The April issue of The Forestry Source, leads off with “The Sagebrush Rebellion Renewed: Bills Aim to Create Trusts to Manage Federal Timber,” by Steve Wilent, Forestry Source editor. The article begins with what I perceive to be a very narrow view of the origins of the 1980s Sagebrush Rebellion, blaming it all on “environmentalists”. The article ends with what I perceive to be cheerleading for “forest trusts” as a solution to current problems including the impending drying up of “Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act” funding. It is an opinion-editorial, so Wilent is entitled to his perspective. But I thought I’d share it with you, since my own framing of this matter is much different. I see the 1980s Sagebrush Rebellion being just one of many from a West that was always angry over public lands. In my frame, fully funding Payments in Lieu of Taxes is a better solution to the rural schools problem. And I find the “forests trusts” idea a non-starter in dealing with America’s national forests.
Wilent’s article begins:
In his 1993 book, Federal Land, Western Anger R. McGregor Cawley describes the Sagebrush Rebellion as “a protest originating from three interrelated perceptions: first, that environmentalists had succeeded in gaining a dominant position in federal land policy discussions; second that the environmental community’s influence had created an underlying bias in favor of preservation over development in federal land management decisions throughout the 1970s; and third, that the only way to counteract the increasingly restrictive character of federal land management decisions was to precipitate an open confrontation.”
The first shot in that confrontation was fired in 1979, when the Nevada state legislature passed a bill that sought to transfer control of 40 million acres managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – about 79% of Nevada – to the state. …
In February, Utah fired a new salvo when its house of representative passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act….
My own framing, built in part off the Public Land Law Review Commission’s “History of Public Land Law Development”, here, tracks the Sagebrush Rebellions (several of them, with continued skirmishes in between) back to the fights for statehood in the USA. In my state of Utah the fight was nasty and long-standing. Some Utahan’s were mad back then and continue to be mad today, with their anger welling-up periodically. Ron Arnold may have captured the spirit of that 1980s “Rebellion” as well as did the Society of American Foresters (SAF) article, calling it “a temper-tantrum over public lands thrown by a handful of cowboys”. That “temper-tantrum” turned into yet-another bandwagon that powerful rural Western politicians could jump onto—which they ultimately parlayed into substantial gains. Here is what Frank J. Popper had to say about these “gains” in “A Timely End of the Sagebrush Rebellion” (pdf), National Affairs 76, Summer 1984.
The Sagebrush Rebellion did not fail—it ended because it achieved many of its goals. The Reagan administration rapidly found clever, politically appealing ways to start to transfer some public lands without having to ask Congress for new legislation. Watt’s Interior Department undertook a “good neighbor policy” that allowed state and local governments to request the department’s “surplus” lands. The initiative was soon broadened to an Asset Management Program whereby all federal agencies could sell their excess land in the West and elsewhere; the eventual sale of 35 million acres–an area the size of Iowa–was expected. Separately, the Forest Service prepared to sell up to 17 million acres. The federal land agencies sped up the transfers to Alaska’s state government and Native Americans authorized by the 1958 Statehood Act, the 1971 Native Claims Settlement Act, and the 1980 National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The BLM experimentally revived homesteading in the Kuskokwim Mountains in central Alaska. Numerous federal-Western state land exchanges were in exploratory stages, and seemed most advanced in Utah. [p. 68]
Another look at the 1980s Sagebrush Rebellion, from “A Brief History of the Anti-conservation Movement” frames the issues as conservatives v. liberals:
At its most basic level the Sagebrush Rebellion was a conservative backlash against the growth of federal power represented by, among other things, such landmark environmental legislation of the late 1960s and ’70s as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. These legislative programs created new roles and concerns for managers of federal land — protection of endangered species, water quality, air quality, etc. This required closer scrutiny of activities on federal lands, including the activities of miners, loggers and ranchers who operated there. Significantly, these businesses usually enjoyed substantial operating subsidies by virtue of longstanding below-market rates for grazing, mineral and timber rights on federal land. This closer scrutiny inevitably led to federally imposed restrictions when mining, grazing and foresting practices damaged the water and air and threatened endangered species. Recognizing that a return to the good old days of less regulation would be good for business, the movement took support and comfort from the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, one of whose campaign planks was reduction of the size and power of government. Certain Reagan cabinet appointees, most notably James Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Anne Gorsuch as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, were selected in part for their willingness to further the de-regulatory agenda of Reagan and the right wing of the Republican Party. …
The Anti-Conservation Movement further benefitted from the attention it received from industries with something to gain. In particular, big agriculture (the American Farm Bureau Federation, The Cattlemen’s Association), the extractive industries (mining, including coal, oil and gas) and timber producers (who thrive on easy access to federal forest lands) saw a reduction of federal regulatory power working to their advantage. This message of the economic benefit of deregulation appealed as well to small businesses. After all, if workplace safety regulations could be reduced or eliminated, the money saved could be plowed back into the business.
