Public Lands: Do We Get What We Pay For?

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Public Lands, Special Report on Management of National Forests

(Editor’s Note: In this issue we begin a special two-part series devoted to the report, Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For? Because of the importance of this report, TimberLine will reprint it nearly in its entirety; it has been edited for space limitations. It is the second in a series of Public Land reports by Holly Lippke Fretwell, a research associate with the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), that examines how the federal government manages the nation’s wealth of natural resources. The first report, The Price We Pay, compared the fiscal accountability of federal land management agencies with that of state agencies. Copies of the reports may be obtained by contacting PERC at (406) 586-9591), or

Americans and public land managers both want healthy forests on our federal lands. Indeed, the guiding philosophy of our public agencies is to preserve wilderness, biodiversity, and landscape beauty as well as to protect the soil, water, and air quality. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are mandated by Congress to provide for multiple uses—for the hunter and the hiker, for the logger and the four-wheeler. And the mission of the National Park Service is to conserve the scenery, the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife.

These goals are supported with hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated each year by Congress. There can be no question that forest health is a high priority for the land management agencies, and with generous funding the expectation should be for the highest quality land stewardship. But we are not achieving our goals. Something has gone wrong in the federal estate, and one does not have to be a forest ecologist to see that our national forests are at risk under the current management system.

Despite romantic calls to save old-growth forests, most of us have never seen the forests as pictured in old photographs and described in pioneer journals. A hundred and fifty years ago, ponderosa pine covered nearly 40 million acres of the American West. Fires occurring as often as every seven to 25 years burned the understory while leaving the hardy, fire-resistant pine unharmed. Early settlers drove their wagons through park-like savannas under towering trees and paused to rest in the open meadows that dotted the forest landscape. Grasses flourished, berries soaked up the sun, and willows sent up tender shoots providing food for abundant wildlife.

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Today’s forests bear little resemblance to these earlier visions. In many forests an understory of shade-tolerant Douglas fir has grown so dense it is difficult for man or animal to squeeze through the thickets of limbs. The trees compete for moisture and nourishment, leaving them in poor health and vulnerable to insects and disease. The grassy meadows and small, sunny openings have disappeared and along with them the willows, berries, and other forage for wildlife. As the forests have grown dense and the food supplies dwindled, the wildlife in many areas has also vanished.

Why aren’t we getting what we pay for? Though hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked for federal land stewardship, the public is getting neither multiple-use benefits, fiscal responsibility, nor good resource stewardship. Our federal land managers are responding to perverse incentives and government obstacles that reduce the economic and ecological value of our national forests. Current Forest Service management would like us to believe that the agency is on the road to solving many of the problems in our forests by changing focus from timber production to healthy forests and fish and wildlife habitat. But the agency’s new emphasis on resource protection may in fact exacerbate some forest health problems. The problem is not simply the result of too much commodity production and too little wilderness protection.

While some of our public forests meet high standards for health and vigor, many more are sick and ailing. Too often the problem can be traced to obstacles that frustrate managers who are attempting to apply sound science to their management practices.

Management Obstacles

Land management agencies are dependent upon Congress for their budgets. They must respond to political pressures to protect their budgets. Land managers may have to oversee expensive pet projects supported by influential congressional delegations, while other public resources under their care deteriorate for lack of funding. Standard forest management practices such as harvesting, thinning, and prescribed burns may have to be canceled or postponed when constituents complain. For example, it is widely known that fire is an integral part of healthy forest ecosystems, yet Congress provides unlimited funds for fire suppression. Public opposition to fire, which began with the great fires of 1910 in western Montana and eastern Idaho, virtually eliminated fire as a management technique, despite its proven scientific value. Regulations.

During the last 30 years, more than 200 new regulations have been passed that impede managers from responding promptly to changing forest conditions. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Land and Management Policy Act, the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Public Range Improvement Act, among others, have the expressed goal of protecting the environment. But in some cases they have the opposite effect. Public comment periods and citizen appeals allowed under NEPA can result in lengthy delays to land management decisions that are critical to forest health. For example, insect infestations require immediate action by forest managers, but they face lengthy delays from regulations resulting in irreparable damage to millions of acres of national forest land.

Federal land managers are required to meet dozens of short-term goals for habitat and stream restoration, road construction and maintenance, timber sales, recreational visits, and more. A manager’s annual performance is measured by quantifying these goals. How many miles of roads were constructed? How many million board feet of lumber were sold? Managers meet such goals by dedicating resources to short-term projects. For example, a large cut that produces a high volume of timber at a low cost might be the best way to meet an annual goal. On the other hand, it could be detrimental to the long-term health of the forest. Instead, a selective harvest could provide openings attractive to wildlife, encourage forage, and reduce the dense structure of the forest. But because it would cost more, require more time, and produce less timber, such a harvest would not help a forest manager meet short-term goals.

