It is impossible for federal laws to ensure timber communities are economically stable, former Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas says.
The desire for community stability appears frequently in U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s proposed overhaul of the federal forest management laws, Thomas noted in a hearing Tuesday.
“To promise that this legislation will restore ‘a stable and predictable’ world for raw material extraction from the public’s lands is a promise that cannot be fulfilled - and never could,” he said. “We are one new law, one court decision, one appeal, one insect outbreak, one fire season, one election, one budget, one drought, one technological innovation, one shift in public opinion, one banned management practice away from instability at all times.”
Thomas left his job as Forest Service chief last fall to become a professor at the University of Montana. He was one of two people making formal presentations at a U.S. Senate subcommittee workshop. A panel of other experts commented after the two presentations.
Tuesday was Craig’s fifth and final workshop on his proposed forest reforms - the only such hearing held outside Washington, D.C. More than 250 people, including many timber workers, packed a room in North Idaho College’s Student Union to hear testimony.
The Craig package would do everything from giving states the right to manage federal lands to implementing $10,000 fines for people who file frivolous timber-sale appeals.
Such changes are necessary, Craig argues, to revive dysfunctional federal land management agencies. Thomas strongly agrees with Craig on a key point - that there are problems with land management laws that must be addressed.
The two men disagree on the solution.
The former Forest Service chief suggested a comprehensive review of conflicting environmental and land-management laws. “These probably cannot be solved by adjusting a single piece of legislation,” he said.
He also suggested Craig dump several sections of the bill. Those include provisions allowing the Forest Service to increase the boundaries of a timber sale by 20 percent without environmental review, transferring federal lands to state hands, and mandating that the Forest Service chief be confirmed by the Senate.
“The process of Senate confirmation has degenerated to the point that I do not understand why any person of superior achievement with any sense of dignity would willingly submit to such an acrimonious and potentially demeaning process,” Thomas said. “I certainly would not.”
The other sections of the bill are too controversial and will never come to pass, he predicted. In addition, the overriding objective of federal land management has become preserving biodiversity, and Craig’s bill does not address that, he said.
Craig, R-Idaho, was flanked by two Congressional staff members quite involved in drafting the measure - Norm Arseneault, a former national forest supervisor, and Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist. The senator said he will continue accepting comments and encouraged people to read and critique the 100 page bill.
University of Idaho Professor Jay O’Laughlin who made the other key presentation, talked about significant problems in Idaho’s national forests. Many of those problems are caused by too much focus on endangered species and managing forests for things other than timber. He detailed conflicts between environmental laws and forest management laws that also create problems.
For example, the desire to allow more controlled burning, in an effort to reduce the danger of wild fires, likely will run afoul of the Clean Air Act.
“The collective end result (of Craig’s bill) would be more efficient federal resource management decision-making processes,” O’Laughlin said. Unless people are assured the environment will be adequately protected, however, the proposed legislation won’t get much public support.
The three environmental panelists said they have little faith the bill will keep the air and water clean, or forests and watersheds intact. “I really believe this bill is an attack on citizen participation in management of federal lands,” said Jerry Pavia.
Pavia, a former mill worker and current president of the Idaho Conservation League, was referring to provisions of the law that he believes limit citizen appeals of timber sales. The Craig legislation also amends open meeting laws and allows timber industry groups to privately meet with the Forest Service.
Four industry representatives on the panel praised the Craig bill. The current laws don’t work, promote conflict, drive wedges through communities rather than bringing about solutions, said Jim Riley of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association.
Craig’s draft measure may not bring harmony, but it will result in progress in managing federal lands, Riley said. Along the way the mission of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management should be clarified, making them a key part of satisfying the increasing national demand for wood fiber.
Federal forest management laws need to be more flexible. That would allow the Forest Service to deal with things like the massive number of trees damaged by the November ice storm, Riley added.
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MEMO: See related story under the headline: Craig draws protesters