During this period anti-regulatory forces sought to define and project an agenda that would be publicly acceptable. Throughout the 1980s the anti-regulatory/anti-environmental sentiment was expressed largely as support for the Reagan Revolution and its promise to deliver the country from the clutches of over-zealous, regulation-happy bureaucrats.
In studying the various Sagebrush Rebellions we would all probably benefit from a good class on the history of the American West. Here is one (pdf, syllabus) from Professor Chris Lewis, from the University of Colorado. Lewis places Cawley’s book in a class lecture on “‘The Lords of Yesterday’ and the Sagebrush Rebellion”. The book is well-placed there, since it is evidently written from the perspective of ‘the rebels’, according to a Great Plains Research book review (pdf). There is nothing wrong with that. One of my favorite books is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is unabashedly written from the perspective of those who lost (and/or who were horrible abused) in the struggles to form the United States. Zinn acknowledges his bias, but is quick to note that no “history” is written without bias. But what is wrong with Wilent’s piece, in my opinion, is to use the book to suggest that one particular perspective is the only perspective that counts. Still, opinion/editorial pieces often do that. So, I’ll just leave it at, “I beg to differ”.
Wilent’s article goes on to highlight various ongoing problems including the impending falldown in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act funding—problems which are clearly still with us. These problems don’t necessarily cry out for the solutions that are being proffered in the various bills currently working their way through Congress. But you wouldn’t arrive at that particular conclusion from Wilent’s article, which concludes by essentially cheerleading attempts to put federal land management into “land trusts.” “Cheerleading” is how I see it. What Wilent actually said was this: “Management by a trust dedicated to maintaining revenues to schools and other beneficiaries may offer a solution. …”
Wilent didn’t bother to daylight any other “solutions.” So cheerleading is where I’ll leave it. When dealing with ‘trusts’ my question is, as has been for a long time, “Land trusts provide a solution to what?” Yes land trusts are a good way to generate revenue if that is all you are interested in. But I thought that the ‘public trust doctrine’, under which the national forests were carved out and managed, is much broader than ‘revenue generation’. And we are not living in 1900, when income taxes and other revenue generation means now available to the federal government were not established.
In the middle of Wilent’s article, John Freemuth is quoted on both the complexity of federal lands management and his desire to reconvene a Public Lands Law Review Commission. I support Freemuth’s desire. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that just about no one who is ranting and raving in this (or the last) Sagebrush Rebellion has ever read the last Public Lands Law Review Commission Report. Why should we expect a new one to add value to this debacle? Still, I would like to see a new one, if only to force the Administration and the Congress to delve deeper into the issues (and the history) surrounding our “Angry West”. But I’m not sure that a re-reading of the original Public Lands Law Review Commission Report wouldn’t suffice to dispel myths surrounding each seemingly-novel episode when the American West, particularly the “rural West” explodes anew in yet-another “temper-tantrum.” I guess we all get to pick our frames, and our scapegoats.
For Immediate Release, March 23, 2012
Contact: Taylor McKinnon, (928) 310-6713 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Obama’s Forest Service Weakens Protections for Wildlife on All National Forests
WASHINGTON— The U.S. Forest Service today released its new final rule to govern the nation’s 193-million-acre national forest system. The new rule significantly weakens longstanding protections for fish and wildlife species on national forests. While the Forest Service was previously required to ensure the viability of those populations, the new rule largely defers to local Forest Service officials.
