COMMENTARY: It’s time to judge forest policy by its result, not by its intent
Rural Americans suffer while the Northwest Forest Plan fails to save owls
Published:(Sunday, May 27, 2012 04:25AM)Today
BY ROB DEHARPPORT
For The Register-Guard
Failed federal policies implemented by unelected agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management during the past 30 to 40 years remind me of a quote from the late economist Milton Friedman: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
The Northwest Forest Plan enacted by President Clinton in 1994 may have had good intentions, but it has failed catastrophically.
According to Forest Service records, the volume of timber harvested on Forest Service lands declined from a peak in 1987 of 12.7 billion board feet to 4.8 billion board feet in 1994. That harvest further declined to 2.4 billion board feet in 2011. When the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted in 1994, harvest levels already had dropped by nearly two-thirds — and today are merely 19 percent of the peak harvest level of 1987.
Pacific Northwest forests in the spotted owl zone grow anywhere from 500 to 1,000 board feet per acre per year. The Northwest Forest Plan encompasses 23 million acres. Growth on those acres has been at least 16 billion board feet per year. During the past 18 years, the annual harvest has been only 3 percent of growth.
The resulting build-up of biomass in Northwest forests has led to catastrophic fires burning millions of acres. Spotted owl populations have crashed by 60 percent or more. The Northwest Forest Plan has failed to save owls and instead has caused the incineration of their habitat.
The Pacific Northwest is the premier timber-growing region in the world. Yet today, America is importing 40 percent of its softwoods from Canada.
Does this make any sense? We are in a prolonged period of high unemployment in America — and especially in Oregon, Washington and Northern California. Poverty in rural areas of the Northwest continues to fester.
More than 25 percent of rural Oregon families are on food stamps.
In Oakridge, 80 percent of our public school students qualify for free lunches based on family income.
The Oakridge School District now enrolls slightly more than 500 students, down from a high of nearly 1,200 just 30 years ago.
At least 44 businesses from the Oakridge-Westfir area have closed their doors since the late 1970s.
CEO Peter Pope of the shuttered Pope & Talbot mill in Oakridge said, “The spotted owl issue destroyed any chance to keep the Oakridge mill going.” Pope explained that a failed effort to save the species was the “death blow” to Oakridge.
These failed policies continue today. President Clinton promised that, “We must never forget the human element and local economies.” Guess what? Rural timber towns and their residents have been forgotten.
Local Forest Service officials are held hostage by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and the policies they have created. Increased local control and stewardship is the logical answer, yet this solution is unattainable in the current top-down bureaucratic structure.
Meanwhile the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are doubling down on the Spotted Owl Recovery Plan, placing even more acreage off-limits to any timber harvests. This despite the fact that owl numbers have continued to decline rapidly, even with virtually no timber being harvested from Northwest federal forests.
Across the landscape of the rural West we see road closures; fires left to burn across vast tracts of old growth spotted owl forests; record levels of biomass to fuel those catastrophic fires; the introduction of exotic species such as wolves and bull trout; the expansion of grizzly bear populations into rural residential lands; and thousands of new “endangered” species listed.
In reality, rural Americans are the endangered species.
Mega-fires threaten communities as well as endangered species and critical habitat. Not since the Great Idaho Fire of 1910 have we seen such huge conflagrations in the West.
One example is the Biscuit Fire of 2002 that burned 499,965 acres in Southwest Oregon, a let-it-burn fire that incinerated more than 75 nesting pairs of spotted owls.
Fuel loads per acre in the Trinity National Forest in Northern California have increased from five to 30 times recommended levels. For decades, the people of Trinity County begged, pleaded and petitioned the Forest Service and the federal government to thin the underbrush, build fuel breaks and help create a safe forest for their communities. In 2007, the Forest Service allowed fires to burn 650,000 acres in Northern California, including 266,000 acres in Trinity County.
It is past time to allow local residents to sustainably use our forests again, to maintain important fish and wildlife habitat, to protect our watersheds and to provide an economic engine in a time of 20 percent unemployment.
There have been plenty of studies to show that a sustainable forest provides true benefits for all — from decreased fire danger to improved wildlife habitat, from additional economic activity to increased recreational opportunities for neighboring communities.
Studies also have shown catastrophic results from wildfires in forests overloaded with fuels.
Robert Nelson wrote an extensive article for the Hoover Institute titled “Our Languishing Public Lands.” Nelson noted that total federal revenues from all sources in the national forest system in 2010 were $953 million. Total Forest Service spending that same year was $6.1 billion.
The net cost of national forest management in 2010, borne by American taxpayers, was about $5.1 billion. Lands that make up nearly 10 percent of the surface area of the United States, lands that contain valuable natural resources, are being managed at a loss.
These large deficits are being incurred at a time when worldwide demand for minerals, agricultural products and other commodities has been soaring, driving up resource prices. How does this make any sense to anyone? When do we start to judge policies not by their intents, but by their results?
This is what Oregonians and people in other Western states must deal with every day. How long does it take to realize federal policies have failed? How long does it take for the public in rural areas to realize the true intent of these policies? We simply cannot afford continued federal inaction and gross mismanagement of our lands.
We want our lands back. It’s as simple as that. Please sign the petition to de-federalize Oregon lands at giveusourlandback.org.