Our Forests: Two Worldviews

Americans continue to struggle with the idea of a public good, a “res publica,” in their national forests. We struggle in terms of both purpose of the national forests and how to best manage them. Herein we will contrast two different views of ‘national forests: for whom and for what.’ The first view comes from Dave Skinner, in a recent op-ed titled Impossible Dreams at the Flathead Beacon. The second view is mine, as aired here at the New Century of Forest Planning.

As I read through Dave Skinner’s “Impossible Dreams,” I reminded myself of just how diverse our worldviews are. Skinner views the world in a crass form of utilitarianism where forests are to be used for products and human pleasures: logs to flow freely to mills to make things, but also to generate monies to be returned to the treasury. Other ‘multiple use’ products flow freely too: oil and gas, minerals, red meat, and more. Roads are for human travel and to ‘manage’ the forests, recreation is for fun and, incidentally to be free, in part subsidized by timber and other products from the forests. [Note: The “to be free” tidbit is not in Skinner’s article, but is clearly what Skinner preaches elsewhere. Note further that I too share the idea of recreation for free outside certain improved sites. I also support commodity and service production from the national forests, but in a frame much more constrained than does Skinner.] Skinner makes no mention of environmental services, no mention of wildlife sanctuaries, no mention of sanctuaries for the human spirit. This is Skinner’s near-possible dream: that people might warm up to the idea that national forests ought to be managed for the version of multiple use embodied in the Multiple Use — Sustained Yield Act of 1960 (MUSY). MUSY predated the spate of environmental laws the were ushered in a mere decade later, following an upwelling of outrage at the wanton disregard for ‘caring for the earth’ that led to the passage of many US environmental laws and led to the celebration of Earth Day as a reminder of what damage we have done to our home—and as a reminder that we must now do better. These “US environmental laws” laws include the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and more. Skinner’s “impossible dream” is that the national forests would be better managed in the tradition of state trust lands, echoing Robert Nelson’s similar push to Free America from Her Public Lands.

I too have an impossible dream. A dream that the Forest Service will finally take Aldo Leopold seriously, and move management toward the ideal that people become part of the “land community,” not overlords of the wild, neither zoo-keepers of the wildlife and garden-tenders of the forest. My dream is also that the Forest Service work up this dream hand in hand with the American people, through the Art and Promise of Adaptive Governance, helping lead America toward sustainability and ecological resilience/restoration. I suspect the Forest Service harbors a similar dream, although I don’t believe that they share my path toward that dream.

Here is a condensed version of Skinner’s Impossible Dreams, Flathead Beacon, 4/11/2012:

Golly gee, yet another U.S. Forest Service project has been blocked in court, [by environmental extremists]. …

Yet again, I found myself “thanking” Congress for writing laws enabling a handful of misanthropic kooks to utterly waste the labors of hundreds of professional, professionally paid public employees. ..

Um, what’s it called when you do the same things over and over and expect different results? Crazy!

Utah’s government is trying something different. On March 23, Utah passed House Bill 148 into law, demanding the Feds transfer title to public lands … by the end of 2014. … Arizona … passed a nearly identical bill (SB 1332) through their Senate, but it died (for now) in Arizona’s House Rules committee. The bill sponsor … told the Arizona Republic he spearheaded the legislation because “in the last 30 years, the radical environmental policies of these federal agencies have ground [resource] industries to a halt ….”

Now, it’s constitutionally impossible to force such a transfer. But — what if a bunch of states followed Utah’s lead, and Congress went along?

In attacking [the] bill, Arizona Sierra Clubber Sandy Bahr rhetorically asked, “How in the world do they [states] think they could manage these federal public lands?”

Turns out the states (and tribes) already do a better job: Oregon State University forest engineering professor John Sessions has studied the comparative costs of forest management under various ownerships (federal, tribal, state, and private). Dr. Sessions found that, in post-spotted-owl Washington and Oregon, annual management budgets across ownerships were roughly comparable.

