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Some Call It Forest Management, I Call It Racketeering

Photograph Source Mari Smith | CC BY 2.0

When government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management produce the danger, the propaganda hyping the danger, and the protection against it at a price, that’s racketeering.  The definition of a racketeer is someone who creates a threat and then charges for its reduction.

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

– Smedley Butler

Government land management agencies commonly simulate, fabricate and exaggerate threats in ways common to all other racketeers.  Constantly at war with the forces of nature and the land they manage, this pattern of immoral extractive commerce targeting public land is a microcosm of a vast universe of Government Sponsored Enterprise (GSE).  GSEs generate huge profits for private companies and government, in partnership.

In the 100 years following the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776,Congress passed no laws to protect America’s forests. There were no “public lands” legislated by Congress, but plenty of mining companies, timber barons and cattlemen taking land and commodities, and whatever else they could loot, always with the blessing and protection of the U.S. military.

Legal constraints were nonexistent.  Ever so slowly, that began to change in the late 19thCentury. America’s first attempts to legislate protection and administration laws governing public forest lands can be traced back to 1876.  Congress commissioned the Commissioner of Agriculture to prepare several “reports” on “forestry matters,” that ultimately helped form a foundation for federal forest policy that carries on substantially in the same manner to this day.

The central concept is derived from ancient laws of usufruct.  A usufructuary has the right to use (usus) the property and enjoy its fruits (fructus) while land title remains unchanged.  In other words, from day-one to the present, U.S. forest policy revolves around selling public timber, ore and other commodities and services to corporations and private parties, while the land title remains in the hands of the federal government.

Ten years after the forestry reports, Interior Secretary Carl Schurz, attempting to get Congress to act, said: “The rapidity with which this country is being stripped of its forests must alarm every thinking man.”  In 1886, Congress created the Division of Forestry.  By 1891 Congress had granted the President the authority to “set apart and reserve” public lands with “timber.”

It was not until 1897 that the first nationwide regulatory authority for forest reserves was mandated by Congress with passage of The Organic Act.

The end of WWII marked the beginning of the industrial forest frenzy.  The G.I. Bill (The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) issued low-interest mortgages and granted stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending institutions of higher learning. The Fed cranked up the printing presses, banks wrote government-guaranteed loans to build new homes, hospitals, subdivisions, and cities. America was off to the races.  The era of forest liquidation and clearcutting began to accelerate with noticeable effects.  By the 1960s, the massive slaughter of America’s forests was so in your face, public outrage began to apply sufficient force to gain the attention of Congress.

In 1964, in reaction to the excesses and overreach of industry, added to the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights struggle Congress would gradually begin to pass laws regulating pollution and environmental degradation. Passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Wilderness Act began what would become a mini-golden-age of environmental legislation, which included the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, Endangered Species Act, and many others.

But it was the 1897 Organic Act that ultimately stopped in its tracks the viral spread of industrial clearcutting almost 100 years later.  The landmark lawsuit Isaak Walton League vs. Butz (1975), a 4thCircuit Court of Appeals decision, shut down clearcutting on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. The federal appeals court ruled that the Organic Act limited the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture to sell only “dead, matured, or large growth of trees” in national forests, in order to promote younger forest growth, mandating further that “timber be marked and designated” prior to being sold. The precedent had been established. Clearcutting RIP.

Well, nothing gets Congress clucking like a flock of wet hens faster than some upstart grassroots rabble threat to interstate commerce.  How dare the judicial branch, citing some archaic federal environmental law from 1897?

The timber industry and Congress needed a new law to overturn the prohibition on clearcutting, and they needed it fast.  But they also needed a cover story to divert the public’s attention away from a frontal repeal of the Organic Act.  The pretext would be planning.  The NFMA (National Forest Management Act) was signed by President Gerald Ford on October 22, 1976.  With recommendations from a Committee of Scientists appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, new agency regulations were adopted in 1982.  The regs made all the right sounds, looked good on the surface, but embedded in its legal double-talk lurked the prize industry wanted above all else: legalized clearcutting.

Congress made clearcutting legal, with certain conditions, as applied in the NFMA Regulations. Neo-liberal, forest  “conservation” was born.  Deregulation and monetization of everything – trees, water, camping, special events, grazing, you name it.  Screw the public interest, anything that could turn a profit would be privatized. GSEs that couldn’t be made profitable would be subsidized, which essentially took the form of Soviet-style socialism for capitalists.  What a racket.

NFMA regulations were amended in 2012, eliminating (deregulation) most of the non-discretionary standards and specific objectives related to protecting fish and wildlife habitat and biological diversity required in the 1982 regulation.  This time around, the Obama administration did what countless Presidents and Congress could not accomplish:  Logging without laws.  The crime syndicates of banking, real estate, construction, logging have cleared the path of obstacles and are ramping up for a new blitzkrieg against national forests.

It will take an unprecedented national grassroots movement to counter the damage caused to longstanding environmental laws that govern national forest system lands.  Old laws must be strengthened, new laws must be written, and there is no time to wait.

Forest issues have not been totally forgotten, but rather lost in an ocean of intense neoliberal propaganda.  Most people care, but are dealing with fear, heavy debt, health problems or are staring at “entertainment” on their tiny screens. We seem to have lost our curiosity and our creativity, both essential elements we need to fight back against the irreversible damage being done to our natural treasures.

Somewhere near you there is a Forest Plan being “revised” using Obama’s 2012 Planning Regulation – a blueprint for the next generation of heinous crimes against nature and humanity.

What’s left of the grassroots forest movement, the remnant, must bury our differences and parochial biases. We must organize for a long-overdue, protracted congressional battle to save what’s left of our national forests. We must find common purpose and do this before it’s all cut down.  An overwhelming allied, grassroots force demanding better national forest protection laws is ultimately the most effective – and likely only – way to protect forests from the timber industry and U.S. Forest Service-U.S.D.A.

I know how difficult this will be.  An open debate among activists and groups will take collective courage.

Whatever you do, you need courage.  Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you, you are wrong. Thereare always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action, and  follow it to anend, requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs. Peace has its                              victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them. 

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

What choice do we have?  Congress writes the laws.  If we fail, forests will be clearcut, bulldozed, mined, grazed, drilled and made into “pay-for-play” amusement parks.  If we rise together, work together, move together, there are enough of us to move Congress to act.

Wake up, stand up, do something.  When you do something, however small, it makes it a little more difficult for the liars and racketeers to pawn off their propaganda, corruption and usury as real.  Raise your voice and raise a little hell against organized crime. Do it for America’s forests.

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Steve Kelly is a an artist and serves as a member of the board of directors of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.  

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