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Why forest gridlock?

This nation's forests, particularly in the Inland West, are heading downhill because managers can't get untracked to do the necessary fixes. Two prominent observers lock horns as they probe the root causes.

NEIL SAMPSON et al. ("Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West," American Forests, March/April 1994) persuasively argue for thoughtful remedial actions to correct the abuses of highgrading, fire suppression, off-site planting, overgrazing, and the like that have plagued the Inland West's forests for decades. These practices have sedimented streams, threatening salmon species and watershed integrity. The South Fork of the Salmon River, once one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the West, has been literally "blown out" by landsliding from roads, clearcuts, and other poorly conceived forest practices.

Indiscriminate roading has also contributed to the further decline of the grizzly bear's remnant populations as bear/people conflicts worsen due to the increased human access that roads provide. Prime hunting areas for big game continue to be lost as roading further degrades many of the Inland West's remaining wild areas.

Highgrading has also removed most of the once-abundant yellow-belly ponderosa pine, including the critically important large dead pines that are nesting and foraging habitat for dozens of bird and small mammal species. Large pine snags are now too rare a sight in today's managed forest landscapes.

The list of environmental damage from our forestry mistakes is a long one, and, yes, the list also includes fir infestations of dry-site pine stands that pose a severe risk of wildfire during drought or other high-stress conditions. But Sampson et al.'s preoccupation with this one feature of the overall forest-health crisis leads the authors to suggest an inappropriate treatment that will do more harm than good.

Sampson et al. claim that environmental laws "prevent the agencies from taking timely action to address fast-changing situations in the forest." Not so. The environmental laws, when followed, ensure that all forest resources are maintained in a healthy condition. The laws direct that the South Fork Salmon River's fisheries should prosper, that the grizzly bear and other threatened species should be recovered from the brink of extinction, that all native species should be provided habitat for healthy populations. The laws ensure that big-game hunting and other recreation should be given equal consideration to timbering in the management of the public's national forests.

Yes, environmental laws and legal processes can cause delays in agency actions - when courts are compelled to enforce laws the Forest Service has broken (as they have needed to do all too often). On the other hand, obeying the laws in the first place is not unduly time-consuming. Procedurally, the environmental laws require only that the Forest Service has a plan for what it wants to do; that the public be invited to comment on the plan and be told honestly the plan's environmental costs and benefits; and that responsible agencies work together when threatened or endangered species might be affected by the plan. Is this really too much to ask of the public's servants?

If it's not the laws themselves that delay agency response to forest-health needs, what's holding things up? A recent survey of Forest Service employees conducted by the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources and reported in Policies and Mythologies of the U.S. Forest Service (1994) concluded:

"The Forest Service's current organization has concentrated decision power at higher than useful levels. It has created structural impediments to complying with laws. [Emphasis added.] It has helped create target-based policies that complicate, if not make ecosystem management impossible; and it has established management incentives based on controlling information, rather than on opening lines of communication that lead to informed decisions."

In a nutshell, by "structural impediments" the authors mean that Forest Service decisionmaking has been taken away from the on-the-ground ranger and increasingly moved up the chain of command to the regional and national offices. This bureaucratization of the Forest Service penalizes initiative and innovation at the field level, where creative solutions are most needed. Again, in the authors' words:

"An organization can gradually concentrate authority at higher-than-necessary levels, especially when some decisions in a difficult external political climate seem to demand high-level intervention. Smart staff gravitate toward high levels of authority . . . the staff competence at lower levels erodes, district- and forest-level line officers lose decision power and become staff advisers, and a logical information-delegation-decision pyramid becomes inverted. These events erode close-to-the-ground responsibility and accountability, and confidence and risk-taking go with them."

When it comes to responding to on-the-ground forest-health needs, this centralization of bureaucratic power paralyzes the initiative of forest managers, causing increasing frustration and an organizational inability to make timely decisions. Tasks that were once easy to perform - like writing an environmental assessment (documents that 10 or 15 years ago captured the relevant information in two dozen pages) - now are "bomb-proof" tomes designed more to appease higher-level bureaucrats than to inform decisionmakers.

Simple inter-organizational tasks - like asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its views on how a particular road will affect grizzly habitat - are now bumped up the chain of command, with delays at each succeeding layer. No longer can an on-the-ground biologist get a biological opinion from her Fish and Wildlife Service counterpart; everything has to be run through their respective regional or national offices (even sometimes through the Secretarial offices).

The laws themselves are not to blame for the seemingly endless delays. "Fixing" the environmental laws, as Sampson et al suggest, will not solve the bureaucratic malaise that has overtaken the Forest Service. The solutions lie within the Forest Service itself, and involve unleashing the talents and dedication of agency employees from the shackles of oppressive bureaucracy.

