Forest Service Mindshift: From Regulators to Partners
The Forest Service seems to love the idea of partnerships, but questions remain as to how this happened, and where it will end. I’m not talking about government-to-government collaboration here, but so-called “partnerships” in other arenas. The notion is particularly contentious when partners are “for profit” corporations. In the early 1900s, the Forest Service would never have dreamed (except in nightmares) of “partnering” with big business. Instead, founder Gifford Pinchot wanted to regulate forest management on all lands, including and especially lands owned by big timber companies. But it was never to be. Not here in the USA.
In Harold Steen’s The Forest Service: a History we find enough of the tortured history of the Forest Service to give me pause. Forest Service people had to be tough to maintain their zeal in trying to encourage conservation and regulate long-term timber supply in the face of frontier ethics that pretty much said, use it or lose it. Gifford Pinchot didn’t last as long as he hoped as Forest Service Chief (1901-1910)—having crossed at least one politician too many in his zeal to reign-in business corruption. Still, Pinchot left a mark that would position the agency pretty much in his shadow for a Century. Half of that Century, almost, the Forest Service sought to regulate all timber harvest public and private, and much of the grazing in the country.
Just before the Forest Service finally gave up the all-lands regulation fight early in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration, after being libeled “socialists,” the Forest Service switched gears and rhetoric, and decided to be cooperators in sustained yield units composed of both public and private land. [Remember that this was the era of emerging McCarthyism, and being branded as a "socialist" was at minimum problematic.] The public good in these deals was that the Forest Service could pressure private industry to grow up and out of it’s “cut and run” behaviors—to at least replant cutover lands. To some extent it worked. To some extent the tragedy on private lands continued. But at least the Forest Service tried to achieve its regulatory dream, albeit via other means—cooperation.
Public-private cooperation is a difficult concept to wrap the mind around. How do you cooperate with “the government”? Isn’t a democratic government supposed to be an extension of the people? I can easily wrap my mind around the idea of complying with government dictate or regulation. But to “cooperate” with the government? I’m not even sure what it means. You can almost wrap your mind around the idea when you think of the Forest Service as one of many entities that manage land in the US, but when you contrast government land management (particularly multiple use management) with other land management, the idea still doesn’t make all that much sense. Still, I admit that there are areas where similar goals (e.g. biodiversity preservation) may indeed make sense to multiple owners as well as the country as a whole.
The whole idea of “cooperation” didn’t make too much sense in the early days, and didn’t get better with time, as big recreation interests got more active in and around public lands. As the rhetoric shifted from cooperation to partnership, the task was not made easier. Ski resort complexes come immediately to mind. You tell me, where is the “public good” in a ski resort complex that cannot be obtained via contracting, else outright privatization? I know that there are those who believe that conservation is better obtained with a public-private regulation-partnership model in place. But I’m skeptical. On the other hand if we begin to privatize “inholdings” in government land, where does that game end? So maybe we just have to muddle through, grit our teeth and deal with the idea that there will be some limited, regulated private use of public lands, alongside public use.
I wondered back in 1999 what we ought to make of emergent coziness between the government and those who seek to profit from land and resource managed by the government—particularly such coziness with organized commercial recreation interests. Here are a few inquiry questions I posed then, and repeat now:
- What type commercial uses are appropriate on the National Forest in the 21st Century?
- Is a “wise use”/multiple-use policy still sufficient when biological diversity, Wilderness, and other public use issues loom large?
- Is there still reason to be wary of large scale commercial interests?
- How ought we to fund the management of the National Forests, the National Parks, BLM lands, National Wildlife Refuges, etc.? Are user fees appropriate mechanisms? Are commercial permit fees appropriate? If so, in what mix and under what circumstances?
- What roles, if any, might non-government organizations play in the funding federal lands management? What roles, if any, might corporations and other for-profit organizations play? What roles, if any, might nonprofit organizations play? Are all nonprofits created equally?
Clinton-era Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, once safely out of office, endorsed “public use”, suggesting that we ought to steer clear of “privatization” via things like government/private partnerships. Oddly (or maybe not) Babbitt did not mention commercial recreations interests, while explicitly mentioning timbering, grazing, and mining. I’ll assume that Babbitt believed that they too ought to be in the mix.
I’ll not go that far, even though I wish we had never allowed so much commercial use of public lands—i.e managing national forests for “private” rather than public use. I realize that a “public use” agenda is not the way history played out on the public lands, although there is still time/hope. Further, I doubt that we would still have the public lands in the amount we still do, if the idea of strict public use had been the agenda from the get-go. The public lands were born in controversy, and we ought to be glad that we’ve so far kept them intact in an American culture hell-bent on promoting individualism, and individual profit-making. Still, there is time to make a major course-correction toward public use.
My Views on Public v. Private Use of National Forests
Where do I stand re: privatized commercial use of public lands? I enthusiastically support public use, including scenic backdrops to development, biodiversity reserves, wilderness reserves, and more.
