8 Sep 2009, 1:00pm
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
by admin

Is it Time to Give Our Federal Forests Back to the Indians?

James D. Petersen, Executive Director of The Evergreen Foundation [here] and one of the most knowledgeable, indefatigable, literate, and leading voices for responsible forest stewardship ever, gave a wonderful speech two years ago at Thirty-first Annual National Indian Timber Symposium.

His topic was a philosophical discussion of the decline in federal forest management, and whether it might be the best thing to simply give our national forests back to their original owners, Native Americans. As far fetched as that idea is, it makes sense in the following ways:

* Federal forest management has collapsed into megafire and devastation. Our forests, watersheds, wildlife habitat, rivers and streams, and rural communities have suffered enormously from abandonment of stewardship by ignorant political forces far from the national forest locales.

* Tribal forests, on the other hand, have experienced a renaissance of stewardship. Both traditional and modern techniques are used, and the forests are managed by the residents, who have the most to gain, or lose, by their actions.

* Putting federal forests back into local control would protect and enhance a variety of forest values that are currently in precipitous decline.

* Native American tribes are well-organized and staffed with professionals these days, and so they could step in immediately to correct the glaring deficiencies engendered by absentee, incompetent, centralized government bureaucracies.

There is little likelihood of such an ownership conversion in the near future, but it’s something to think about — if for no other reason than to spur the federal bureaucrats and politicians into a rude awakening.

The entire Petersen speech is [here]. Some excerpts follow:

Is it Time to Give Our Federal Forests Back to the Indians?

“Emerging Challenges in Indian Country”, Thirty-first Annual National Indian Timber Symposium, held at KwaTaqNuk Resort on Flathead Lake, Polson, Montana, June 5, 2007

A Speech by James D. Petersen, Executive Director of The Evergreen Foundation

It’s a pleasure to be here among friends on this fine June afternoon.

As many of you know, the Evergreen Foundation has in recent years published two special reports* highlighting Indian forestry in the United States, so it goes without saying that I am a great admirer of your land management philosophy, especially the way it translates so fluidly into benefits for both land and people. I also have great sympathy for the uphill struggle you face in your ongoing efforts to both stabilize and grow your forestry businesses. …

* Forestry In Indian Country - Models of Sustainability for our National Forests? Winter 2005/2006 [here]

and Forestry In Indian Country: Progress & Promise, June 1998 [here]

I confess that I have struggled mightily with the simple matter of topic. Your program says I am going to talk about “Emerging Challenges in Indian Forestry.” And I am, but I’m going to spice things up a bit by posing a question that I hope you will consider as seriously as the spirit in which I offer it up for discussion. And the question is simply this: “Is it time to give our nation’s federal forests back to the Indians?”

When the question first rose in my mind last February, its magnitude frightened me so much that I sent an e-mail note to my friend Gary Morishima asking for his advice. In a matter of moments, his answer flashed across my computer screen: “Good topic to get the blood flowing,” he wrote. I felt better - but only a little.

It would be disingenuous of me to imply that I think the United States ought to consider giving federal forests back to Indian tribes as a peace offering or a long overdue apology for the country’s dreadful and ill-conceived reservation policy of the 1800s.

No, there is another far more compelling and contemporary reason why I think the country ought to consider returning its federal forests to you. Put simply, the system is broken. The federal government and its proxies — the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the US Fish & Wildlife Service — are no longer capable of caring for our federal forests. And no amount of congressional tinkering is going to fix what is wrong.

I think it is time to wipe the slate clean and start over. If we do not do this soon, what is left of our federal forest heritage will be lost to insects and diseases, catastrophic wildfires, environmental litigators, activist judges, and wrong headed environmental groups that seem more interested in their own political power than in defending public interest. …

Federal forestry, which at its zenith provided about 25 percent of the nation’s timber, provides an amount so small today that it cannot be measured. For all intent and purpose, the federal timber sale program is dead - and there remain very few signs that it can or will be revived. For one thing, the intellectual capacity that delivered federal timber to the marketplace is gone. So too is the political will necessary to restart the program.