And thank goodness the solution to timely treatment of forest-health issues does not lie with changing the environmental laws. If you ever want to see decision paralysis, go visit Congress one day.

ANDY STAHL makes a reasonable case in defense of environmental laws, but the truth of the matter is that procedural gridlock now prevents the Forest Service from responding to changing forest conditions in a timely way. As forest managers of all types absorb new scientific information, consider the implications of the "new paradigm" in forestry that leaders such as former Yale Forestry Dean John Gordon discuss, and grapple with on-the-ground application of ecosystem-management concepts, one fact stands out: Of all types of forest managers, the federal managers are the least able to quickly adapt new concepts and innovate.

In our forest-health workshop, the sponsoring committee writing the overview paper was in full agreement, but was careful to word its assessment of the problem: "The procedural, regulatory, and judicial framework that has developed in response to that complex array of federal (environmental) laws imposes time delays that, in many cases, prevent the agency from taking timely action. . . ." In other words, the environmental laws aren't the basic problem - but the procedures that have grown up in their wake have become a major factor.

It has been said, and may be true, that the original intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) could have been met by an environmental impact statement (EIS) that was written in a week. Stahl's proposal that the idea is not so terribly complex supports such a view. But we know that this isn't the real case. The writing of an EIS takes person-months, costs huge sums, and often fails to be deemed adequate in the face of a challenge.

The forest-health situation points up the fact that - in addition to the direct costs involved in preparing lengthy plans and assessments, as well as going through appeals and lawsuits - an enormous cost is imposed by the delays involved. Adaptive management, if it is to work, needs to be able to adapt. When the agency can't change directions as fast as the forest conditions change, problems are certain. As our workshop pointed out, that is clearly the case in the Inland West today.

So the full costs of the procedural gridlock that surrounds federal forest management today includes the environmental and economic losses sustained when forests suffer needless damage. It is one thing to say that dead are natural components of forests, but quite another to look at thousands of acres of blackened watershed that could have stayed green had management been able to thin trees, do prescribed fires, and/or reduce fuel overloads. In 1994 there were several areas where forest-health treatment plans were in mid-stride or nearing completion when the area burned over, and all the time and work spent on those plans was lost. In several cases, had the agency been able to move speedily when problems were first identified, the treatments would have been complete and the area would have tolerated the fire much differently.

The questions surrounding environmental laws and their role in this matter are complex ones, but they are certain to become a major political issue in the coming year. That was a good bet prior to the November election, but is now more certain. It seems to me that one could draw a picture of this situation in the shape of an inverted pyramid. Most environmental laws are fairly straightforward and, in the main, contain objectives that are strongly supported. But each year, on top of each of these laws is built an ever-larger layer of agency policies and regulations, along with court decisions and case law. Thus, to an agency person writing an environmental impact statement today, what NEPA said 20 years ago is almost beside the point. Managers must comply with huge layers of policy, procedure, and case law that have been heaped on top of that fairly simple starting point.

And, of course, there are more than one of these legal pyramids, each balanced on a single point of law, but they increasingly overlap each other as they grow larger and more complex layers of case law and policy each year. For a forest manager, that includes the National Forest Management Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Federal Advisory Committee Act, to name a few. Not only do their current rules overlap in places, but there are instances in which they conflict, and compliance with one risks violating another.

Another effect of this complex situation is that every legal challenge helps to move decision making away from the forest. Lawsuits don't attack forest planners - the defendant is the Chief of the Forest Service or the Secretary of Agriculture, whomever the law identifies as the responsible federal official. When the Secretary or Chief gets sued and loses, the Department's lawyers write another set of new rules to prevent that problem in the future. Thus, decision-making moves increasingly away from the field and toward Washington, with damaging effect. Where Stahl holds the Forest Service responsible, I would argue that this is the inevitable outcome of the way in which we have shifted the administration of federal laws from administrative agencies to the judicial system in America.

Thus, though the original laws may be fairly straightforward and functionally separate, today they support such a broad and complex legal framework that the process grinds into gridlock. Since it is impossible to untangle this mess by undoing the case law or rewriting the administrative regulations that have emerged, the only place for reform is at the level of the basic law itself. The heart of the policy challenge is not to reform environmental goals as expressed in environmental laws but rather to rewrite these laws so that the goals can be met with less cost and better effect. If that doesn't happen, we will continue to have a federal forest-management process that is increasingly expensive and unable to respond to such things as the health breakdown in the Inland West forests.

ANDY STAHL is executive director of AFSEEE, the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, based in Eugene, Oregon.

NElL SAMPSON is executive vice president of AMERICAN FORESTS, publishers of this magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Forests
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:national forest policy
Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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