But when based on timber sold (which pays for management, imagine that), Indian forests harvested a thousand board feet for every $92 of budget. Private and state operators were in the $102-$107 range, with the Forest Service at a ridiculous $1,296. At the time (2001), wood stumpage in the region ran $150-$300 a thousand, putting USFS costs at four to eight times revenues — a loss carried by taxpayers. Other forests supported themselves.

Sessions’ pattern seems to hold for Montana, too. Both state and tribal forest management programs in Montana, operated under state or tribal laws and regulations, are fiscally self-supporting. More important, they are good, even excellent, forestry. …

If [the Flathead National Forest] could sell its plan maximum (50 million feet), meeting FNF expenses with revenues is an impossible dream — a dream doomed to remain impossible as long as these lands are “managed” by federal employees under federal law applied in federal courts.

So, while Greens like Ms. Bahr are doing everything possible to portray legislation such as Utah’s as impossible, even crazy – the current federal land management regime is no less crazy.

Congress should seriously consider allowing states (and tribes) so inclined to have a go at managing these lands — if they succeed, they keep the land. ….

For those not familiar with Skinner’s narrow, antiquated views and exhortations on this and other multiple use matters, neither with the legacy of plunder associated with both the Forest Service’s multiple use timber management of the 1960s and 1970s, I simply ask you to ponder a few good books, including Paul Hirt’s A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two and Richard W. Behan’s Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands. David Clary’s Timber and the Forest Service is also useful to get a flavor of the religious zeal that drove Forest Service timber management back in the go-go years.

As to what Skinner calls “excellent forestry” on the state trust lands, all I can say is that ‘trusts’ are a good way to raise money from land. As to biodiversity conservation, ecosystems services for clean air and water, aesthetic considerations, wilderness, and other uses and values not amenable to commodification, I believe other avenues for forest management offer much better solutions to the res publica idea of national forests, parks, and monuments.

The jury is out as to what we want for our national forests in this emerging century. Somehow I don’t believe that “we,” the American people, really want to take the ‘forest land trust’ path, back toward those ‘thrilling days of yesteryear’. As for me, I’ll continue to support the Forest Service’s move toward Leopold’s philosophy/practice. And I’ll continue to champion public engagement in the process when done legally, and with and eye toward fairness.

9 thoughts on “Our Forests: Two Worldviews”

  1. The utilitarian vision articulated here is geared toward corporate values that are easily internalized, e.g. private profits for the few, public “externalities” for the many. What’s missing is any recognition that there are purely utilitarian-economic reasons for forest conservation.

    Forests Need Protection from Market Failures

    If markets were perfect they would allocate resources in an optimal way to meet the needs for wood, water, wildlife, scenery, and climate stability, but markets are not perfect.

    When markets are imperfect it leads to inefficient allocation of resources or market failures. For instance, in the case of logging, there are numerous negative “externalities” such as water pollution, habitat loss, and greenhouse gas emissions, which shift some of the economic costs of production off the books of timber producers. These costs are then borne by the public in the form of polluted water supplies, reduced enjoyment of wildlife, and climate instability. This causes logs to be under-priced and over-produced.

    Meanwhile, well-conserved forests provide numerous “public goods” such as clean water, biodiversity, and carbon storage – important economic values that cannot currently be captured, monetized, and sold in a market, so these public goods are almost always under-produced in our market economy.

    Looking across the patchwork forest landscape shaped by these market distortions, e.g. the range of the northern spotted owl, we clearly have a vast oversupply of wood and a vast under-supply of public goods. This explains why there are thousands of miles of forest streams that do not meet water quality standards, numerous imperiled species of fish and wildlife that rely on forests and streams, and hundreds of millions of tons of carbon that has been transferred from forests to the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. All these “costs” of logging do not show up on the balance sheets of the timber industry, but they are real costs borne by the public. When such costs are not reflected in the price of wood products, the logger can sell wood at an artificially low price that leads to artificially high demand.