I’m OK with some private use of public forest products/services, managed under broad multiple use/ecological stewardship guidelines. I’m OK with private use of wood products from the national forests. Although, I’ve argued that we might be better off just selling the products to commercial vendors at “the loading dock”—some transfer station that would allow products to be transferred from public to private ownership—rather than allowing corporate interests to work the public lands to get the products. I might even be OK with, e.g. timber sales contracts—i.e. allowing commercial entities to work public lands for the forest products—as long as there are enough eyes on the contracts to make sure that the taxpayers get a fair deal, alongside the contractors. Similarly with “stewardship contracts” that allow contractors to keep and sell some forest products.
I’m Ok with commercial recreation interests, although not OK with making the national forests into Disneyland-type destinations. I’m still struggling with ski resorts and upscale marinas on public lands, but I guess I’ll have to allow space for them in my design—and I do use them, so it would be a bit disingenuous if I were to suggest otherwise.
As for “outfitters and guides,” I believe they ought to be able to operate on public lands, but with much less privilege than they now are allowed. And I don’t think the Forest Service ought to try to regulate them. This gets tricky, but maybe not as much as we might initially think, since the agency will have to allow for group recreational use of the national forests in any case, and if a group has a outfitter and/or guide that doesn’t seem to complicate the matter that much. One question: Why does the Forest Service seek to regulate outfitters and guides?
But I believe that marketing, e.g. signing and soliciting for any and all commercial use of the national forests should be minimal and in keeping with traditional rustic imagery of the national forests.
And I believe that fee collection should be both fair to the owners of the national forests and should be easily administered. For example, it would be better to charge an annual fee for use, than to charge for each occurrence. Why? Simply because it detracts from natural experiences when one is constantly grabbing for a billfold.
Regarding concessionaires, I believe their presence is allowable (as it has been in the US Park Service since pretty much the beginning) but their operation ought not to be the “swinging hot spots” from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. Instead concessionaires ought to be relative low-key operations. Exceptions might be made for ski resort communities, but maybe the best bet there would be to trade lands so that at least the most commercial of operations are not on the national forests. But that too has problems as I explained above. My preference re: campgrounds/picnicgrounds is for the Forest Service to manage them (likely via volunteers) and use them in part for conservation education.
As for grazing on public lands, I’m hard-pressed to see a good case for continuing it, if only because of the many disease-related problems in co-mingling domestic stock and wildlife. I’m not opposed to grazing on public lands if properly managed, e.g. onsite caretakers of a herd, but only if we can somehow get beyond the disease problem.
Mining and Oil and Gas exploration are at-minimum problematic, but I don’t see them stopping. Our best bet might be to continue vigilance and seek ever-better-regulation of these activities relative to both environmental and aesthetic considerations.
Have I joined with the forces of “darkness and evil”, i.e. those who would “marketize” the national forests? Or is this a useful beginning to ring-fence creeping marketization? In his book The Abstract Wild, in a chapter titled “Economic Nature,” Jack Turner describes the loss of shared social values, what others might call the virtues of civic engagement. These values might include sense of community, sense of place, sense of wildness in interacting with and attempting to be, once-again, part of Nature, etc. Through time, however, the world, and particularly the US is approaching a place where all values save one—money—are lost along the timeline of a society madly reinventing itself into crass-consumerism, accompanied by marketing madness. In Turner’s words,
Only one widely shared value remains—money—and this explains our propensity to use business and economics rather than moral debate and legislation to settle our differences. …
This rejection of persuasion creates a social order wherein economic language (and its extensions in law) exhaustively describes our world and, hence becomes our world. Moral, aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual order are then merely subjective tastes of no social importance. It is thus no wonder that civility has declined. For me this new economic conservation “ethic” reeks of cynicism—as though having failed to persuade and woo your love, you suddenly switched to cash. The new economics conservationists think they are being rational; I think they treat Mother Nature like a whorehouse. (pp. 57-8)
And what about partnerships? I still don’t much like the word, neither the word “cooperator.” And I’m particularly incensed when government people cozy-up to commercial agendas, even sometimes becomming cheerleaders for such. I do like the idea of collaboration in policy making, in program development, and so forth. I have reservations as to the manner that the Forest Service now chooses to engage individuals and public interest groups, but that is a matter for other posts—many of which I’ve already aired.
No matter how the “use” and “commercial use” debates play out, with accompanying litigation and legislation, there are at least two intertwined “bigger issues” that remain on the table, in the background: biodiversity and associated species loss, and human population growth (with related resource extraction and pollution concerns that include human lifestyle concerns). These two issues under gird pretty much all others but are not popularly discussed. I hope that these two items will again find their way into mainstream talk in advance of catastrophe. But I’m doubtful that such will happen anytime soon, and I don’t believe we’ve got a lot of time left, particularly given the dynamics of doubling of human population growth (Wikipedia link) and the fact that the doubling curve is an exponential growth curve that is working into a very steep space—i.e. when 3 billion became 6 billion people (30 years, 1 generation) the curves looks remarkably steeper than when 3 million became 6 million people (1000 years, 33 generations).