by Robert Stokes
Earlier this month, President Bush signed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA). He and forestry advisor Mark Rey call the law and related administrative actions the "Healthy Forest Initiative." Rey is Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, a post that makes him the political overseer of the U.S. Forest Service.

Bush and Rey say their goal is preventing forest fires and disease. Environmentalists say it is avoiding environmental scrutiny of commercial logging.

HFRA authorizes hazardous fuel reduction projects on up to 20 million acres of federal forestland, about 10 percent of the total. The law also authorizes increased expenditures for fire and disease control. Selection criteria give priority to projects near communities at risk from forest fires, and to removing brush and small trees. However, projects remote from communities (including roadless areas) and requiring removal of larger trees (old growth) are permitted, too.

Selected projects are subject to new rules for administrative appeal and litigation. Compared to conventional timber sales, HFRA gives the public shorter periods to file administrative appeals. When projects are litigated, the law requires judges to consider the effect of non-completion as well as completion. Injunctions that stop fuel reduction projects must be renewed periodically, whereas injunctions lodged against conventional timber sales can remain in force indefinitely.

Those Congressionally provided options complement a new administrative procedure called categorical exclusion, under which projects can be initiated with brief documents declaring the category for which they qualify, and certifying the absence of significant environmental impacts. Categorically excluded projects may be litigated, but cannot be administratively appealed.

It is expected that most fuel reduction and categorical exclusion projects will include removal of merchantable timber. Sometimes that will be necessary to achieve the goals of fire and disease control. But harvest of merchantable timber can also result from another new procedure called stewardship contracting. Stewardship contracting allows the Forest Service to trade merchantable timber for performance of non-revenue producing activities, like removing brush and small trees.

Forest Service officials are noncommittal (to put it mildly) about how much merchantable timber will be removed by fuel reduction, categorical exclusion and stewardship projects. An obvious motive of the new rules is increasing timber harvest while avoiding the use of terms like "logging" and "timber sale" that inflame critics.

I support the Healthy Forest Initiative but object to these and other verbal gimmicks being used to sell it.

Logging and professional forestry (also called silviculture) are ancient professions that have always included fire and disease control. Modern logging is an economically beneficial industry, no different from others that share their environment, thus creating the need to reconcile conflicts.

For decades, reconciling conflicts and achieving balance in federal forests has been accomplished through multiple-use forest management. In the early 20th century, multiple-use meant primarily logging and other commercial activities, with a sprinkle of outdoor recreation. Over time, the non-commercial component expanded and took on new dimensions. That evolution will continue indefinitely.

What also changed was the constituency forest managers must satisfy. Historically, forest management was dominated by people with practical and/or scientific knowledge: foresters, loggers, wildlife scientists and the occasional advocate for recreational or environmental values. Today, anybody with a TV set or Internet connection can be mobilized to support or oppose forest management measures. Change some words, throw up pictures of burning trees and houses, and create new images of forests and forest management. Use those images to change the law, wait for public interest to fade, then do what you want.

Republicans and conservatives have long accused environmentalists of that kind of image manipulation, often with justification. Environmentalists frequently re-label themselves and their policies to gain support or soften opposition. That is why we have groups with names suggesting that hunters support animal rights and that taxpayers advocate removing federally constructed dams. Most amazing to me is a group that calls itself "Republicans for Environmental Protection," but endorses virtually every position taken by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

Whether employed by the left or the right, such tactics recall Abraham Lincoln's comment: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

President Bush must soon account to the electorate for his leadership during one of the few periods of all-Republican government since World War II. Time will tell how voter reaction to the Healthy Forest Initiative affects that accounting.

I think America would have been better served if the president had used his first term to rebuild public support for multiple-use forest management. That approach is as valid today as it was when conceived by another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, and his forestry advisor, Gifford Pinchot. For their work, Roosevelt and Pinchot rightfully earned their places among the founders of the modern conservation movement.

Robert Stokes is a retired natural resource economist living in Spokane.

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Publication date: 12/18/03

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