“The Forest Service today completed what it’s been trying to do for 12 years, which is to weaken wildlife protections and public accountability on our national forests,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These forests, owned by the American people, are vitally important habitat for hundreds of species now vulnerable to climate change — yet the Forest Service is weakening, rather than strengthening, the safety net that keeps them alive.”
Congress enacted the National Forest Management Act in 1976 to guide management of the national forest system, which consists of 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. In 1982, the Forest Service adopted national regulations to provide specific direction for activities such as logging, mining, livestock grazing and recreation. Those rules included strong, mandatory protections for fish and wildlife, requiring the Service to monitor and maintain viable populations.
The new rule represents the Forest Service’s fourth attempt since 2000 to weaken those 1982 regulations. All three previous attempts were challenged in court by the Center and allies; federal courts found all three unlawful. Like the 2000, 2005 and 2008 rules, the Obama administration’s rule would decrease protections for wildlife and increase the discretion of local Forest Service officials.
The Forest Service’s 1982 regulations required that the Forest Service maintain viable populations of fish and wildlife; that requirement applied to both forest plans and site-specific projects. The new rule requires that the Forest Service only maintain viable populations of species “of conservation concern,” and only at the discretion of local forest supervisors; plan protections set forth for those species can be voluntary “guidelines” rather than mandatory “standards.” The new rule also replaces the longstanding administrative appeal process with a pre-decision objection process; it eliminates opportunities for post-decision administrative solutions, leaving litigation as the public’s only means to correct harmful and unlawful decisions.
“At a time when the emergency room is already overflowing with endangered species, weakening preventative care is exactly the wrong approach,” said McKinnon. “But by making species protection voluntary rather than necessary, that’s exactly what today’s rule does.”
A federal court ruling yesterday one again enjoined the Forest Service regulations that exempted Categorical Exclusion (CE) decisions from notice, comment and appeal. According to one of the attorney’s who worked the case, “This certainly means any new CE’d decisions must be subject to notice, comment and appeal – beyond that, and how this will affect (or be affected by) any new regulations regarding the HFRA-like rider, is TBD.”
UPDATE: Just to be clear, here is the Summary Judgment Decision on Merits of Plaintiffs’ Claim. Also, the same Court issued this Summary Judgment Decision on Jurisdictional Issues.
The following article is from the website of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community (GSACC), a regional organization based in Sitka, Alaska. The Board of Directors of the organization includes an impressive and diverse group of longtime Southeast Alaska residents, including: commercial fishermen, a PhD biologist, former Forest Service foresters, hydrologist and a regional economist, a city councilor for the City of Kupreanof, the former Deputy Director of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s Habitat Division, and even a former mechanical engineer for Alaska Pulp Corporation. You can read about GSACC’s Founding Principles here. – mk
Since 2007, Alaska’s congressional delegation has been pushing legislation for a special land deal for one Alaska Native corporation, Sealaska. The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) authorized the corporation to select acreage for timber development from the Tongass National Forest. Congress and Sealaska resolved the selection areas during the 1970s. But now, Sealaska and Alaska’s delegation want to rescind this agreement by allowing the corporation to select areas for timber development outside of the original “boxes” designated in the prior settlement. The proposed deal, S.730, has met resistance from affected communities who have worked with regional outfitters and guides and commercial fishermen to prevent passage of the current version of the bill.
A critical problem is that Sealaska and ANCSA village corporations have already logged the high quality forest within the prior land selection “boxes” under Alaska’s state forest regulations. Those regulations are notoriously lax for private landowners and present unacceptable risks to critical wildlife and fish habitats. Legislation to allow Sealaska to make its remaining land selections outside the box will simply spread destructive logging practices to other high value forest habitats. A further problem is that behind closed doors several environmental organizations – apparently at the behest of the foundations that fund them – have been trying to cut a deal with Sealaska and the Alaska delegation to “improve” the bill. These negotiations rely on the faulty premise that Sealaska can offset significant environmental impacts in one area by including some small Wilderness (or similar) land designations in areas that for the most part are not at risk from further development because of existing laws and regulations or economic limitations.
