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Forest planning: voices unheard.

Almost half of my home county covered by National Forest. This is not n unusual situation; 670 of the 3,094 U.S. counties contain portions of National Forest. In 208 of these counties, home to more than 16 million people, the forests dominate the landscape, comprising more than 25 percent of the land area. Like most of the millions who see the National Forests from their windows every day, I have regarded Smokey the Bear as a good neighbor who is fun to visit. About 60 of the estimated 226.5 million user-days of recreation provided by the National Forest System last year were enjoyed by my family.

Yet I and most of my neighbors are feeling uneasy about old Smokey. Of course there have always been problems. The classic confrontation between conservationists and loggers is reenacted each year in all the forests. There are questions about burning, herbicides, roads, clearcuts.... And no matter how things turn out, it is the forest ranger, the professional who is supposed to manage the forest, who has to take the heat from any disgruntled parties.

All that was supposed to change with the passage of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) in 1976. The NFMA mandated a nationwide, forest-by-forest planning process, which may be without parallel in the history of resource management. Built into the process were procedures to "consider and evaluate" testimony from all concerned groups and individuals. The Forest Service rhetoric of multiple use" was to be validated once and for all. Acceptable and comphrehensive compromises between preservation and utilization, conservation and development were to flow almost automatically from the planning process.

With respect to the sheer quantity of public participation, the process has exceeded all expectations, The combined plan for my forest, the Nantahala, and the neighboring Pisgah has prompted no less than 5,000 letters to the Forest Service. Practically all of them have rejected the plan, in both its original and revised forms. The so-called final" plan for the NantahalaPisgah Forests-considered "one of the best"-has faced six administrative appeals, four of which are still active.

Across the nation it is the same. Undaunted by the size of the plans, some of which weigh in excess of 10 pounds, the citizenry have found them lacking. So far all of 93 existing "final" plans have been appealed, and the 30 plans still in "draft' form have also come under fire.

This is not the work of any particular interest group. One of the NantahalaPisgah appeals, sponsored by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, charges that too much acreage is marked for harvest and that the Forest Service is short-changing Wilderness, wildlife, non-motorized recreation, and natural ecosystems. Another, by a local loggers' group, demands more acreage for timber harvest. A local grass-roots conservation group, the Western North Carolina Alliance, says the main problem is not how many acres art, cut or left, but the way timber is cut, and vigorously opposes clearcutting (felling every last tree over an area of 10 to 100 acres or more).

Unlikely as it may seem, there is el common thread uniting all the appeals: The root problem, I think, is not a matter of Wilderness vs. timber, or recreation vs. development, It is not a question of how the forest should be managed. It is not even the prevalence of below-cost timber sales that rings sc) false to the ordinary taxpayer lacking an advanced degree in economics.

The problem with all of the plans is one of democratic process. What was touted as a splendid example of participatory democracy has turned into an exercise in public relations, and the public sees through it.

In the process, the professional forester has been reduced to a mouther of platitudes and executor of orders from the bureaucrats, Ill the old days, you could have an argument with the local forester, and so could anyone else with an axe to grind (or break). You, by God, knew the best way to manage the forest up on Yonder Mountain-wilderness, of course. So did your neighbor, the logger, Both of your opinions were, wellgrounded; you both knew your way around the woods on Yonder Mountain, as did the forester, In the end, he made the decision, and took the credit and/or blame.

Today the forester rarely gets out in the woods. He or she is tied up behind the computer. It's not that many young foresters wouldn't like to get out in the woods more. And if their jobs didn't depend on filling the same old prescription over and over, I think most of them would welcome a little more decision-making power. At a recent on-site meeting with some local citizens, a second-generation. forester remarked, "Back in Dad's day, they used to set aside Friday afternoon for the office work, But this is the only time I'll be in the woods all week. It's a shame."

Even supposing a present-day forester does know the woods as intimately as his predecessor, it's not of much use. Policy is set in Washington, by former forest-products-company executives who never get out in the woods, and management is plotted on maps and computer screens, in blocks that homogenize north and south slopes, steep banks and flat shelves, deep and shallow soils into management units. "

Just try to argue with your forester today. No matter what outrageous thing you say, he "appreciates your concern" and is "glad to have your input," But he isn't listening, he's counting. Your conversation "proves" that the planning process is functioning. But the public is not placated.

No one is more unhappy with the present state of affairs than the older foresters. In a commentary included in the appeal to the Cherokee National Forest plan, consulting forester Dr. Leon S. Minckler bemoans the usurpation of the planning process by economists. "Site-specific prescriptions-that's what our profession is all about."

Even foresters like Prof. Minckler would not deny that a National Forest policy is necessary. But focusing on that to the exclusion of managing the individual trees and pieces of land that are the forest would seem calculated to lead us toward a silvicultural replication of the Soviets' planned agriculture. I don't propose that taking a step toward democracy by decentralizing the management process will magically reconcile the loggers with the backpack set. And the poor forester will still be caught in the middle, but at least the arguments to which he or she is subjected may have some influence on the ultimate management decision.

At present, participation in the planning process" leaves the ordinary citizen, of whatever persuasion, with a distinct feeling of impotence. And that, if you'll pardon my input, is neither pleasant nor productive.
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Author:McLarney, William O.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1989
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