It is apparent when snowmobilers gather together that their frustration with the Forest Service is at an all time high. I share the frustration but I think it is important to find out what is driving the bad decisions.
Our problem is not with the people in the Forest Service, it is with the laws and politics that got them into this unworkable position. In the modern-day Forest Service it is next to impossible to get anything done, not because the agency’s people are incompetent or lazy, but because the work environment they operate in assures conflict and failure.
Once upon a time long, long ago, the Forest Service actually made decisions in a reasonable time frame and in a relatively uncomplicated way. But this is not the case today. Nothing is simple, easy or quick. In fact, few goods and services now come from the forests. The problem lies in the framework in which the Forest Service personnel must work. Politics is injected into the most basic decisions from the top down, controlled by the administration. Every decision is appealed or litigated by opposing interest groups, meaning that federal judges who could not tell a Douglas fir from a mink fur now make major land management decisions.
Every action is second-guessed by other agencies. Land managers find themselves subject to threats and hung out to dry if they do not make the “right” decision.
So what got us to this sad state of affairs? Where once there was one law directing the activities of the National Forest system now there are many. For 64 years, under the prime directive of The Organic Act, the Forest Service managed amazingly well. In 1960, Congress decided to tighten the cinch a bit and passed the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act. While still fairly straight forward, this change upset the agency’s comfortable and steady course. Congress had also flexed its land management muscles, and it apparently felt good. Now new legislation began to pour forth.
- In 1964 the Wilderness Act became law, setting aside certain primitive and undisturbed lands to remain forever wild.
- The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1968, basically aimed at protecting rivers from construction of dams but it also inserted the heavy hand of the federal government deeply into management of private and state lands along these waterways as well.
- The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 required evaluation of the effects of man’s activities on his environment.
- The Endangered Species Act of 1973, one of the most powerful, invasive and sweeping laws ever, was passed by Congress.
- The Resource Planning Act (RPA) became law in 1974.
- The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), became law in 1976.
Endless federal regulations, all carrying the force of law themselves, were produced to guide implementation of these complex, often conflicting and sometimes vague laws. With the laws and regulations came forest plans, interdisciplinary teams, intense public involvement, appeals, endless litigation and management by judicial decree. These regulations, combined with case law from the inevitable litigation, have created a quicksand into which the Forest Service finds itself sinking.
Times today are different. We have the benefit of new science. New technology has revolutionized the way we work and play. This science and technology has led us to more closely emulate natural processes in our management activities, recognizing the interaction of plants, animals and people with our environments. We still need natural resources for our reasonable use and enjoyment.
Everything we are and everything we have ultimately comes from the land—food, fiber, metals, plastics, paper, wood, recreation, comfort, wealth—everything. We can and should wisely use our public lands to meet the needs of the American people. Qualified professional land managers could assure the wise, long-term use of our National Forests if they were given that opportunity, but this cannot happen in the current political and legal context.
Obviously, change is not going to come easily. But we can help and we must never give up. We can stay involved in the processes mandated by the present laws, even if it requires appeals and litigation. This is the context we have and it is in this context we must work.
We can also work to change that context by encouraging the Raul Labradors, Mike Crapos, Mike Simpsons and Jim Rischs of Congress to pursue simplification of the terrible morass of laws and regulations. We can push for depoliticizing the Forest Service, restoring it to a professional organization dedicated to the long-term management of our public lands. We can work with the people in the Forest Service constructively, recognizing that they are decent, caring people who did not make the mess in which they must work.