GSACC rejects that approach as tainted by the failed process for land management changes that have significant consequences for the region and therefore cannot accept the premise of the bill.
ANCSA allowed Sealaska to select several hundred thousand acres of land from the Tongass National Forest. During the 1970s, Sealaska made its selections for most of that entitlement and the federal government subsequently conveyed title to that land, which has now mostly been logged. According to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Sealaska has the right to select between 68,000 and 79,000 acres. In 1976, Sealaska President John Borbridge filed specific land selections for this remaining acreage with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Congress honored the request by approving the selections. Sealaska filed for these selections in June of 2008 but at the same time, asked BLM to suspend conveyance of the lands while it pursued legislation that would give it more valuable timberland “outside the box.”
This move is often referred to as a “land grab” by its many critics. It is GSACC’s view that Sealaska refrained from finalizing its 1976 land selections based on the possibility that a legislative deal such as S. 730 would enable the corporation to instead select more valuable lands outside the box so long as the bill included Wilderness designations or similar conservation area offsets. Such an exchange was desired by a powerful but less than fully representative portion of the environmental groups that have been active on Tongass issues.
Paradoxically, Sealaska claims both that the forest within the ANCSA selection boxes is habitat that is too valuable to clearcut, and that the timber still standing in the boxes is so poor in quality that cutting it is not economically justified. Alaska’s Citizens’ Advisory Commission of Federal Areas has studied the remaining lands in the boxes and found Sealaska did not provide adequate data to support its claims. The Commission concluded that there is more than enough suitable timber acreage left within the ANCSA boxes for Sealaska to finalize its remaining entitlements.
It instead appears that S.730 simply seeks to take the most valuable remaining timberlands out of public hands in a remarkably one-sided exchange. A recently published report by the Audubon Society analyzed the economic suitability of the timber remaining within the boxes and the habitat value of the “outside the box” forest lands allocated to Sealaska in the current bill. The report concluded that the bill targets a large proportion of the remaining “large tree” old-growth forest stands on the Tongass National Forest. This outcome of the bill – a practice known as “high-grading” – would be a continuation of this kind of destruction that began with the dawn of the region’s pulp mill era in the 1950s.
According to the Audubon report, if this legislation passes:
“This would constitute a substantial, permanent loss of a rare resource that is currently held in public trust and managed by the US Forest Service. The proposed legislation clearly contravenes the earlier intent of Congress to end high-grading and afford higher protection to these rare and valuable large-tree stands on the Tongass. If enacted, the Sealaska legislation would erode more than 30 years of effort by foresters, conservationists, biologists and other scientists to conserve these remaining rare stands, not only for their value to wildlife and human users in Alaska, but as a resource valued by citizens nationwide. “
The Sealaska legislation would also establish a precedent that could open a Pandora’s Box, setting a precedent for Native corporations across the state to also seek their own sweetheart deals from Congress, to create other exceptions to ANCSA provisions. The current legislation also includes brand new categories of lands that ANCSA never contemplated, such as Native futures sites. Land selections made under these new, craftily constructed legislative designations would be dispersed throughout the Tongass, often in ecologically-rich areas that are also valued for tourism, fisheries, already-established patterns of use, and in some cases potential for energy production. The concept of these “futures sites” has generated widespread resistance to the bill, with opponents from the full range of the political spectrum. Additionally, the bill would authorize Sealaska to privatize portions of the Admiralty and Misty Fjords National Monuments that Congress set aside for the public in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).
One of GSACC’s primary objections to the process used to develop this bill is that closed door negotiations have occurred under the auspices of the Tongass Futures Roundtable (TFR). The TFR began as a Forest Service project but has since devolved into a private discussion group (still including the Forest Service) that seeks to rezone the Tongass National Forest through legislation such as the current Sealaska bill. Several TFR environmental groups have been negotiating with Sealaska – in meetings closed and unannounced to the press and the public – for concessions that would earn their support for the bill. To the extent their sought concessions have become known, they are unsatisfactory to the affected communities and other environmental organizations. The negotiations have so far failed to produce a result. However, it is disappointing that self-appointed stakeholders from the TFR seem to have one public position that seems to oppose S.730 while working behind the scenes to achieve a compromise quid-pro-quo (Latin meaning this for that, commonly QPQ) Wilderness bill.