Federal land managers lack positive incentives to respond to consumer demands. Recreational users pay trivial or no fees, giving managers little incentive to change management practices. Instead, managers respond first to Congress, which funds their budgets. The recently created fee demonstration program is beginning to change some incentives. The ability to charge user fees and keep at least 80% of that money at the site for use at the managers’ discretion provides a positive incentive that has long been missing. Many of the projects funded by these fees have been in direct response to demands of paying visitors.

Private and State Results

Managers of state and private lands who must generate revenues show that it is also possible to produce healthy forests with abundant wildlife habitat, clear streams, and aesthetic beauty. They face fewer obstacles than federal forest managers and respond to strong financial motives. They are clearly getting different, and often better, results in their forests — a fact that might surprise some critics.

State laws regulating forest management and environmental health issues are generally less burdensome than federal laws. Managers of state trust and private lands have more flexibility in responding to the changing conditions of the forest. State trust lands are required to generate revenue for the benefit of the public schools and other endowed institutions. To meet this mandate, state land managers have the freedom to use more discretion to enhance the long-term productivity of the land. A study by Don Leal shows that state timber land managers generate greater receipts at lower costs than federal timber managers while being more environmentally sensitive.

Much like the states, individuals and corporations who manage private forest land are motivated by sustained long-term profits. Forest health becomes a top priority when management goals are to maximize long-term asset value and when market conditions support that goal. This report shows many examples of better resource stewardship on state and private lands than on similar federal lands, although the converse can occur. Poor markets, as well as restrictive regulations, can inhibit a manager’s incentive for long-term forest health. On the federal side, scientific research labs throughout the national forest system are showing improved management methods on experimental areas.

This report provides an image of our nation’s forests, both public and private. The photographs it contains illustrate how different incentives can result in different forests. Understanding the incentives that produce healthy, robust forests and the obstacles that are responsible for our sick and threatened ones can help us draft new policies for federal land management. By removing the barriers and providing the right incentives, we can return environmental health and vigor and economic viability to our public forests.

Wildlife Under Fire

After nearly a century of fire suppression, many of our forests are in grave danger of wildfire. A dry year and a spark can be the impetus for crown fires that take out millions of acres of forest land. The result is a devastated landscape prone to accelerated erosion. Among the many victims are fish and wildlife.

In the summer of 1992, east of Boise, Idaho, a rare population of bull trout was destroyed by catastrophic fire. As the crown fire raced across the landscape it took more than timber resources; it took every living thing in its path as it spewed tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The fire scorched the stream down to the bedrock, wiping out the entire fish population.

In eastern Oregon, the endangered spring chinook salmon makes its home in the Grand Ronde River. In 1989, a raging inferno known as the Tanner Gulch Fire triggered a debris torrent 36 miles upstream that wiped out the entire population of salmon. Dr. Victor Kaczynski, a fresh water biologist working on salmon recovery strategies, says, “No single forest practice—not timber harvesting, nor road building—can compare with the damage wildfires are inflicting on fish and fish habitat.”

A charred mountain slope devoid of vegetation leads to increased spring runoff and lower summer water volumes. The low water and lack of forest cover translate into higher water temperatures in the summer and colder water temperatures in the winter. Fish populations suffer from these extremes, and increased erosion chokes spawning beds with sediment. At the same time, valuable nutrients are removed from the forest floor.

Attempting to eliminate fire from the natural forest ecosystem has also changed the composition of many public forests, thus increasing the risk of intense wildfire and disruption of wildlife. The forest types at greatest risk are found in the Inland West where frequent, low-intensity fires historically thinned the forest. Today satellite images of these forest lands show unusually large areas of dense growth with no openings or clearings. The greatest problems exist on public lands.

Much of the private forest land in the region is owned by timber companies that manage their land to protect the commercial value of the timber. These forests are thinned and treated to reduce the threat of infestation, disease, and catastrophic fire. Selective harvesting creates a patchwork of openings that can serve as favored habitat for many plant and animal species. The clearings allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and encourage a variety of plants. Commercial cuts can be designed to resemble the patterns typically found in historic forests.

Although natural fire cycles do not exist in most commercial forests, alternative treatments can protect the timber and the wildlife from catastrophic fires. Commercial forest managers have an incentive to provide quality wood products, but the same management techniques can also create forests that are hospitable to wildlife.

Burn It!