What remains of this once splendid program is a waste of taxpayer dollars. The hundreds of millions of dollars that are annually spent on wildfire suppression could easily be transferred directly to states and tribes that do the heavy lifting during fire season. So could your thinning contracts. Campgrounds and other recreational facilities could be given to the states in which they reside or sold to private interests. The agencies could be dismantled, just as sawmills and logging companies have been dismantled a thousand times over in the last two decades.

Here I want to add that I have Forest Service and BLM friends who are trying hard to do good work, especially in the stewardship contracting arena, dedicated professionals like Bruce Fox, Tim Love, Barry Wynsma and Obie O’Brien here in Region 1; Doug MacCleery in the Washington office, a frequent Evergreen contributor; Marlin Johnson in Albuquerque, in my mind the nearest thing to a saint in the modern-day Forest Service; Ed Shepherd, BLM director for Oregon and Washington, who I have known for 25 years; and my old friend Blair Moody, who works for the BLM in Medford, Oregon.

None of these dedicated professionals deserve to be dismissed because others can’t or won’t do their jobs, but then again, the thousands of woods and mill workers who also did good work did not deserve the fate that befell them after the northern spotted owl was listed in 1990 on the basis of some still very flimsy science.

Permit me to now gather these last two paragraphs into a single sentence, so there is no mistaking what I’ve just said. Put simply, I believe it is time for the country to consider sunsetting our federal land management agencies: the Forest Service, the BLM and the Fish & Wildlife Service.

You have no idea how difficult it is for me to say this - what sadness I feel - having steadfastly and very publicly defended the Forest Service and the BLM on the pages of Evergreen Magazine for the last 22 years, and I remain an unabashed admirer of what old hands called “the outfit.” Never let it be forgotten that in 1953 Fortune magazine voted the Forest Service one of the two most admired organizations in the country. The other was the United States Marine Corps. …

Nor is it an accident that I have so many friends who are Forest Service retirees - or that I continue to seek their counsel, especially the members of the National Association of Forest Service retirees.

But the esprit décor that was once the outfit’s hallmark is long gone - and we and our forests are the lesser for it. …

These things said the Forest Service in particular is no longer the splendid organization it once was. Too many in its employ today are eight-to-fivers who are only there for the benefits. Driving by their new offices drives me nuts. What do they do all day? What product or service are they creating that will benefit our society?

Some in the Forest Service are very open in their desire to remake the organization. While I respect their candor, I do not admire their goal. The idea that late succession species can somehow be suspended in time and space is bogus. Nature won’t allow it. …

One might legitimately ask what brought such profoundly negative change to these once fine federal agencies. Sally Fairfax, a Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at Berkeley, and a periodic Journal of Forestry contributor, gave us the best answer I’ve ever seen more than 20 years ago. Here is what she wrote - what I did not want to believe, but now know to be true.

“Far from achieving a rational decision-making process, RPA and NFMA may well result in stalemate and indecision as the Forest Service turns from managing land to simply overseeing a convoluted, ever more complex set of congressionally mandated procedures. The tradition of land stewardship, if indeed it survived the 1950s and 1960s, may have died in the 1970s. RPA and NFMA take the initiative from experienced land managers - those revered people on the ground, the folks who have lived with the land and their mistakes long enough to have developed wisdom and a capacity for judgment - and gives it to lawyers, computers, economists and politically active special interest groups seeking to protect and enhance their own diverse positions. This shift in initiative will result from the layers of legally binding procedure that RPA and NFMA foist on top of an already complex and overly rigid planning process. Constant procedural tinkering does not, I fear, lead to efficiency or simplicity. Rather it promises a proliferation of steps, sub-steps, appendices and diverticulae that makes the Forest Service susceptible to the ultimate lawyer’s malaise, the reification of process over substance.”

Sally was right…and in my hopefulness, I was wrong.

I do not know if it is possible to sunset a federal agency, but if our land management agencies were to pass into history, we Americans would need to answer a very important question to our mutual satisfaction. And the question is, “What should we do with the land itself?”

As I see it, the country has four alternatives that ought to be seriously considered:

First, reaffirm the original intent and purpose of the 1897 Organic Act.