    Private timberlands are typically managed to maximize private values like profits from logging, while public values tend to be forgotten because the landowner cannot capture and sell them in an open market. The lack of a ready market for public goods results in the over-supply of wood and an under supply of clean water, viable populations of wildlife, and climate stability (which cannot be marketed or privatized). This is where public forests come in.

    Public forests can be managed to provide the public with those “public goods” that private timberlands are not motivated to provide. Since wood is already over-supplied from private lands, public forests should therefore be used to meet important public purposes for which they are best suited, including clean water, habitat for restoration for imperiled species, and climate stabilization.

  2. Thanks for the story Dave.

    “My dream [that the Forest Service will finally…move management toward the ideal that people become part of the “land community,” not overlords] is also that the Forest Service work up this dream hand in hand with the American people…I suspect the Forest Service harbors a similar dream…”

    Some in the FS, but not all….But I suspect that most would (thankfully) disagree with Skinner (and other’s) view that we should manage National Forest Lands in a similar fashion as trust lands. The trust land concept is intriguing, even intoxicating when presented properly. I’ve seen several very persuasive arguments for the trust concept by groups who are searching for solutions. As misguided as they may seem, I doubt anyone involved is advocating for exploitation of NFS lands. Again, what I’ve seen has been in response to the potential loss of SRS funding, and presented as a solution…good on them for trying anyway, at least it’s a starting point.

    I have a few questions though…you said:
    “And I’ll continue to champion public engagement in the process when done legally, and with an eye toward fairness.” – Where does (and what is) legitimate collaboration enter into this? I’m sure you’ve expounded upon this many times and places, but please refresh or steer me in the right direction…what is “legal” and “fair” public engagement?
    “[t]he art and promise of adaptive governance”…OK, forgive me…I’m a mere ground level practitioner. I’ve read lots of “stuff” about adaptive management/governance, we are trying hard to put it into play in a way that works…To be honest it doesn’t/hasn’t translate well to the ground. A little help would be great. And that’s a sincere request…examples and links are welcome. I realize this may be at a much lower level that you and others on this site want to plug in, but you’ve got an audience.

    For the most part I agree with your (overdramatized) sentiment, but to be picky as far as semantics, “conservation” is synonymous with “management”.

    Where does the nebulous concept of “ecosystem services” fit in? I’ve only began to scratch the surface lately and will update with info, but it seems that this approach would seem to quantify some of the ‘“public goods” such as clean water, biodiversity, and carbon storage – important economic values that cannot currently be captured, monetized, and sold in a market, so these public goods are almost always under-produced in our market economy’

    What about the situations where responsible forest management / “logging” (call it “restoration” if you must) can create desired conditions for species that depend on early successional habitats, as an example. Is that OK? I’m not suggesting or advocating for a private timberlands approach, however given the current emphasis on (responsible) utilization of forest products from NFS lands, I’d hate to see that tool (logging) taken away or made harder to use. How can we better approach things in your estimation?

    • JZ asks:

      please refresh or steer me in the right direction…what is “legal” and “fair” public engagement?

      In my book “fair” public engagement is the stuff that both “An Optimist” and Terry Seyden have talked about here. Here’s Seyden:

      The challenge of any collaborative process is to integrate the ideas, alternatives and recommendations that flow from collaboration into the broader agency public involvement and NEPA/NFMA decision making process. This is a subtle but important component that gets too little attention in the design of collaborative processes. Collaboration is at its best when it is an integral part of a larger, open, transparent process where those interests who “are not at the table” still have meaningful opportunity to provide substantive input and influence final agency decisions based on the merits of their comments.

      The “legal” aspect is related to ‘process’. To be “legal” a proposed federal action must comply with whatever process an agency has laid down and subsequently sanctioned by the court system. This is where it gets tricky. If any agency, say the US Forest Service, puts together unworkable process requirements like, e.g. an NFMA rule, then the courts must weigh and balance the actuality of the agency’s actions in following the rule. If the rule is unworkable by being overly complex or misleading, then agency practitioners and decision makers will have an impossible task in trying to follow it. That is why there are so many of my posts on this blog and elsewhere complaining about the Forest Service lack of meaningful attention to writing clear and concise rules – in particular in writing overly-complex and obtuse NFMA rules.

