health and productivity if only Congress would remove the barriers and provide positive incentives for sound scientific management. Toward that end, we recommend several policy changes:

    Require federal forest managers to pay costs from revenues earned. Managers would be responsible for setting recreational fees, planning harvests, and creating other revenue opportunities compatible with forest health. When these revenues are retained by managers, they create a positive incentive to respond to visitor demands and protect the resources, while also insulating the managers from political pressures.

    Decentralize forest management by allowing local and regional concerns to guide management decisions. Applying the same set of principles to forests in widely differing regions can prove more harmful than beneficial.

    Encourage competitive bidding for forest uses. Managers could accept fees for retaining timber stands or harvesting them. The relative value of forest uses–recreation, environmental protection, or commodity production–helps managers determine the resource’s best use and eliminates gridlock.

    Devolve some federal forest lands to state or private management. Private property owners and state agencies manage their lands for the greatest productivity, including both commodities and environmental amenities.


    1. As defined in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (43 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1701).

    2. As defined by the Organic Act of 1916 (16 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1).

    3. This is illustrated in an excerpt from the 1853 journal of Miss Rebecca Ketcham: “Our road has been nearly the whole day through the woods, that is, if beautiful groves of pine trees can be called woods. . . .The country all through is burnt over, so often there is not the least underbrush, but the grass grows thick and beautiful. It is now ripe and yellow and in the spaces between the groves looks like fields of grain ripened, ready for the harvest” (Wickman 1992, 1).

    4. See also GAO (1999).

    5. Prior to the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, few Forest Service and BLM sites charged fees for recreational use. See Fretwell (1998).

    6. Many western states have adopted state environmental policy acts similar to NEPA. California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington have timber harvest restrictions comparable to national requirements. See also Fretwell (1998).

    7. Most western states were provided grants of land upon their creation for the benefit of the public schools and other state institutions. States receiving school trust grant lands are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

    8. Data in this section provided through written and phone communication with Cassandra Botts, Communications Manager, Boise Cascade, Joseph, Oregon, September 1, 1998 and February 1999.

    9. Written communication from Nancy Ingalsbee, Klamath Alliance for Resources and Environment, Yreka, California, January 12, 1999.

    10. Telephone communication with John Hoffman, Vice President of Government Affairs, California Forestry Association, Sacramento, California, December 5, 1998.

    11. Interview of Kimberly Schlenker, Staff Assistant, Recreation Wilderness Landscape Management, Gallatin National Forest, Bozeman, Montana, October 7, 1998.

    12. Telephone communication with Tom Bourland, wildlife biologist, Crawford and Bourland, Inc., Shreveport, Louisiana, May 26, 1999. Bourland was previously wildlife manager of IP’s mid-south region.

    13. IP has also begun to certify its lands under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The economic incentive of a more marketable end product also drives timber management decisions.

    14. Written communication with Keith Stegall, SEUG Trails Coordinator, Canyon Lands National Park, Moab, Utah, December 18, 1998.

    15. Telephone communication with Greg Serveen, Environmental Staff Biologist, Fish and Wildlife Service, Lewiston, Idaho, September 21, 1998.

    16. Telephone communication with Pam Robinson, Environmental Ecologist, the Nature Conservancy, Columbia, South Carolina, September 17, 1998.

    17. In 1999 a moratorium on new road construction in national forest roadless areas took effect. This one-size-fits-all rule restricts many managers from effective forest management.

    18. Information in this section taken from pamphlets provided by Weyerhaeuser Company (Tacoma, Washington): Mount St. Helens Weyerhaeuser’s Reforestation and The Pacific Northwest Working Forest: For Generations to Come.


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    ——. 1998b. National Forest Road Systems and Use. Draft. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, January 30.

    ——. 1998c. Report of the Forest Service. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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    Peterson, Jim. 1992. Grey Ghosts in the Blue Mountains. Evergreen Magazine, January/February, 3-8.

    ——. 1995. The 1910 Fire. Evergreen Magazine, Winter 1994-1995, 8-13.

    Sampson, R. Neil, and Lester A. DeCoster. 1998. Forest Health in the United States. Washington, DC: American Forests, Forest Policy Center.

    Stroup, Richard L. 1997. The Economics of Compensating Property Owners. Contemporary Economic Policy 15(October): 55-65.

    U.S. Department of the Interior (USDI) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 1998. Recreation Fee Demonstration Program: Progress Report to Congress. Vol. 1: Overview and Summary. Washington, DC, January 31.

    Western Communities for Safe and Healthy Forests (WCSHF). 1997. Media Resource Guide: The Lake Tahoe Presidential Event. Sacramento, CA.

    Wickman, Boyd E. 1992. Forest Health in the Blue Mountains. General Technical Report PNW-GTR-295. Portland, OR: USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, March.

    Written By
    • Holly Fretwell
      Holly Fretwell
      • Research Fellow

      Holly Fretwell is a research fellow at PERC, where for more than two decades she has researched public land policy, property rights, and markets.

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