Fearing costly and stifling new regulations, a congressman from Spokane wants to slash the budget for a massive federal land study due out next year.
U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., has asked the chairman of the House Interior Subcommittee to whack two-thirds of the 1996 kitty for the Eastside Ecosystem Management Project.
The project’s goal is to guide federal land managers in the Inland Northwest by developing science-based management alternatives.
Based in Walla Walla and Boise, the project began last year as a joint venture of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. It’s the first study that takes a large land mass and simultaneously considers people, animals, trees, water and air.
More than $15 million has been spent so far studying federal lands in Eastern Washington, Idaho, western Montana, eastern Oregon and tiny pieces of Wyoming and Nevada.
Another $8 million has been allocated to finish 1995’s efforts.
Nethercutt, in a May 11 letter to U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, suggests that $4.1 million of the project’s $6.7 million wish list next year be denied and returned to the treasury for deficit reduction.
“The combined cost and contentiousness of implementing the resulting regulations from this study will yield little if any environmental benefits for this region,” Nethercutt wrote.
The Spokane Republican is a subcommittee member.
“There are no tangible results that give us any hope that the money has been well spent so far,” Nethercutt said Friday. “I think we have to have some accountability here.”
At President Clinton’s direction, 300 land managers and sup port personnel are studying the conditions of timber and rangelands in the interior Columbia River Basin. By next year, they will recommend new strategies Republicans and big business fear will intensify attacks on logging and grazing.
Project Manager Jeff Blackwood in Walla Walla refused to discuss Nethercutt’s letter, but defended the study’s goals and progress.
Timber officials are divided over the project.
One group of industry representatives looks forward to having permanent management strategies, instead of the helter-skelter, interim directions they believe are shackling the Forest Service and BLM.
“We’re kind of tired of management by interim direction,” said Chuck Burley of the Northwest Forestry Association in Bend, Ore. “We want management to begin to occur on the national forests.
“The bottom line is nothing is happening.”
Critics fear the project will lead to a heavier hand by big government.
Environmentalists defend the study and accuse Nethercutt of being uninformed. During a February meeting in Walla Walla, he confused the project with an aquifer study. He also called the ecosystem project little more than a federal land grab that infringes on private property rights.
Samantha Mace of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign in Spokane said Nethercutt is caving to pressure from the political right.
Blackwood noted that any decisions arising from the project will affect federal land only.
Dave Crandall of the Spokane-based Inland Empire Public Lands Council called Nethercutt’s posture ironic because he’s trying to cut a program with significant economic benefits for the region.
Contrary to Nethercutt’s position, ecosystem management will not lead to more costly litigation over land decisions, Crandall said.
“This project is our way to avoid a spotted owl crisis,” he said.
Joe Hinson, a lobbyist for the Coeur d’Alene-based Intermountain Forest Industry Association, said the project’s biggest drawback is packaging. While it might have noble objectives, the study is so complicated that citizens are confused and frustrated.
“They’ve got a product looking for an advertising campaign,” he said. “Until they start communicating in ways real people understand … they’re going to continue to have a lot of uncertainty and … political discomfort.”