Federal Timberlands: Manage or Transfer?
Westerners are witnessing increasing public pressure for the transfer of selected federal lands to non-federal interests: states, local governments, non-governmental organizations, or private interests. Most concerned parties agree that national parks, wilderness areas, and other high-use, high value historic or recreation areas should remain in federal ownership. Some oppose transfer of any lands, fearing the possible denial of access or despoliation of both commercial and non-commercial assets. Others feel ownership change is needed because federal ownership has failed to protect the land and its resources and, especially, to develop and use them for the public good.
The current condition of national forest timberlands in the west – typified by the national forests in Utah as shown in the chart – supports this contention.
The people of Utah and other western states have seen their national forests degraded by 30 years of virtual non-management during which the timber cut has fallen by 85%. They seek new land management that will husband the land and tend the forest crop. They want management that will harvest more than 2% of the annual growth and that will restore forest health and resilience while offering sustenance to their communities, their schools, their families, and their workers. They seek a land manager who will do this while protecting and enhancing the many other forest resources: water, wildlife (including endangered species), recreation, esthetics, wilderness, forage, and an unrecognized but emerging asset, renewable energy. Their frustration is justified, and the need for change is apparent. Change through ownership is one option. However, there is another, perhaps more achievable and more effective alternative.
The U.S. Forest Service now has in place a dedicated and skilled cadre of professionals and technicians who are prevented from doing their job by a complex of laws, regulations, executive orders, and judicial rulings (many conflicting). Additionally, litigation generated by this legal labyrinth, lack of funding, and other obstacles have made effective management impossible.
It would seem that the most effective means of changing management and removing the need for ownership transfer would be to give the current land manager the authority and resources needed to manage. Removing the many impediments now in place would allow the U.S. Forest Service once again to “Care for the land and serve the people”.
A transformed and renewed U.S. Forest Service could and should be the new manager. The 114th Congress considered legislation, notably HB 2647, that would have accomplished that transformation. It and comparable bills died in the Senate. The 115th Congress will have the opportunity to consider similar legislation.
Manage or transfer? The choice lies with the 114th Congress.