Second, let nature take its course - just as environmental groups have wanted.

Third, sell it to private interests, perhaps REITS or TIMOS.

Fourth, give it back to the Indians.

Alternative One would be the cheapest and easiest to implement, and of course reaffirming the Organic Act would mean we would not be sunsetting the Forest Service or the BLM. We would instead immediately launch a search for new talent capable of managing the country’s timber reserves. This is the sweetest dream of many Forest Service retirees. But I doubt that more than one in fifty members of Congress have ever heard of the Organic Act or would have the slightest understanding of the historic context in which it was ratified. …

The assertion that our country no longer needs to manage its federal forest resources — or its mineral or energy resources — has led us into harm’s way in god-awful places like Baghdad, Mosul and the Sunni Triangle of Death — to say nothing of what it has done to once heavenly places like Libby, Montana, Forks, Washington, Coos Bay, Oregon and Hayfork, California.

I confess the cynic in me likes Alternative No.2, “the leave it to nature” plan. It is long past time for Americans to again witness the unbridled forces of wildfire that my grandmother experienced fleeing the great 1910 fire with a one-month old baby in her arms. So let’s think seriously about bowing to the selfish and ill-informed interests of environmental groups that have for years been harping about “letting nature take its course” in the public’s forests.

Of course, bowing to their nonsensical view of nature runs contrary to well documented public support for thinning programs capable of reducing the deadly risks posed by wildfires, insects and diseases. In two recent national surveys, the following forest amenities polled highest: clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year round recreation opportunities.

Ladies and gentlemen, these amenities are not associated with the dreadful aftermath of catastrophic wildfire, yet we are told again and again by environmentalists that these fires are simply natural occurrences — nature’s way of rebalancing the scales after a century of excluding wildfire from forests. This claim is absurd on its face. It ignores both history and science — to say nothing of social and economic necessity.

But for the moment let’s set this debate aside. Let’s concede that neither the government nor the courts have the slightest interest in heeding majority public opinion. Let’s let environmentalists have it their way. Let’s let nature take its course for the next, say, 25 years. Then the public can decide once and for all if it likes the “leave it to nature” approach. Maybe it will, but I’m betting that long months of summer smoke, the destruction of watersheds, the loss of fish and wildlife habitat and the ruination of scenic vistas and recreation opportunity are not things the public will appreciate or support for very long.

This brings us to Alternative No. 3. Given the billions of dollars in ready cash these forests represent perhaps we should sell our most productive national forest acres to capital-rich REIT’s and TIMO’s. …

Although I think this alternative could work well over time, there isn’t much evidence suggesting that the American people are yet ready to sell their forest heritage to a bunch of Wall Street suits, which leads me to Alternative No. 4: giving it back to the Indians.

This alternative isn’t as far-fetched as you may think. Many of the West’s sawmill owning families like the idea. Indeed, many of them are already regular buyers of your timber.

I also believe that counties that have been devastated by the loss of federal harvest receipts would be among your earliest and most ardent supporters. Most of these forested counties have no other economic assets or potentials. They owe their very existence to the presence of commercially valuable federal timber, which the Forest Service and BLM worked hard to develop in the years following the Second World War.

Were the decision mine, there would be only two strings attached to this transaction. First, I would want counties — not the states, but the counties in which the respective national forests lie — to be your working partners. They need the money and you will need their political muscle.

Second, you get free title to land that was once yours, but no additional federal money comes with the deal — ever. You are on your own. In order to make your vastly expanded land base pay its way it will be necessary for you to manage it for the enormous wealth it holds. This means timber harvesting, energy development, mineral development, soil, habitat, fire and watershed protection, managing for early and late succession species, protecting historic, cultural and scenic values and, of course, development of a full range of year-round recreation opportunities for public enjoyment. In a phrase: multiple-use the old-fashioned way — the way you do it in your forests, the way the Forest Service and BLM did it before they and Congress lost their way.