There has recently been a national trend toward QPQ Wilderness bills developed by self-appointed “stakeholders” that have financial interests in the outcome of their so-called “consensus-based” collaborations. The above closed door negotiations, in which all participants were TFR members, is an unfortunate example of this trend. At their core, the thrust of these exercises is to privatize public lands, undermine existing environmental laws and regulations, and devolve the public process of public lands management in exchange for often small Wilderness designations or other so-called “conservation gains.” Nationwide, many environmental organizations, including GSACC, recognize that the QPQ approach is antithetical to the watchdog role that environmental organizations must fulfill, and we strongly oppose the QPQ, collaborative mindset.
That said, we recognize the need to work cooperatively with all sectors of society to arrive at outcomes that work well but protect the environment and ecosystem integrity. However, GSACC believes the cozy relationships that are inherent to QPQ assemblages like the TFR and the negotiations over the Sealaska bill, and the foundation-influenced strategies that have driven some environmental organizations into such efforts, are counter to achieving the greatest public good.
In our judgment, the best course is for the Sealaska bill to be withdrawn by Alaska’s senators, and for the selections that Sealaska filed with BLM in 2008, for the corporation’s remaining entitlement, to be conveyed without further delay by the government or Sealaska.
Thank you to reader David Beebe for passing along this new report from Alaska Audubon titled, “High‐grading on the Tongass National Forest: Implications of Pending Land Selections on Forest Diversity.” The entire Audubon report is available here. I’ve pasted the report summary below, although that’s also available in PDF form here, with the citations included. – mk
UPDATED: Paul Olson from Sitka, Alaska (who has been a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska since the 1970s and is the board president of a new regional organization called the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community) provided some excellent context in the comments section that deserves to be highlighted here:
“This legislation is also relevant to the issues you discuss in the ‘collaboration’ blog since the current version of the bill is largely the result of negotiations between a subdivision of a Forest Service initiated ‘collaborative’ group, the Tongass Futures Roundtable. That secretive subdivision is known as the “Devil’s Club” and has been primarily responsible for persistent but to date unsuccessful efforts to rezone public lands on the Tongass National Forest for the primary benefit of private timberland owners. That collaborative group has all the characteristics of a typical collaborative stewardship group – it meets during the day when the working public cannot attend its deliberations; most of the NGO stakeholders had funding funneled to them as a result of high level Forest Service efforts; the participating environmental group representatives are for the most part inexperienced imports from distant lands or otherwise “soft” on certain types of resource development….”
Read Paul Olson’s entire comment here.
Coastal temperate rainforests of the world occur in only ten areas, are extremely rare, and account for less than 3% of all forest cover on earth. Alaska’s Tongass National Forest contains a large portion of the world’s last remaining old‐growth rainforest. Regarded widely as the “crown jewel” of the national forest system, the Tongass is home to the bulk of America’s remaining old‐growth forest.
Over the last century, the Alaska timber industry has focused logging on the largest and most valuable old‐growth trees of the Tongass. This controversial practice is referred to as “high‐grading” and has already eliminated half or more of the very large‐tree stands on the Tongass. The very biggest trees, the ancient giants greater than 10 feet in diameter that can grow for many centuries, have largely been cut and eliminated from the forest.
Today, the remaining stands of very large‐tree old growth are extremely rare and account for only 0.5 percent (82,000 acres) of the 16.8 million‐acre Tongass. Known as volume class 7, these remnant stands are not only visually impressive but also provide important habitat for five species of Pacific salmon, Steelhead, brown bear, black bear, wolves, Sitka black‐tailed deer, river otter, marten, flying squirrel, Bald Eagle, Marbled Murrelet, Northern Goshawk and other wildlife.
Congress has long‐recognized the problem of high‐grading and took specific action to eliminate this practice of logging “a disproportionate amount of old growth timber” on the Tongass as part of the Tongass Timber Reform Act enacted in 1990. Some twenty years later, however, the Sealaska Corporation is seeking legislation (S 730/HR 1408) that threatens a return to high‐grading of the largest and most profitable trees. If enacted, the legislation would eliminate a substantial portion of the last remaining very large‐tree old growth forest on the Tongass.
