In the Arena: End Voodoo, Put Forests Under Local Control

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Former Interior Department Insider Calls for the Abolition of the US Forest Service

It’s time to abolish the U. S. Forest Service. It’s time to put land management decisions into the hands of those who are most affected by them.

We will still have a few nationally significant sites remaining under direct federal authority, such as the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, Yosemite, and a few others. But decisions about grazing and forestry management, which are so vital to the local people who live close to and depend on those resources, should be put into the hands of local people who care the most.

They certainly couldn’t have done worse than the Forest Service.

That’s part of the message of Robert H. Nelson’s new book, A Burning Issue: A Case For Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service.

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Nelson spent 18 years in the Department of Interior’s policy shop, and he knows the issues. He covers the history of the Forest Service and its policies that lead — to some extent — to this year’s devastating Western wildfires.

Don’t blame irresponsible campers or stray cigarette butts for the fiery destruction of 6 million or more acres. (To put the destruction in perspective, Connecticut is less than 4 million acres.) Like other federal resource agencies during the past eight years, the Forest Service has pursued one-size-fits-all national policies. In this case, it has been a policy of fire suppression – 90 years of fire suppression, in fact – capped by the no-cut and roadless campaigns of Clinton-Gore that brought us this year’s infernos.

Voodoo forestry: suppressing all brush-clearing fires in federal forests for 90 years. Eliminating timber harvesting from those same lands. Crossing your fingers that no lightning strikes.

If the good people of Idaho or Montana had local control over the forests in their states, would the fuel loads in the forests have been so great? Does anyone really want to argue after this summer of wildfires that the people who own homes close to those woods would not make better, wiser decisions about managing the forests than federal bureaucrats?

If you’re sold on centralization, consider: the firefighting bill, at least at one point, was $15 million a day. One catered dinner to firefighters in Montana cost taxpayers $16 per meal. Firefighters deserve to eat. But $16 a meal?

Federal bureaucrats are motivated as the rest of us are. They want to keep their jobs. As Nelson points out, Forest Service employees are devoted to the survival of their agency. And as he suggests, those motives apparently are in conflict with sound forest use and health.

We don’t need national criteria (read: ecosystem management) for forest management, Nelson says. We need watershed management.

Watershed management is geographically focused. It deals with specific lands. Because it’s local oriented, it favors decentralized management. It’s an idea for smart decision-making, as soil conservation districts have been.

Ecosystem management is not clearly defined. “It’s fuzzy,” Nelson told me. “It can be used to justify anything.” It is definitely not local. Ecosystem management is vague, centralized, and fits environmentalists’ need for one-size-fits-all, command-and-control policy making.

Nelson writes: “Federal politics is today dominated by national television networks and other media that distort as often as clarify the real forest issues. If decisions for the forests of the West are made in Washington, most democratically elected representatives will be far removed from the places where their decisions take effect. Many members of Congress will have never visited the national forests where their votes will be determining future policy.”

Translating, ecosystem management has the goal of restoring forests to pre-European settlement conditions.

What is that all about? The Indians used fire extensively to manage North American forests. But the Indians didn’t have policies for fuel accumulation, as we apparently do with fire suppression. It takes post-European settlement and questionable environmental polices pushed in

Washington, D.C., to make a really good, forest-destroying crown fire.

Not every book is published with such exquisite timing. A Burning Issue went to press shortly before the notorious Los Alamos fire was underway, a fire that closed the famous nuclear laboratory for 12 days and caused the evacuation of surrounding towns. That was before most of us knew that 2000 was headed for the history books as the worst year in the past 50 for resource-wasting fires.

The Forest Service, the administration, and the environmentalists would surely like to paste an Abbie Hoffman-like sticker on A Burning Issue that says “Burn This Book.” Some elected officials never learn that playing with fire can be dangerous. Some elected officials have what Nelson calls a case of “animal rights applied to trees.”

It would be nice to think we could move to sensible local management — and even ownership — of all these federal lands. We could start by abolishing the Forest Service. But don’t hold your breath. Unless, of course, the smoke is already too thick in your Montana neighborhood.

This book should be assigned to all forestry majors in colleges everywhere. It’s available from over the Internet at or by calling 1-800-462-6420.

(Editor’s Note: Rich Jefferson may be contacted at