  3. Well, Dave, your musings here pretty much make my case.
    As for my “narrow utilitarianism,” you’ll have to put me alongside Teddy Roosevelt in that. He didn’t want the bigs to (word we don’t use on this blog) the landscape, he wanted it “for use,” to be conserved for long-term prosperity. Even Leopold’s Almanac says lots of things about utilitarian outcomes, and the selective presentation of his character to the public is not the whole story.
    You’ll notice I said nothing about private forests taking these lands over, because I don’t want them to, especially not now that the REIT wave has blown away all considerations except cash flow.
    As for ecosystem services, that angle of “economics” is vastly overblown.
    Let me also say here something I didn’t have room for. If the states and tribes take these lands over, they won’t support deadwood. They can’t print money — and even when you CAN print money, that only works so long. There has to be value to back the print.
    The agency nature lovers (as opposed to science-based conservation professionals) will be left behind on the federal payroll — but not all of them — a US Wilderness Service won’t need that much paperwork.
    You had the luxury of what, 30 years of a nice salary at a job that left you enough spare time to dedicate to FSEEE’s unethical mole campaigns? Now, a fine pension? Sorry, but that was, from the perspective of the taxpayer, not money well spent. You served an agenda, not the American people.
    The sad part is, you’re not alone.

    • Actually, Had I lived in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, I too would likely have had the “conservation” and “use” bias that both he and Gifford Pinchot shared. See, e.g. my old post on The Use of the National Forests and Pinchot’s “The Use Book”: http://www.fs.fed.us/eco/eco-watch/usebook_quotes.html

      But times have changed. In 1900 there were about 76MM people in the United States, and the West was only very sparsely populated. Now there are about 313MM people in the United States and the West is anything but sparsely populated. Whereas in 1900 air and water pollution were not even on the agenda, now we worry–at least those of us who pay attention–about not only localized pollution, but global concerns as well. Back in 1900 we were very much engaged in developing the “frontier.” Now we can’t find one, other than Star Trek’s The Final Frontier. Back in 1900 we weren’t worried that people were driving other species toward extinction. Now we worry. And so on.

      As for your perspective as to what role I served in my years as a civil servant, Dave. You are entitled to your opinion. I did my FSEEE stuff on my own time and on my own ‘dime’. I’ll let my record speak for itself as to what I did ‘on the job’.

  4. PRESERVE THE CONTROVERSY!!! At ALL costs! Nope, no middle ground to see here…. move along, please, nothing to see here!

    • I only posted this up at all, Larry, because I see far too much of this type stuff in the so-called mainstream media, including but not limited to what I like to call a “land trusts do it better bias.” Maybe you can help us find the common ground you so seek. Ideas?

      • I have always been one to prefer the middle ground, as I have had a close association with a number of “Ologists”, during my career. I have certainly had to EARN their trust, and I took it on myself to show them what good logging can do (and not do).

        I feel we have the tools to “restore” the Forest Service’s public trust but, that won’t happen until the Agency is given a chance, with full transparency and collaboration. Corruption cannot hide when we demand full transparency. Forest Supervisors should be putting their stamp on each project he approves, and a report should be required and made available on the Internet. The more public scrutiny, the better. Projects that cut big trees, build more roads and “intensively” manage forests would be exposed for what they are.

        I, too, think the government can better protect and manage lands but, we need legal reform, first. The new Planning Rule will present new and effective loopholes for stopping or controlling new Forest Plans, as well as projects which generate logs.

        Here in the Sierra Nevada, the elimination of clearcutting and old growth harvest represented a big change in forest management. Unfortunately, that was not enough. The Sierra Nevada Framework lowered ASQ’s to 1/30th of their late 80’s levels. The Bush Administration raised those levels to 1/13th of their former levels, with an amendment, which lasted for 7 years, until an appeal returned to the former flawed SNF specifications.


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