It has one of those innocuous names that only a bureaucrat could like, but the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project has become the latest target of the “wise use” movement and freshmen Republicans from the West are leading the charge in Congress to gut it.
Supporters of the project say Reps. George Nethercutt and Richard “Doc” Hastings of Washington and Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho have become “poster children” for right-wing hysteria over private property rights and are shilling for the timber, cattle and mining industries.
They also say as GOP efforts to overhaul the Endangered Species Act have faltered, Republicans are taking after anything that smacks of environmentalism on a case-by-case basis.
Nethercutt, Hastings and Chenoweth say the ecosystem project has gotten out of control, the study area is too broad and the “one-size-fits-all” approach will override local concerns.
“I would also strongly urge that land owners be compensated if they can prove that their land has been devalued as a result of this study,” Hastings told the House Interior appropriations subcommittee last week during a hearing.
Nethercutt, a member of the subcommittee, asked for the hearing and Chenoweth and Hastings were the leadoff witnesses. Hastings and Chenoweth argued local input was being ignored and the project could lead to the federal government assuming broad new control over water rights in an area where such rights are jealously guarded.
They also said the project was paying too little attention to the economic consequences of environmental protection.
“There will be grave impacts,” Chenoweth warned, adding that similar thinking has led not only to serious economic problems in small Northwest towns, but could actually produce environmental problems rather than solve any.
“We have come full circle and are seeing increased environmental pollution …,” she said.
Caught in the middle are the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Jack Ward Thomas, chief of the Forest Service, sought to quell the concerns.
“The intent of the project is not to affect private property or water rights,” Thomas testified. “Resource decisions made with full public participation will apply only to lands administered by the Forest Service and the BLM, not state or private lands.”
Thomas’ assurances seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The project was designed to take a look at the overall health and conditions in the East Side forests of Washington and Oregon. The idea was to conduct a thorough, scientific review of the forests to get ahead of Endangered Species Act questions and avoid problems that have plagued West Side forests where logging was banned while scientists completed their studies and a management plan adopted.
But the East Side ecosystem project had its roots in politics.
As President Clinton held the Portland forest summit early in his administration and moved to develop a Northwest forest plan, then-House Speaker Tom Foley and Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., grew increasingly concerned that East Side forests could face the same logging restrictions the West Side forests were headed for.
Over the objections of environmentalists who sought a comprehensive, region-wide plan, the White House decided to go ahead with a West Side forest plan and an East Side forest study.
The scope of the study has become massive.
Originally the study was to cover only eastern Washington and eastern Oregon, but it has since been expanded to include parts of the interior Columbia River Basin in Idaho, western Montana, parts of western Wyoming and northern Utah and Nevada.
All told, 144 million acres are included, an area roughly the size of Texas. The Forest Service and BLM administer almost half of those lands, about 75 million acres.
The area encompasses 24 percent of all National Forest lands and 10 percent of all BLM-administrated lands in the nation.
Thomas is quick to point out that despite the massive size of the study area it is all one ecosystem and the courts have ruled that’s the way to plan.
“Given the current condition of the forests, there is no way the agencies (Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service) could comply with environmental laws without planning on an ecosystem basis,” a federal judge in Seattle said in upholding the administration’s West Side forest plan.
Critics, however, insist the best way would be on a forest-by-forest basis because that would assure that local problems and conditions were addressed. Thomas disagreed and said it would be cheaper to do the broader study and it would lessen the chances of lawsuits and injunctions.
“The project addresses broad issues that cross forest and district boundaries,” Thomas said. He added that project officials were “sensitive to concerns of local people that their needs will be overlooked or their influence diminished if planning is done at a broader scale.”
What Nethercutt, Hastings and Chenoweth fear most is that the project will lead to additional restrictions on logging, mining and grazing on not just federal lands but private lands. It’s a fear that has swept the intermountain west.
“We want a forest management plan, not a massive lock-up plan,” said one Republican congressional aide, adding “people are suspicious because the administration has tried to lock it away.”
Last month, Nethercutt sought to attach to the omnibus budget package a rider that would have required the report to produce a scientific analysis of forest conditions, but barred any environmental impact statement that might impose broad requirements. Options for local managers would have been OK. Putting the entire region in a “strait-jacket” would have been prohibited.
The administration, burned just months ago by a timber salvage rider, rejected Nethercutt’s proposal and also refused language that would have made it clear private property would not be affected.
“We are trying to balance what you do with the fears and mistrust we have these days,” Nethercutt told Thomas.
Nethercutt, Chenoweth and Hastings will probably move to rein in the project, if not end it outright. Nethercutt will work it through the appropriations process and Hastings and Chenoweth will use their membership on the House Natural Resources Committee on the authorizing side.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., also has serious reservations about the project. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Gorton will have a huge say in what comes next.