July, 2001

 

 

 

 

New Directions

By Jim Peterson

It appears that change is again in the wind in the United States Forest Service. Although it won't occur quickly - and never has - new Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth seems wedded to the idea that the agency needs to get reacquainted with western communities largely ignored during the Clinton years. "Too many day-to-day decisions that should have been made at the district ranger level were made in Washington, DC," said Mr. Bosworth to a capacity crowd at the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the Montana Logging Association. 

Dale Bosworth

"There is clearly a big disconnect between D.C. and the district rangers. Going forward, you are going to see more people from DC out on the ground helping get the work done." And there is a lot of work to do too. Among seasoned Forest Service fire fighters there is a widespread belief this year's wildfire season will surpass last year's - the worst in 50 years - both in terms of damage done and dollars spent. 

In the hope of heading off a fullfledged disaster, Congress last fall handed the Forest Service $2 billion to repair the damage last year's fires did, train more fire fighters, buy more fire fighting equipment and create fuel breaks around populous urban centers that adjoin at risk forests. In his remarks, Mr. Bosworth signaled his awareness that with so much money on the table, many will be watching to see how the Forest Service handles the worsening crisis. "If we don't perform, we won't be able to attract continued funding for the National Fire Plan," Mr. Bosworth. He urged loggers in the audience to get their equipment inspected immediately so they could be called upon to help battle blazes. 

Last year, the Forest Service was heavily criticized for not utilizing the equipment and manpower resources of the West's loggers, who had already been idled by conditions so dry that logging itself posed a fire risk. It is a criticism the agency hopes to avoid this year by making certain loggers are properly trained and equipped to help on the fire lines. But just how or when the Forest Service will start dealing with the underlying cause of the West's wildfire problem remains to be seen. For years, fire ecologists have been urging the agency and Congress to implement a long-term thinning program designed to reduce stand density in "at risk" National Forests. 

Mr. Bosworth, a second-generation, 35-year Forest Service veteran, is known to favor thinning programs. But he faces political, legal and regulatory entanglements that have made it very difficult for the agency to move forward with anything other than small collaborative pilot projects that pale when compared to the scale of the problem. Many doubt that the Forest Service has enough experienced people left in its ranks to deal with the fire crisis or any of the other politically more contentious issues facing the agency, including the need to implement a program that would slowly reduce the con risk of fire. But Mr. Bosworth is so confident that the agency's cloistered talent will rise to the occasion that he has ordered an internal review aimed at streamlining day-to-day operations. 

"We have to get our act together internally first," he says, acknowledging that the agency is facing a crisis of confidence in many quarters. "Otherwise, we will not succeed. Right now we're spending 80 percent of our time making sure we can win in court. I'm a strong supporter the intent of NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) and the Endangered Species Act but we have to find ways to get things done more efficiently on the ground than we have over the last few years." Mr. Bosworth is not the first Forest Service chief to express concern over the fact that the agency is frequently hamstrung in its efforts to move from the courtroom to the forest. The morass so frustrated former chief Jack Ward Thomas that he finally resigned. Few issues seem more certain to tax Mr. Bosworth's leadership skills than the hotly contested roadless plan. 

Federal Judge Edward Lodge blocked implementation in a May 10 ruling that many believe will force the Forest Service to conduct forest-by-forest public comment periods, something the Clinton Administration refused to do despite the pleas of rural groups that felt disenfranchised by the review process. "I was disappointed by the process. It went too far," Mr. Bosworth conceded, implying that Judge Lodge's ruling did not surprise him. "I support roadless values, but local knowledge needs to be considered in such momentous decisions, and it wasn't.' Perhaps mindful of the fact that a protracted roadless battle will consume an enormous amount of human capital and money, Mr. Bosworth expressed a concern for the possible loss of resources essential to the fire fighting effort and, in the longer term to forest restoration itself. 

In the hope of bridging the cultural chasm that now distances rural western logging and mining communities from more politically powerful urban environs, he suggested it might be time for the Forest Service to develop a rural urban cultural exchange program. "The Forest Service has been involved in foreign exchange programs for years," he said. "But there are no domestic exchange programs linking rural and urban communities.

We don't know each other very well. Nor do we respect one another's values. Healthy forests and healthy communities go hand in hand. We need to get this idea back into the equation." Acknowledging that rural America's resource producers make vital contributions to the nation's well being, Mr. Bosworth criticized groups bent on driving forest products manufacturers off shore into unregulated native forests where harvesting regulations are virtually non-existent. "It drives me nuts," he declared amid applause from an audience that clearly appreciated his endorsement of the environmental benefits that flow from this nation's typically well managed forests. 

In the ensuing question and answer period, Mr. Bosworth faced an intensive grilling from loggers who, though they liked him, doubted he could do much to change the political calculus that has pushed many into bankruptcy since the federal timber sale program imploded in the early 1990s. "What about categorical exclusions," one logger asked. "Will we get them back?" Categorical exclusions or "CE's" have been around since 1985 and were established by the Council on Environmental Quality to allow federal agencies to determine categories of action that do not require preparation of an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. 

The Forest Service used them for several years as a tool for fast tracking salvage sales that used existing roads. But in 1998 Heartwood, an environmental group based in the Southeast, challenged CE's in federal court and won on procedural grounds, in effect halting agency efforts to salvage and market dead timber. For his part, Mr. Bosworth has repeatedly stated that the agency is trying to figure out how to reinstate "CE's." Many in Congress are known to oppose legislation that would reinstate the exclusion for fear of being stung by environmentalists for supporting "son of salvage rider" legislation. 

Mr. Bosworth was also asked what harvesting level he considered sustainable in the Northern Region, which embraces all of western Montana. "It depends on what society wants from its forests in addition to wood," he answered. "The old volumes were sustainable if timber is the only consideration, but society's values have changed. Recreation and fish and wildlife have become more important. But I believe we can sustain a significantly higher harvesting level than we have now." One logger, clearly frustrated, asked what purpose discussion and dialogue with environmentalists might serve. "We've gone from a harvest of 135 million board feet per year to zero," he said. "What's left to discuss?" "We need to discuss how to get where we want to go," Mr. Bosworth answered. "The question that remains unanswered is, 'What condition does the public want its National Forests to be in?' Achieving forest health - which I believe the public desires -- is going to result in our taking more material off the land on purpose than we have in the last eight years." 

Mr. Bosworth was also asked why so many in the Forest Service seem to be unaware that technologically advanced cut-to-length harvesting systems can selectively remove dead and dying trees without leaving much of a footprint in the forest. "There is an internal transfer of information that needs to occur," Mr. Bosworth said. "Also, we are all victims of our own successes. People don't notice the re-growth in our forests and they don't recognize how logging is done today." Mr. Bosworth was also asked why the $2 billion National Fire Plan budget does not include dollars for commercial harvesting in areas where salvage and restoration work is planned. 

The plan, developed with input from the Clinton Administration, specifically excludes commercial harvesting. This despite the fact that many ecologists believe commercial harvesting of dead and dying timber, or undesired tree species is essential to the success of a long-term restoration program. "We need to use the best and most cost effective tools we have," Mr. Bosworth declared. "If it is a commercial harvest, use it. If it is a stewardship contract, use it." "There are no quick fixes for what ails the National Forest System," he concluded. "We need a sustained dialogue and sustained funding. And we need to respect one another's points of view." 

Jim Peterson is Executive Director of the Evergreen Foundation and publisher of Evergreen Magazine, which promotes science-based forestry and forest policy.

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