Next Thursday, Nov. 18, marks the 40th Anniversary of publication of the “Bolle Report” in the Congressional Record in 1970 (Bolle Report in pdf). Our readers are likely familiar with the Bitterroot controversy and the importance of the Bolle Report in shaping contemporary National Forest law and management. But here is some background I wrote a while back just in case:
The Bitterroot controversy was a major flashpoint in American environmental history that engendered significant changes to national forest policy. It served as an important reference during a larger national debate about public lands management. The case brought into stark relief several issues that would come to characterize U.S forest politics and conflict, including the practice of clearcutting, forest economics, road building, federal budgetary pressures, and the role of public participation in natural resources management.
Responding to increased demand, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) began to more aggressively harvest timber after World War Two. This national change in management philosophy, from so-called custodian to timber production agency, was very apparent on the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF), located in the northern rocky mountain region of western Montana and Idaho. Here, the USFS used clearcutting and terracing silvicultural techniques to meet its timber production goals. Several citizens of the Bitterroot Valley, however, disliked this degree of intensive forest management and charged that it was environmentally and aesthetically harmful. Among other complaints, citizens objected to the practice or intensity of clearcutting and/or terracing, stream siltation and watershed impacts, excessive road building, the level of timber harvesting, real estate effects, and the inadequate attention given to other multiple uses.
In response, the BNF conducted its own task force appraisal acknowledging that land management could be improved and that communication between the agency and public had been “seriously inadequate.” It found insufficient multiple use planning principally at fault for management problems on the Bitterroot. It also observed an implicit attitude among personnel that “resource production goals come first and that land management considerations take second place.” But in the agency’s defense, it noted how this pressure to meet production goals comes from the federal level, and that Congress and the Executive branches had shown great interest in making sure the BNF met its timber sale objectives. While the Task Force admitted that mistakes had been made in the past, it defended the approved allowable cut on the forest, and found other criticisms regarding environmental impacts unwarranted.
Shortly thereafter, Montana Senator Lee Metcalf, from the Bitterroot Valley himself, responded to widespread constituent complaints about forest management, especially about clearcutting and the dominant role of timber production in USFS policy, by requesting an independent study of the problem by Dean Arnold Bolle of the University of Montana’s School of Forestry. Bolle appointed a select group of faculty members from the University of Montana to investigate, and this group went further in its critique of forest management on the Bitterroot and beyond.
The Committee began its report with the startling statement that “[m]ultiple use management, in fact, does not exist as the governing principle on the Bitterroot National Forest.” It viewed the controversy as substantial and legitimate, with local and national implications. The Committee’s approach was to contrast the actions of the USFS with the written policies and laws governing forest management. From there, the “Bolle Report,” as it became known, criticized the Bitterroot’s “overriding concern for sawtimber production” from an environmental, economic, organizational, and democratic standpoint. Other multiple uses and resource values were not given enough serious consideration according to the Report: “In a federal agency which measures success primarily by the quantity of timber produced weekly, monthly and annually, the staff of the [BNF] finds itself unable to change its course, to give anything but token recognition to related values, or to involve most of the local public in any way but as antagonists.” The subculture of forestry, it seemed to the Committee, was out of step with shifting American values and goals. Though professional dogma was partly to blame, the Bolle Report also found that “[t]he heavy timber orientation is built in by legislative action and control, by executive direction and by budgetary restriction.” The Report also focused on the economic irrationality of clearcutting and terracing on the Bitterroot, and the serious lack of democratic participation in forest management.
Together with a parallel case on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, the Bitterroot controversy helps explain the significant changes that were made to U.S. forest policy in the 1970s, including new guidelines on clearcutting in the National Forests, and passage of the National Forest Management Act in 1976. Though its significance continues to be debated, the latter at least partly addressed some of the issues in the Bitterroot conflict, like by placing limits on clearcutting, and giving the public a more meaningful role to play in forest management and planning. But these and other issues, like top-down federal budgetary pressures, road building, the economics of forestry, and the purpose of planning continue to cause controversy.”
A few years ago I spent a few days going through Dean Bolle’s files and correspondence that are archived here on campus. I left pretty humbled and a few things struck me. First, it made me really appreciate how controversial the Report actually was at the time. Newspaper coverage and clippings galore. And the Bolle Committee certainly took their lumps from disgruntled powers, from Montana’s timber industry to the Society of American Foresters. But it was also neat to see letters from distinguished faculty members from all over the country that were so impressed with the mavericks at Montana, some asking Dean Bolle how they could come to Missoula and do work that matters.
A lot has obviously changed since 1970. Take the Bitterroot for starters, as one could make the case that motorized recreation and development in the wildland urban interface are now the big issues of the day. When it comes to forest management, the general context is fundamentally different than it was back then, from new science and law to international trade deals.
But some of the issues addressed in the Bolle Report have been stubbornly persistent. Problematic Forest Service budgets, road building, the economics of forestry, and the purpose of planning and public participation continue to cause controversy. Consider, for example, some of the debate on this blog about financial incentives and the USFS and the use of commercial timber sales. And Some of our contributors still reference things said by some Bolle Committee members, like Dick Behan’s provocative argument that NFMA was a “solution to a non-existent problem.” He wasn’t exactly enamored with the forest planning mandate that somehow came out of the Bitterroot/Monongahela controversies—what he considered to be place-based problems with place-based solutions.
And so here we are, closing in on 2011, and we continue to ask about the purpose of planning, the adequacy of NFMA, and the meaning and future of multiple use.
Martin Nie, University of Montana