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Politics Manages the Public Lands

  • Linda Platts
  • ©Andrew Lambeth

    Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle brings many skills to his job, including one few of us knew he possessed-that of professional land manager. In late July, he quietly attached an amendment allowing timber sales and fire-prevention treatment in his home state of South Dakota to a bill concerning terrorist attacks.

    With wildfires raging through many western forests this summer, Daschle is determined to protect the tourist-rich Black Hills National Forest. Using a clever trade-off, he called for 3,500 acres to be added to a wilderness area, and then clearly stipulated that thinning and logging activities in the national forest will be exempt from forest plans, environmental laws, public comment, appeals, or judicial review. What’s good for South Dakota is apparently not good for the rest of the country.

    While Daschle slipped his amendment in on the quiet, his message came through loud and clear: Public land management is totally politicized. On-the-ground federal land managers have little authority to care for the more than 400 million acres in their charge. These trained professionals, supported by biologists, botanists, forest ecologists, and a host of other scientific experts, are often taking orders from Washington politicians who know nothing about forest health.

    Nevertheless, with more than four million acres already charred and hundreds of new fires every week, Western politicians nearly trampled each other in their rush to win similar special treatment for their own states. Governor Jane Hull of Arizona, Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, Representative Denny Rehberg of Montana, and many other western congressional representatives want to free national forest land from regulations and move full speed ahead with thinning projects.

    Before ramming through legislation that could change the face of the West, it would be wise to consider how the current crisis came about. In the summer of 1910, a firestorm exploded in the Bitterroot Mountains and raged across Montana, Idaho, and Washington burning some three million acres. Smoke darkened the skies as far east as New York, it is said, and so traumatized the public that Congress voted to spend federal money for the first time on fighting forest fires. The new policy called for putting out every reported fire by 10 A.M. the next day.

    Unfortunately, the politicians failed to consult the experts. Even then, forest scientists knew that fire had long been a part of healthy forest systems and that certain forest types were fire-dependent. Nearly a century later, we are facing the disastrous consequences of this misguided political decision to eradicate fire from our forests.

    If we are to improve forest health, we need to get the politics out of forest management by severing the ties between the Forest Service and the congressional budget process. If the Forest Service was required to be self-supporting and generate its own revenues, managers would have the incentive to protect the long-term health of the resource. Freed from having to kowtow to politicians for their budgets, land managers could decide on the highest valued use of the land: recreation, wildlife habitat, watershed, or forest products.

    Fiscal accountability would also be an essential component of any self-supporting agency. Year after year, the General Accounting Office has criticized the Forest Service for the severity of its accounting and reporting deficiencies. One particularly glaring error arose in fiscal year 1995 when the Forest Service could not account for $215 million of its $3.4 billion operating budget. The GAO reports that the agency is “unable to reliably keep track of billions of dollars of major assets, cannot accurately allocate revenues and costs to its programs, and made significant errors in preparing its financial statements.”

    Freeing land management agencies from political meddling and making them self-sufficient is not impossible, and could lead to a wealth of creative management approaches such as those now employed on some private forests. One in particular, the Clinch Valley Forest Bank, the brainchild of the Nature Conservancy, deserves mention.

    The Clinch River Valley in southwest Virginia is one of the biologically richest watersheds in the country. Much of the land is owned by small private landowners, who may rely on the timber for income or to meet sudden cash needs such as medical emergencies and school tuition.

    The Nature Conservancy has come up with a plan that links conservation with the land’s economic productivity. Landowners may deposit the legal rights to their timber in return for an annual dividend of about 4 percent on the appraised value of the timber. The individuals retain ownership, but the bank acquires the right to grow, manage, and harvest the trees in perpetuity. To fund the dividend payments, the forest bank will harvest and sell the timber in a ecologically sound manner that protects the health of the watershed and the forest.

    Innovation should not be the sole province of the private sector. Our federal land managers, too, should provide our lands with the stewardship we expect and our lands deserve.

    Linda Platts is PERC’s editorial associate and Web site manager. This article was originally published by Tech Central Station under the title “Timber Tom the Hypocrite” on August 5, 2002, and is available at

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