S 730/HR 1408 would re‐open the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 to give the Sealaska Corporation the unprecedented ability to select and obtain highly valuable public lands in the Tongass containing extremely disproportionate quantities of very large‐tree old‐growth timber. The legislation would permit a 12‐fold increase in the Sealaska Corporation’s logging of very large‐tree old growth. The legislation would also authorize Sealaska Corporation to obtain some the most popular public lands in the Tongass in hundreds of smaller parcels scattered throughout the forest that are currently open to the public for fishing, hunting, and recreation.
Signed into law in 1971, ANCSA is the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history, andwas enacted with strong bi‐partisan support to resolve all aboriginal land claims in Alaska. Under existing ANCSA law, Sealaska Corporation has already made its final land selections within the Tongass. S 730/HR 1408 would give Sealaska Corporation approximately 65,000 acres in new public lands for logging and development outside of areas where the corporation’s existing selections have been made.
To evaluate the impact S 730/HR 1408, Audubon Alaska mapped each of the proposed new timber selections using a US Forest Service forest cover database.
Key report findings include:
• Following decades of controversial logging involving “high grading” (i.e., logging that targets the largest and most valuable old‐growth trees) the remaining stands of very large‐tree old‐growth (class 7) are extremely rare. These stands account for only 0.5 percent or ~ 82,000 acres of the 16.8 million‐acre Tongass National Forest.
• S. 730/HR 1408 would enable Sealaska Corporation to clearcut vastly greater amounts of highly valuable very large‐tree old growth than under current law. Public lands that would be transferred to Sealaska Corporation contain up to 12 times more acres of very large‐tree old growth than occurs on the lands the corporation has already selected under current ANCSA law.
• The public lands that would be obtained by Sealaska Corporation include a significant portion of the last remaining very large‐tree old growth in the Tongass. These highest‐volume large‐tree stands account for only 1.6 percent of productive old growth on the Tongass as a whole but make up 24‐27 percent of the lands Sealaska Corporation seeks under S 730/HR1408.
• Under S 730/HR 1408 Sealaska Corporation could clearcut up to 17 percent of the last remaining very large‐tree old growth (class 7) on the Tongass.
• Public lands that Sealaska Corporation would obtain under S 730/HR 1408 are far more valuable than the corporation’s existing land selections and include approximately $50 million worth of taxpayer‐funded infrastructure and other investments (e.g., roads, trails, bridges, transfer sites, fish habitat restoration projects).
S 730/HR 1408 would result in the permanent loss of a substantial portion of the remaining very large‐tree old growth on the Tongass National Forest. This loss would be additive to the logging of any other large‐tree old growth resulting from U.S. Forest Service timber sales, with long‐term impacts on forest diversity and associated wildlife habitat.
Since Sharon highlighted Michael Donnelly’s Pre-Public Interest Environmental Law Conference article at Couterpunch here, I figured we might as well also highlight Donnelly’s Post-Public Interest Environmental Law Conference article at Couterpunch. So here it is, “Lessons Learned at the 30th Environmental Law Conference: Of Advocates and Activists.”
As you’ll see, Donnelly’s provides a link to this blog in his article (as he did in his pre-piece too), which I believe is one of the reasons why this blog has seen a steady up-tick in traffic over recent days. Counterpunch has a huge readership and personally, I think it’s a good thing that some of those readers – who may not be that versed in national forest policy issues – are having a look at what we’re discussing over here. These national forest lands do belong equally to all Americans after all and NEPA ensures that any American who wants to participate in the management of these lands has a meaningful opportunity to do so.
With the recent Ninth Circuit Decision, suggesting that the Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 disallows “parking fees” on the national forests, I think it time to begin to think through some issues that surround the Forest Service recreation fee debacle. ‘Area access’ fees have been highly controversial since at least the late 1990s (See, e.g. my To Fee or Not to Fee?)
