New laws are not needed to make the U.S. Forest Service a better land manager, a General Accounting Office spokesman said Tuesday.
The Forest Service simply needs to better follow laws already on the books, said GAO Associate Director Barry Hill.
The agency managing America’s forests must improve its decision-making, accountability and performance, Hill told senators considering an overhaul of the national forest management act.
Tuesday’s hearing was prompted by Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who has seized on management problems and environmental conflicts to propose the most significant change in national forest management in at least two decades.
Craig’s bill would change the way every environmental law applies to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management activity, affect open meeting laws, add planning requirements and eliminate others.
The bill was drafted after Craig held 15 hearings during the past two years. He says the consensus of those who testified is that federal forest management is broken.
Tuesday’s hearing demonstrated, however, that there is significant disagreement over whether the fix involves passing legislation or simply making federal land management agencies live up to existing laws.
GAO officials warned that Congress first must decide what the primary use of national forests is going to be - timber production, grazing or recreation, for example - before any laws are passed attempting to force efficiency.
They also warned of the problems of pursuing legislative overhaul under the banner of restoring “multiple-use, sustained yield,” supposedly the overarching mandate for federal lands.
“Everybody agrees on multiple use as long as they get what they want,” said Charlie Cotton, also of GAO. “What you need to do is not just focus on the multiple-use mandate, but (also) sustained yield. And you are going to have to tell people in the field what to do when those two things are in conflict.”
While Cotton agreed federal forest management is badly broken, he suggested that making the agency follow existing laws would resolve many of the problems.
Norman Johnson, an Oregon State University professor, agrees that Forest Service planning is frustrating, but said the Craig bill would limit planning too much.
The agency also would have to demonstrate active management - such as logging - is both environmentally and economically beneficial.
Industry representatives at the hearing were laudatory.
The bill would force the agencies to manage lands, not become “planning and preservation agencies,” said Mary Flanderka, of Hulett, Wyo., speaking for the Black Hills Multiple Use Association.
“Forest planning means very little on the ground,” agreed Deborah Baker of the Southern Timber Purchasers Council. She also advocates a clear message on what the Forest Service is going to do - produce timber or not - as a means to give the timber industry certainty.
Environmentalists agree there are problems with land management.
“The agency is inefficient, bloated and a burden to taxpayers,” said Mitch Friedman, of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham. “It moves in fits and starts, gyrating back and forth between conservation and extraction, fumbling for an identity.”
But environmentalists are equally united in their disdain for the Craig solution. The bill already has gained the “Loopholes for Logging” nickname in Washington, D.C., circles. It ignores the fundamental problems that create national forest conflict, environmentalists said.
The BLM and Forest Service have tremendous management discretion and are rewarded for abusing it because local management districts get to keep whatever they take in from timber sales, said Neil Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council. That gives them incentives to cut as many big trees as possible.
The Forest Service also spends lots of money “into trying to litigation-proof bad management decisions rather than improve them,” Lawrence added.
Worse yet, the GAO said the Forest Service cannot account for $215 million of what it spent in fiscal year 1995.
The hearings continue today with a discussion on timber sale appeals. There are two additional hearings next week and a final hearing March 25 in Coeur d’Alene.
Craig has not set a date for introducing the bill and encouraged disgruntled environmentalists to “stay engaged” and that he will consider their concerns in rewriting the bill.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CRAIG PROPOSALS U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s rewrite of the National Forest Management Act includes these proposals: Allows states, with congressional approval, to manage some or all of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands within their borders, provides management funding for three years and allows states to keep the revenue from mining, grazing and logging. After 10 years, states could take over the land permanently. Stops U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service review of Forest Service and BLM activity that potentially harms endangered species. Narrows the grounds for appeals of Forest Service and BLM actions, such as timber sales. It also allows the agencies to fine appellants up to $10,000 for a frivolous appeal, but does not define frivolous appeal. Exempts the Forest Service and BLM from certain open meeting requirements when it is meeting with industry representatives or other people with logging, grazing and mining permits. States that the Craig bill prevails in any conflict with any other laws affecting federal land management. Gives timber purchasers discounts when they do work deemed necessary to improve forest health. Allows a 20 percent increase in the size of federal timber sales, without public notice, if it’s determined by the agency that the increase has no significant environmental impact. Requires Senate confirmation of the Forest Service chief. Potentially bars states from enforcing the Clean Air Act when it comes to prescribed burning on national forests. Eliminates all but two levels of management planning.