To insure that you can actually practice science-based forestry in your new forests it will no doubt be necessary for Congress to pass legislation that bulletproofs your claims to sovereign nation status, thereby eliminating the likelihood that serial litigators will show up on your doorstep the morning after we complete this transaction. Imagine local coalitions working together to solve social and environmental problems in a litigation-free environment. Lord knows, the national forests were a tremendous source of economic, social and cultural well being for decades before the program disintegrated under the crushing weight of litigation.

No doubt some of you are wondering just how you might get this ball rolling in the right direction. Clearly, this is going to take some time and thought. You are going to have to reach far beyond your own tribal community for political support. And you are going to have to develop a well thought out strategy for convincing the public that you have their best interests at heart. …

I grant you this is a giant leap into the future, so be prepared to seriously discuss alternatives that may be offered up by groups that have a stake in the destiny of our federal forests; especially groups representing citizens who live in or near these forests, far from the political environs of Beltway powerbrokers. Form partnerships with local groups as they rise to the occasion. Leave no idea unexplored and turn no one away who is interested in serious dialogue. This idea and the many permutations and combinations that it is bound to spawn are far too important to let the usual sky-is-falling screamers shout them into oblivion.

Count me among those willing to help you sort out this idea whose time may well have come. We’ve been pleased and proud to represent your hopes, interests and concerns on the pages of Evergreen Magazine twice in the last decade. May I suggest that we need to do this more often in order to get you on the public’s radar screen and keep you there?

We have done everything humanly possible to help our readers understand what is happening to our nation’s forest heritage - and I think they are finally coming to grips with the realities posed by insects, diseases and wildfire, but save for the minor success represented in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, none of the good ideas we’ve tried to advance has gained any traction, nor will they until someone figures out how to stuff the litigation genie back in the bottle - an event I consider extremely unlikely given the presence of so many lawyers in Congress. Meanwhile, our forests have become prisoners in a much wider war for our country’s soul.

Standing before you then is one American who is prepared to surrender title to these beautiful forests if that is what it takes to save them from radical environmentalists who have repeatedly signaled their willingness to let our country’s forest heritage burn to the ground for the sake of their own political and financial power.

I want you to have free title to these forests and I want you to manage them the way you are trying to manage your own forests. I am confident that as the American people see more of your brand of forestry - and learn more about your management philosophy and its cultural and spiritual underpinnings - they will become more comfortable with the idea of handing you free title to our nation’s federal forestland base.

Of course, this great national discussion will take time. There is bound to be heated debate, if for no other reason than the fact that Americans love their forests. The question is do they love them enough to set them free. I know I do. Thanks for inviting me to join you this afternoon. I wish you well in all your endeavors.

13 Sep 2009, 10:44am
by Ned

Certainly a thought provoking speech by someone very knowledgeable with forestry matters.

Should we give up on the Forest Service? Is management of our National Forests now hopeless? This is something that I have given a lot of thought to. As I watch the forest destruction from megafires and the helpless management brought about by appeals and litigation of Forest Plans, almost anything that would put the focus back to local control starts to make sense.

There have been proposals to turn management over to states. However, those proposals would require the states to follow the same laws that have gridlocked the Forest Service and therefore would accomplish nothing. Ownership would have to be free and clear of onerous regulations.

13 Sep 2009, 3:26pm
by Bob Z.

It seems to me that the USFS has had a long and proud history, serving the nation and the world well, with distinction and with honor. But now those days and distinctions are beginning to seem long ago, and for another time.

The US has had similar periods of quality statesmanship and long-term results in its past — the patriots, and pioneers, and astronauts. But their time, too, seems past and maybe no longer as relevant as before.

Ned speaks of the megafires and helpless management characterizing current “stewardship” of public lands by the USFS of today. He could have added public distrust, rural poverty, and (truly) endangered wildlife populations and habitats to the list.

Something needs to be done. Today’s USFS has all of the appearances of being permanently crippled and neutered. The BLM and NPS seem little better off, if at all.

Ned makes good points regarding State Management, although Washington DNR, Cal Fire, and Oregon Department of Forestry do seem more capable of achieving management objectives these days than their federal counterparts.

My vote is with the Indians and the Counties. Local management; local objectives; local decisions; local employment. That is our best hope — for all of us — in today’s environment.



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