I think that many would agree that right now we have too many users for some of our public places, e.g. some National Forests, some National Parks, etc. And many would agree that there are too few dollars to oversee recreation programs on public lands. There are law enforcement problems, garbage collection issues, rest-room facilities issues, environmental damage problems, and more. It seems that there are always, everywhere, too few dollars chasing too many initiatives. Or maybe the federal government just doesn’t prune initiatives or programs back to fit the realities of budgets. In any case there is always plenty to fight over when it comes to money.
In this little note and follow-ups we will begin to sort out what is ‘at issue’ regarding recreation programs and dollars, and to see whether we few bloggers and commentators can find any common ground on issues and resolutions. Here are my preliminary issues: congestion (How do we disperse and/or discourage use where resource damage or experience degradation results from congestion?), ease of fee collection and participation, distribution of moneys, government agency culture transformation.
Congestion/Dispersion of Use
Let’s begin with congestion. Some would propose that fees be used to help disperse users from over-used areas to other areas. But in this day it might be that other measures could be used to disperse use. For example, federal land managers could require passes for over-used areas—passes that could be allocated via computer-based lottery and waiting lines at places of entry (e.g. a FS Ranger Station). These could be administered and allocated for free. So, perhaps too easily we can take ‘congestion’ off the table when discussing recreation fees.
Fee Collection—ease of collection, ease of participation
With congestion issues off the table at least for now, maybe we can look directly at fees to used to defray government costs. If the Congress wants to charge access fees, in addition to specific facility fees that are allowed in the 2004 Recreation Enhancement Act, then it would seem prudent to have people buy an ‘all federal lands’ pass, that could be used anywhere on federal lands for specific periods of time. This is not my recommendation, but rather a least impact means to an end. [Here is my plea for free primitive recreation on the National Forests.] At minimum the Congress ought to disallow the piecemeal, nightmarish type fees now common on federal lands. An annual pass comes to mind, that would be available at all federal public lands facilities and also on the Internet. It might be an interesting twist to allow users with scant means a free pass, if they were to pass an income/asset test—although I don’t really see an easy way to administer a test like that.
Distribution of Fee Money
There are problems associated with allowing local units to keep the monies they collect from fees. I would like to see local units keep none of it, except as filtered through governmental funding mechanisms. First, there are equity problems that accrue to, say, national forests that don’t have the attraction points (focal points) that other forests have. Second, there is the incentive to pump up prices to cover costs, a phenomenon known to some as ‘budget conservation and enhancement,’ or simply ‘budget maximization.’ I’m sure there are other issues, but let’s move on. Of course the forests flush with cash from a ‘keep it local’ advantage, will argue the flip side of this argument.
Government Agency Culture Transformation
Finally, there is the problem of creeping commercialization—the problem of government forest managers perceiving themselves to be business people rather than government administrators. This problem has to do with government administrators and their attitude and behaviors toward outfitters and guides and concessionaires (including big-ticket items like ski resorts). Do we really want the US Forest Service to move further into the marketization/commercialization world? If not, how might the Congress work to ensure that government agencies act like government agencies and not perceive themselves to be in business?
So. Take your best shot at me, both as to the issues I put on the table and those I left off. Also, what might we do to help the Congress, as well as the Forest Service and other agencies, as they continue to grapple with recreation fee issues?
Yesterday, Truthout ran this very thought-provoking piece from Jonathan Latham. While not directly related to National Forest planning issues, the article delves into many issues concerning the relationship between some of the world’s largest corporations and some of the world’s largest conservation organizations, a topic that has also been debated on this blog from time to time. According to the article, Jonathan R. Latham, PhD, is co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, which is the publisher of Independent Science News (independentsciencenews.org). He has published scientific papers in disciplines as diverse as plant ecology, virology, and genetics.
A few days ago, the Montana Standard ran this editorial blasting the Alliance for Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystem Center for a lawsuit filed on the Fleecer timber sale on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The editorial also claimed that the paper couldn’t think of any instance in recent years when WildWest Institute hadn’t sued to stop a logging project. Since the truth is that the WildWest Institute hasn’t filed a new timber sale lawsuit in Montana in over 5 years, the Montana Standard was forced to run this correction in today’s paper as well. – mk
Fleecer timber cut illegal, says group
By Michael Garrity, Alliance for Wild Rockies
One of the many reasons that Butte is a great place to live is the tremendous wild country surrounding the area. Within minutes of Butte there is world-class fishing on the Big Hole and Jefferson Rivers and some of the best elk hunting anywhere — including the Mount Fleecer area where the Fleecer timber sale is proposed.
