The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) looked at some Region 1 projects, chose a case study, and tried to quantify the impacts to communities and to the Forest Service in this 2015 study. We have discussed it on the blog before, but it’s of current interest because the findings have been discussed in the current heated debate over wildfire funding legislation, and possibly taken out of context. I think with all the experienced folks on this blog, we ought to be able to jointly and civilly parse this out, and possibly be of help to journalists and congress folk and their staffs. Folks from BBER and those who heartily disagree with them are equally invited to chime in.
This will be a series of posts, and in each one we’ll examine some claims and evidence from the BBER study. Today we’ll start with two that are probably the most contentious.
I’ll put on my science policy nerd hat here..this doesn’t seem like a topic that has gotten enough study relative to the importance of the issue- BBER did only one case study, funded by R-1 (not the research branch of the Forest Service). It’s only one case study, and we can ask the question- in 2015 these topics were raised, why was more not done? So we have to hold both ideas at the same time “it’s only one case study” and “it brought up questions that deserve to be further explored.”
Claim 1.The biggest impacts of this litigation are to communities. Slowing, not stopping projects also has economic impacts.
“Economic impacts to communities – in jobs, labor income, federal, state, and local taxes – are identified as the largest potential impacts of FS litigation (potentially exceeding $10 million and 130 jobs for the SBR project alone), particularly when timber harvesting and other land management activities that create or maintain private employment and generate wages and other taxable revenue are reduced, delayed, or completely forgone as a result of litigation.”
“Even if agency personnel were not spending effort working on these cases each day cases were open, the duration of most litigated cases was over multiple planning and budget cycles, making resource management and financial decisions very difficult for the FS, mills, loggers, and forest-dependent communities in the Region.” (my italics)
Note: I think what this is getting at is that $ comes around on an annual basis for agencies and when the litigation is finally finished, the unit may not have the funds to actually implement the project. This is an angle that perhaps needs to be discussed more, and may have potential (internal FS) solutions through the (internal FS) budgeting process.
Claim 2. We don’t know the impact in terms of costs to the federal government. You can’t estimate costs of DOJ and OGC (the lawyers and their support) because (don’t collect or won’t give you) the information. BBER did look at costs of FWS and FS employees. There are also opportunity costs for what else FS, FWS, OGC and DOJ employees could be doing instead of R-1 vegetation project litigation.
“Findings show that litigation costs of the SBR case (one case study) to the FS (over $95,000) and FWS (over $4,500) exceed attorney fees and Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) payments (none in this case) made to plaintiffs and/or their attorneys. This finding is significant because: 1) previous studies have used attorney fees and EAJA payments as the sole measure of litigation cost, 2) attorney fees and EAJA payments are made in less than 20 percent of recently litigated FS and R1 cases, and 3) the SBR case study does not fully quantify the Regional impact of litigation. “
Note: I have a question in with DOJ public affairs asking why cost information is unavailable. To quote Fred Norbury, Director of Ecosystem Management in the WO for the Forest Service during the Analysis Paralysis days “How can we say it takes too long and costs too much if we don’t know how long it takes or how much it costs?” He was talking about NEPA and project planning, but the same could be said for litigation. Another argument for giving this topic more attention and funding.