It is Time to Create a New Equitable, Ecologically-Aware Forest Service 

Old growth, Umpqua National Forest, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Over a hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot stated that national forests were for the home-builder first of all.  Although the idea was to implement “sustainable” logging, nonetheless the main function of these federally-owned forests was to provide timber for Euro-American development and expansion.  Over a century later, the Forest Service is still stuck in this archaic frontier mentality — spending billions of your taxpayer dollars every year subsidizing timber corporations to clearcut forests, bulldoze logging roads into watersheds, and push endangered species to the brink of extinction.

The only way to change things is to create a new land management agency with a different mission – a mission grounded in ecological integrity and equity.  This new agency should be in charge of not only national forests but also public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  The Forest Service and the BLM have been captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate.  Captured agencies are controlled by the corporations that they are charged with regulating.  Agency capture occurs when the governmental agency serves the industries it regulates rather than the American people.

A report by the Center for a Sustainable Economy found “taxpayer losses of nearly $2 billion a year associated with the federal logging program carried out on national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.”  Adding to that debt are significant “externalized” costs to the public when new logging roads are bulldozed into unroaded areas. Runoff fills streams with sediment that pollutes the water and smothers fish eggs and aquatic insects. More logging also destroys forested habitat for native species such as the spotted owl, lynx, and grizzly bears.

Despite these losses, the Trump administration and some members of Congress plan to significantly increase logging on these lands in the years ahead, a move that would plunge taxpayers into even greater debt. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who is in charge of the Forest Service, is calling for weakening environmental laws, even more, to better serve the timber industry.

Senator Wyden (D-OR) recently introduced a bill (S. 4434) to give an additional $5.5 billion to the U.S. Forest Service and BLM to bulldoze more logging roads for more clearcutting.  Senators Feinstein (D-CA) and Daines (R-MT), and Representatives Panetta (D-CA) and LaMalfa (R-CA), introduced the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020, which is a wish list from the timber industry to eliminate a long list of environmental protections to encourage industry to log even more national forests. Legislation calling for more logging is like bleeding patients who have heart attacks when they need major surgery.

National Forests are the main source of clean drinking water for 180 million Americans.  Our national forests filter out sediment and pollutants for free.  Mike Dombeck, the Chief of the Forest Service under President Clinton estimated that clean water was the single biggest commodity that our national forests produce, worth more than $2 billion per year, the same amount the Forest Service and the BLM spend subsidizing logging.

To truly protect the ecological integrity of our national forests, and the wildlife, plant species, and human communities who depend upon them, we need to start over with a new public lands management agency.  Our national forests are not tree farms. They do more than just supply timber to logging corporations. They are watersheds that supply clean drinking water to hundreds of millions of Americans. They produce oxygen which like water is essential for human life. They are carbon sinks that absorb ten percent of all the carbon that the United States emits every year. They provide the last best habitat for endangered species like grizzly bears, lynx, bull trout. They provide world-class elk hunting and trout fishing and they are amazing places to recreate.

The Forest Service and BLM are stuck in the past – operating as if logging and mining for private profit are the highest purposes for our public lands.  To truly manage our national forests for the values that they represent today to the vast majority of Americans, we need to create a new public land management agency guided by these values.  The new agency would provide good-paying, unionized jobs focused on the removal of logging roads, maintenance of public hiking trails, replanting and weed removal in old clearcuts, identification, and preservation of wildlife linkage corridors, high-quality research on ecology and wildlife biology, and much more.

The agency would be led by scientists, not political appointees and corporate lobbyists.  The leadership would be diverse, including women and people of color, not just white men in an old boys’ network.  And the recreational and educational opportunities on these lands would be made available to all people, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

In summary — instead of spending billions subsidizing millionaires and billionaires, let’s ensure ecological integrity and implement equitable public access to study and enjoy our public lands.  This is what our public lands could be, and it is what we should demand.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.