The Montana Standard editorial on March 4 criticized the Alliance for the Wild Rockies for filing lawsuits to stop the Fleecer timber sale, the Colt Summit timber sale in the Seeley-Swan Valley, and for other timber sales we have stopped recently.
While claiming the Alliance is “abusing environmental laws,” what the editorial didn’t mention is that we win about 87 percent of those suits. Simply put, unless the Forest Service is found to be breaking the law, we don’t win.
One of the lawsuits we filed in the last several years was to stop the Price Powder timber sale in the Mount Fleecer area. This timber sale authorized 133 acres of clearcuts in prime elk habit and violated the Forest Plan standards for elk hiding cover that these large and iconic symbols of Montana require.
After we filed that suit, the Forest Service’s attorneys looked at our complaint, decided that we were right and pulled the timber sale.
It is common practice for the Forest Service to pull a timber sale before a judge can rule against them, because then they don’t have to pay our attorney’s fees and the thousands of dollars of expenses we incur are paid by us. When a judge rules in our favor, our attorneys get fees but we get nothing to cover our costs.
After the Forest Service pulled Price Powder, the agency went to work on a new timber sale in the same area named “Fleecer,” which is three times bigger than the Price-Powder timber sale and proposes 1,137 acres of clearcuts.
When the Alliance was informed of the new project, we toured the site with the forest supervisor and two district rangers, told them our concerns, and submitted detailed comments in writing.
The previous two forest supervisors worked with us on the Grasshopper, Anaconda Job Corps, Beaverhead-Deerlodge roadside salvage and the Georgetown Lake timber sales, for which they should be commended. But this time around, the agency decided to try and make giant, illegal clearcuts in prime elk habitat instead of following their own rules and laws.
Contrary to media representations, our country’s environmental laws aren’t that strict. They don’t prohibit logging on our National Forests, but do require that the Forest Service must ensure that there will be viable populations of native species after logging — and clearcuts simply do not make good wildlife habitat for elk, grizzly bears and other old-growth dependent species.
We are a nation of laws and that means federal agencies, just like citizens, must follow the law. As before, the Forest Service will either pull this proposal or, if it loses in court, blame environmentalists for once again stopping clearcutting of elk winter range.
The Standard claims it was surprised to find there are grizzly bears around Butte. But in 2010, the Standard reported that a grizzly bear was killed near Elk Park and in 2005 a hunter killed a grizzly bear within the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area which adjoins the Fleecer timber sale and is within the wildlife security analysis area for the project.
If grizzlies are to be recovered and removed from the Endangered Species protections, it means their habitat must be taken into account in Forest Service timber sales.
The Standard also pointed to the Colt Summit timber sale and chastised the Alliance for taking that project to court. But like the Fleecer sale, Colt Summit is another money-losing, taxpayer-subsidized logging proposal that will destroy habitat for elk, lynx and grizzly bears while costing taxpayers $1.5 million. Moreover, the Forest Service’s own records show that the agency made the decision Colt Summit would not impact the environment well before any analysis was done or public input received.
Instead of attacking citizens for participating in the management of our public lands and “abusing” environmental laws, the Standard should ask the Forest Service and its allies, like the Montana Wilderness Association, why the agency has such a hard time following the laws that ensure Butte continues to be surrounded by beautiful national forests full of native wildlife for generations yet to come.
Today’s Helena Independent Record included dueling guest columns concerning the Colt Summit timber sale lawsuit, which is the first lawsuit of a timber sale on the Lolo National Forest in over five years. One oped comes from Michael Garrity, a 5th generation Montanan, who’s the director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. The other oped is co-written by Keith Olson, director of the Montana Logging Association and Tom France, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. The most recent Colt Summit posts from this blog are found here and here. Click here for the entire Colt Summit archive.