October 5, 1997 in City

Craig Bill Met With Acrimony

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Larry Craig’s attempt to streamline national forest management restricts access to public documents, assaults open meeting laws and creates conflicting regulations, critics say.

“It will replace resource managers with lawyers,” said Robert Wolf, a forester who helped write the original National Forest Management Act when he worked for the Congressional Research Service. “There’s going to be so many hoops to jump through every day that you’re going to have to have Larry Craig in there micromanaging every day.

“There’s not one word in this bill about balancing the federal budget,” Wolf added, “and lots of language about how you can make timber sales and lose money.”

The timber industry, which makes Craig one of the top recipients of its campaign contributions, is fond of the bill.

“Senator Craig’s bill retains the important environmental protection of existing laws, but updates the process-heavy approach which prohibits achieving healthy, sustainable forests and communities,” said Jim Riley of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association. “The current system is paralyzed by conflict and process which isn’t good for fish and wildlife, water quality, people or the forest.”

Resolving paralysis is exactly the point of the bill, says Mark Rey, a key staff member from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, who has played a large role in drafting the bill.

“The bill provides an approach to making timely decisions at a reasonable price,” Rey said. “It tries to create some order out of what has become a planning system in chaos.”

There will be fewer money-losing timber sales because the government process for selling trees will be more efficient, Rey said. And local people will have greater input into how the federal lands in their back yard are managed.

Where people can show there are major problems, Craig and Rey are willing to listen and make changes where warranted, he said.

Rey is not surprised by the acrimony toward the bill. It comes from people who generally like the current cumbersome, expensive system that serves their interests, he said.

Outside of industry, however, there is little consensus for the Craig bill, first circulated in December 1996 and then rewritten after several workshops. Even free-press advocates are concerned about the measure, which started as a 100-page bill and now is two bills totaling some 140 pages.

Craig wants the departments of Agriculture and Interior to charge everyone who asks for more than $1,000 worth of material during a six-month period. Ditto for those who make multiple requests for documents from the Forest Service or BLM in a six-month period.

These federal departments now are supposed to provide information for free when it’s considered in the public interest.

“It’s so paranoid that they might have to give out some information,” said Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The Department of Agriculture has so successfully managed to avoid giving out so much information that I can’t imagine them alleging they need some sort of monetary break.”

She said the Freedom of Information Act was never intended to set such limits “about how much citizens can learn about their government.”

She’s not much fonder of provisions in the Craig bill that suspend federal open meeting laws - the Federal Advisory Committee Act - for groups and businesses who want to talk trees with the BLM and Forest Service.

“The Forest Service could meet in secret with environmentalists or loggers,” Daugherty warned.

Environmentalists share disdain for those changes in the law. Such restrictions would have prevented the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund from learning of secret meetings between the Federal Timber Purchasers Committee and the Forest Service, said Kevin Kirchner, of the fund. Those meetings about three years ago were used, in part, to make deals about how public timber was to be sold - without the public’s knowledge.

Getting proof of those meetings would have cost Kirchner a lot more than $1,000, he said.

Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, now a professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana, agrees with the proposed changes in the open meetings and open records laws.

The open meetings requirement, “I sometimes thought of as a four-letter word,” Thomas said. “There’s nothing illegitimate about talking to someone who has an interest in management of the national forest across the spectrum” and current laws make simple discussions impossible.

The Freedom of Information Act, meanwhile, has been misused by people conducting expansive fishing expeditions for agency documents with little rationale and at great expense to the government, he said.

Overall, Thomas gives the Craig bill a mixed review.

“There are some things in there I think, if not perfect, address the right questions,” Thomas said - such as reducing the number of plans required before something is done. “Some points I wouldn’t agree with no matter how well it was written.”

One disagreement is the proposed change in the qualifications for Forest Service chief and also requiring Senate confirmation of the chief. “I find it interesting that Sen. Craig values my input into his bill,” Thomas said of Craig’s recent pronouncements, “but I would not have been qualified to be chief under the criteria of his bill.”

The hearing process will drive many qualified candidates away because the Senate will “draw it out, hold you hostage and question everything you did back to the time you were 12 years old,” Thomas said.

There is genuine frustration with the increasing planning and analysis on the national forests that needs to be addressed, Thomas said. But there also needs to be a broader approach to deal with all of the conflicts between the “crazy quilt of environmental laws.”

And while the Craig bill streamlines some things, it also mandates a stack of additional reports without any consideration for the cost, time or personnel required, Thomas said.

Thomas also dislikes a stipulation that the federal government hire a group called the Consortium of Regional Forest Assessment Centers - for $5 million - to review Clinton’s Forest Plan. Thomas has never heard of the group and he said he believes it’s bad policy to hand-pick a specific group.

Better to go to the National Academy of Sciences, he said.

One provision of the Craig bill allows groups to buy timber sales to preserve the trees, something unsuccessfully attempted by the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham. That gives the taxpayers the highest return when people are willing to pay “to hug the trees rather than harvest the trees,” Rey said.

Mitch Friedman, of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, says there are far too many restrictions to make it meaningful. “It’s nice that Sen. Craig is throwing us a very small bone, but his bill throws the big steak to the timber industry,” Friedman said. “It still makes logging the dominant use of the public land - and there’s no way conservationists could or should have to buy it all.

“It’s already public land.”

, DataTimes MEMO: IDAHO HEADLINE: Craig’s forest measure a maze, say critics

This sidebar appeared with the story:

NEW BILL

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig formally introduced new forest management legislation in Congress last week. Major provisions include:

Departments of Agriculture and Interior must charge money for documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, bypassing a current “public interest fee waiver.”

Timber purchasers and others can meet with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land management without complying with federal open meeting laws.

Local community groups can meet with the agencies without following open meeting laws.

Groups can purchase timber without harvesting the trees in some circumstances.

Two Senate committees must approve the president’s pick for Forest Service chief.

Timber sales that lose money are allowed when they are done in the name of forest health.

IDAHO HEADLINE: Craig’s forest measure a maze, say critics

This sidebar appeared with the story: NEW BILL U.S. Sen. Larry Craig formally introduced new forest management legislation in Congress last week. Major provisions include: Departments of Agriculture and Interior must charge money for documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, bypassing a current “public interest fee waiver.” Timber purchasers and others can meet with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land management without complying with federal open meeting laws. Local community groups can meet with the agencies without following open meeting laws. Groups can purchase timber without harvesting the trees in some circumstances. Two Senate committees must approve the president’s pick for Forest Service chief. Timber sales that lose money are allowed when they are done in the name of forest health.


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