In 1988, fire burned nearly one-third of Yellowstone National Park, an area greater than the state of Delaware. “The changes in light were rapid, intense and immediate. From orange to startling white, to sepia to gloomy gray, the air itself seemed to take on a new color and texture as the wind-whipped fire sprinted toward Old Faithful,” the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.

Half a century of fire suppression had stoked the forest with fuel and turned the fire process that is a natural part of lodgepole pine regeneration into a roaring inferno. At a cost of $120 million, 25,000 firefighters risked their lives to control the blaze. Despite costly suppression efforts, the fire burned almost unhampered for months until seasonal rain and snow snuffed it out. “It was ultimately uncontrollable no matter what you did,” Bob Barbee, Superintendent of Yellowstone at the time, told the newspaper. Yet it was the largest firefighting effort in the history of the United States.

Scientists recognize that fire is a natural and necessary part of a healthy forest ecosystem. Ironically, the policy of fire suppression that has been in effect for nearly a century on our national forests has led to the catastrophic fires that cause massive damage to vegetation, wildlife, and watersheds. Smaller, less intense fires at more frequent intervals are known to have a restorative effect on forest ecosystems and certainly are less hazardous to human health. Harvest, thinning, and prescribed fires can mimic what were once naturally occurring small fires. They reduce the fuel load and the risk of catastrophic fire, thus protecting trees from death or injury from intense wildfire.

Still, Congress continues to provide a blank check to cover firefighting services. The total firefighting bill is paid with tax dollars from emergency funds, not from the Forest Service budget. At an annual cost of $1 billion in 1996, battling summer blazes also provides a reliable stipend for many seasonal workers and is a politically popular economic boost to remote communities where firefighting efforts are based.

Firefighting costs an estimated $400 to $500 per acre, often with little success. This does not include the additional costs associated with the destruction of wildlife habitat, soil erosion, water quality degradation, and forest restoration. The Forest Service projects an average increase in firefighting expenses of $19 million a year into the near future.

In contrast, fire prevention projects must be paid from the annually appropriated budget. Congress allots just $1.25 per acre for fire prevention on Forest Service land that is considered at high risk to wildfire. Little can be accomplished for that price, but for $40 to $50 per acre the Forest Service could manage the land to prevent inferno-type fires. Using controlled burns, thinning, and other silviculture techniques, managers could provide healthy forest ecosystems as well as potential value from timber harvesting. Despite these benefits, the multi-million dollar emergency fund for firefighting provided by Congress is a powerful incentive to the Forest Service to make firefighting, not fire prevention, a high priority.

A Bug’s Buffet

Early named the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington for the constant haze of wildfire smoke that surrounded them. Frequent, small fires cleared the understory, allowing the stately, fire-resistant ponderosa pines to flourish. Wagon trains traveling west along the Oregon Trail rolled easily between the widely spaced trees of the open forest landscape.

Today, these mountains are covered with grey ghosts. Nearly 6 million acres of trees are dead and dying from insect infestations. Fire suppression, historic logging practices that removed many pines, and lack of intensive management turned the once open pine forest into a dense thicket of fir crowding beneath the remaining pines. Without fire to knock it back, the shade-tolerant fir proliferated under the mature pines. In the late 1940s, much of the pine overstory was logged, followed by a series of insect infestations.

By the 1980s, the dense nature of the fir stands in the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests in the Blue Mountains made it ideal habitat for the western spruce budworm. The infestation spread rapidly, sometimes reaching epidemic proportions, yet it was seven years before national forest managers could respond to the onslaught. Speedy timber removal in some areas could have disrupted the infestation, but managers were restricted from taking immediate action by federal regulations and a lengthy public comment process.

On a neighboring forest owned by the Boise Cascade Corporation, loss from insect damage has been minimal. In northeastern Oregon, Boise Cascade’s timberlands have been continuously managed for many decades. Active forest management has been key to enhancing forest resiliency and resistance to disease and insect infestation. These same management practices have also protected the high commercial value of the timber. Working within current private land-use regulations, Boise Cascade forest managers have encouraged several species such as ponderosa pine and Douglas fir and in many cases have maintained timber stands that are a close replica of the forests that stood in the Blue Mountains one hundred years ago.

Industrial forests cover about 10% of the nation’s forest land. Managed to produce wood and paper products, they are generally maintained in young to middle-age stands, less susceptible to insects and disease. Forests managed in this way may lack the species diversity associated with more complex forest structures, but this problem is increasingly being addressed by streamside management zones. This allows for the development of old forest structure, thus producing multi-aged stands.

(Next: Growing Old Gracefully)