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Before the

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources
Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health

Regarding the Future of the Forest Service

September 21, 2000


Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the future of the Forest Service. My name is Jack Ward Thomas, and I am a professor at the School of Forestry, University of Montana, and the former Chief of the Forest Service.

The rains have come and the temperatures are dropping in Montana. Snows have come to the high country. The big fire year of 2000 is already fading into memory—and, far too soon. There are lessons yet to be contemplated and plans to be made. It is now time to be coldly rational.

The “blame game” rhetoric surrounding the circumstances of the fire season are still alive and well, and triggers memories for me—sad memories. Six years ago I was in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the day after the seemingly benign fire on Storm King Mountain had exploded into an inferno that took away the lives of 14 vibrant young firefighters. As Mike Dombeck (who was then director of the Bureau of Land Management) and I stood on the still-smoldering slope where those dedicated public servants died, we swore through choked voices, and tears, that this would not happen again.

But, that fire season was not over, and there were others yet to die. There were 34 deaths fighting wildland fires that year in efforts to protect lives, property, and natural resources. We and our dedicated staff of professionals worked diligently for the next two years to instill a philosophy that firefighter safety comes first, ahead of all else, and certainly ahead of structures and trees. And, those efforts have continued.

That attitude paid off in the big fire year of 2000. There have been only a fraction of the deaths that occurred in 1994 but even one is too many. That was no accident, for there have been thousands of firefighters in harm’s way. Yet, there have been rare but pointed criticisms that the firefighters were not aggressive enough and structures were lost as a result. Be that as it may. I only know that I would give up all my material wealth to get back just one of the young lives that were lost fighting fires on my watch. God bless the fire bosses for their caring and their caution for the lives of the firefighters in their charge.

We learned a lot in the big fire year of 1994 beyond needed attention to firefighter safety. The aftermath of that year’s fires was the now infamous “Salvage Rider.” That rider (a terrible means of making natural resources policy) was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, but never involved the Forest Service. Then, the agency reported weekly to the Council on Environmental Quality on progress toward meeting the salvage targets.

The rider stated that the Forest Service was not constrained by environmental law (they were changed anyway), that consultation with regulatory agencies was waived (though consultation continued), and no appeals were allowed (which were not done as they were prohibited). When “logging without laws” turned into a political disaster, the Forest Service was left holding the bag.

The acrimony and distrust engendered by the Salvage Rider still lingers and poisons the atmosphere as the Forest Service enters the 21st Century. Please do not repeat that mistake.

There have been some efforts, on all sides, to make this fire year into a political blame game. Such is both unfortunate and unproductive. Clearly, frustration, fear, concern, and weariness can lead to statements that would have been best unspoken. Such largely unjustified statements are unfortunate to the extent that they distract from the more important and pressing need to recognize and address exacerbating problems swirling around management of the public lands and the abutting private lands. There is blame enough to go around—as there will be credit enough for deriving and applying solutions.

For example, I have seen a full-page newspaper advertisement laying the blame for the fires of 2000 at the feet of the Clinton Administration. I have a few bones to pick with those folks, but laying long-term declining trends in timber harvest at their feet simply does not hold up to assessment.

For example, the timber cut from the national forests peaked in 1987 when Reagan was President. By 1999, the cut had declined by 77 percent, some 62 percent by the time Clinton assumed the presidency and 15 percent since. Some 8 percent of the decline that occurred on Clinton’s watch was attributable to the Northwest Forest Plan that addressed a total shutdown of timber harvesting imposed by a federal judge due to previous failures to address endangered species issues.

Acres considered “suitable for timber production” declined 39 percent since 1981—26 percent by the time Clinton took office and 13 percent since. Eight of that 13 percent was, again, attributable to circumstances in the Pacific Northwest.

If acres subject to timber cutting had been maintained at the same level that existed when Clinton took office, only an additional 8 tenths of 1 percent of the acres on the national forests would have been touched by 1999. That is hardly enough acres treated to have had much effect on the fires of 2000. Miles of new road construction tells the same story. Construction of new roads on the national forests peaked in at 3,341 miles and declined steadily to 192 miles in 1999—a decline of 94 percent. About 84 percent of the decline occurred during the Reagan-Bush years, and 10 percent since that time.

I present these facts not to make a political statement. In fact, my intent is just the opposite. The fires of 2000 are largely the effect of nature and circumstances of climate and forest conditions that have come about over many decades as Presidents came and went and Congresses did the same.

In reality the “roadless issue” that is so prominent today was essentially settled by 1993 by economic considerations of “below cost” timber sales and public opinion. Congress steadfastly refused to fund roads into roadless areas (areas of 5,000 acres or more without roads)—and the game changed, at least for the foreseeable future.

There is a creeping paralysis of active management of public lands. And, I believe that to be unfortunate. The spate of environmental legislation of the late 1960s and 1970s has combined to produce an increasingly unwieldy and unworkable situation for public land managers.

I agree with the intent of nearly all that legislation. But, these laws were passed by different Congresses at different times with no discernible consideration of the political interactions of those laws and the resultant case law. Now, the chickens have come home to roost. The legal system related to public land management has unwittingly evolved into a nightmare for public land managers who have a bent toward active land management—for whatever purpose.

The time is long past for a new try at an overhaul of the myriad laws bearing on public land management. It is time for reevaluation. The Commission appointed to that task should not, as in past such efforts, be composed of big names with appropriate political pedigrees. Such a team should be centered on folks rich in their knowledge of natural resource management for myriad purposes. The required report should not be noted for flowery rhetoric and scholarly discourse—much prose leading nowhere but to a bookshelf. The report should take the form of draft legislation upon which debate could center—a platform for defining conservation of the public lands in the new century.

That may be too ambitious in view of the present level of political acrimony surrounding public land management. However, there is an opportunity that can be exploited by an Administration in power. That is the simultaneous revision of the regulations of the land management and regulatory agencies. The purpose of those revisions would be to “streamline” processes and ensure maximum possible efficiency.

The Administration in power could go further. Orders could be made clear concerning responsibility for adherence to law. Clearly, the land management agencies have responsibility to obey applicable law related to environmental protection. However, it could be made clear that regulatory agencies, to the extent possible, have equal responsibility to assist the land management agencies in accomplishing their missions.

I grew up in a Forest Service that was a “can do” outfit. Did we make mistakes? Some. Did we change directions when science and public opinion dictated? Yes—sometimes a bit too slowly. Can the Forest Service perform when their mission is clear and resources are available? Absolutely.

I firmly believe that, given a clear mission, the Forest Service has performed and can perform better than any agency in government. However, the Forest Service simply doesn’t do “confusion” very well.

So, it is up to us to give the public land management agencies what they need—a clear, at least relatively uncluttered, mission. It is most certainly not a time to look for “bogeymen” either in the political arena or in the Forest Service to play to one extreme or another of the conflict industry for political advantage in either contributions or votes. This is time for leadership, for statesmanship, and for reason.

There have been several Forest Services since 1905. First, there was the period (1905-1945) that was the era of consolidation and protection—the custodial era. During the period 1945-1987, the Forest Service filled the post-World War II demand for timber—the timber emphasis period. The era of 1988 to the present has been an era of coming to grips with the environmental concerns of the nation expressed in the laws of the late 1960s and the 1970s—the environmental era.

The transition to the environmental era has not been easy and is still underway. On one side, the hard-core environmental movement cannot come to grips with the consequences of victory. They are still wandering about the battlefield bayoneting the wounded. Having won great victories, it is essential that they move to support the changes in agency missions they have helped engender.

On the other edge of the spectrum of interest in the National Forests are those who engage in a ritualized “ghost dance” aimed at resurrection of the “good old days” of the 1980s. Having suffered great defeats, it is essential that they move to ensure that some justifiable – and needed – level of resource extraction continues.

It has been observed that, in our democracy, decisions are made by the majority of the minority that is deeply concerned about a particular issue. These are the people, on both sides of the debates, who are the minority that truly cares about the future of the public lands.

The vast majority of those not so committed to their causes weary of the noise and smoke of a battle that is over and demand a truce and the stability (which will be temporal) that comes with that truce. So, I suggest, it may be time to fall back on that ancient wisdom to be applied when we weary of battle — “Come, let us reason together.”

It is past time for that to occur. I learned in junior high school to revere the Congress where reasoned debate on that ancient tradition was the order of the day. Down deep, I still want to believe that — and I do.

As an amateur historian, I conclude that such is not common and occurs only infrequently when the stars are appropriately aligned. Only at those “magic moments” can the promise of “reasoning together” occur.

Such a magic moment may be at hand as a product of the fires of 2000. Seize the moment. Check the old rhetoric at the door. Look for points of agreement. It is a time to replace clenched fists and closed minds with both open hands and open minds.

Give the Forest Service even a glimpse of a clear mission and the resources to do the job and they will come through to the extent possible under current laws and regulations. There lies the future. Coordinate the laws and regulations to make it possible for them to perform. There lies the future. Maintain clear lines of authority. There lies the future. Make certain that the professional leadership can surface issues of law and resource needs and allocations. There lies the future. Bring decision-making closer to where the trees and grass grow and the water flows. There lies the future. Move as many people and funds to the lowest levels in the organization. There lies the future.

During the period of 1895-1905, the agenda for conservation in the 20th Century was set. In my opinion, that is likely true of the current period of 1995-2005. It is in this decade that the course for conservation in the 21st Century will be set. Historians of the late 21st Century will write voluminously of this period. We will be the “stars” of those historians. What would we like to read about ourselves in those tomes yet to be written?

I would like to say that a fourth phase of Forest Service history began in that period — the period of “ecosystem management” which concerns preservation of biodiversity, the needs of people, and economic and ecological constraints.

It is time, past time, for the people to let the extreme fringes of opinion that make up the “conflict industry” be the white lines on the roadside that define the outer limits of what can be. It is time, past time, to move toward the yellow centerline where resources are used within the capability of ecological renewal and economic realities.

It is difficult to view the fires of 2000 as anything but a tragedy. But, if this event lays the way for renewed rational, civil, informed discourse about the future of the management, the billowing smoke columns may yet have a silver lining.

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