WASHINGTON – In January 1905, as debate raged over clear-cuts and devastating wildfires ravaging the nation’s forests, President Theodore Roosevelt convened an American Forest Congress – a landmark event that led to creation of the U.S. Forest Service.
Now, as the Forest Service prepares to mark its 100th anniversary, debate still flares over an agency that manages nearly 192 million acres of public lands – including some of the country’s most spectacular vistas.
Environmentalists question whether the Forest Service under President Bush has lived up to Roosevelt’s goal to “perpetuate the forest as a permanent resource of the nation.”
The timber industry, meanwhile, complains of bureaucratic delays that can make it nearly impossible to log on federal lands. Just 2 percent of U.S. wood production comes from national forests, down from 25 percent in the early 1980s.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth acknowledges the agency’s challenges, but says its 37,000 employees do their best to care for forests and grasslands encompassing 8 percent of the nation’s land – roughly the size of Texas.
Bosworth, who has long complained of what he calls “analysis paralysis,” laments that forest management decisions often take years to complete. Actions, once made, are frequently challenged in court, and disputes persist over issues from fiscal accountability to how well the Forest Service protects clean water, wildlife and habitat.
“A hundred years later the whole picture is significantly more complex” than when legendary forester Gifford Pinchot took charge as the agency’s first chief in 1905, Bosworth said in an interview.
The U.S. population has increased, as has the number of national forests – from 83 forest “reserves” a century ago to 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands today.
“There are much more demands than there were 100 years ago in terms of recreation and solitude,” he said, as well as the increasing threat posed by overgrown forests that contribute to devastating wildfires. Officials also must contend with problems never imagined by Pinchot, including the spread of invasive species, urban encroachment on open space and unmanaged outdoor recreation.
Bosworth, the agency’s 15th chief, will be a featured speaker at a Jan. 3-6 Centennial Congress, which will also include speeches by all the living former chiefs and panel discussions on the agency’s changing role and lessons for the future.
Jack Ward Thomas, who ran the agency from 1993-1996, said Roosevelt and Pinchot would hardly recognize the agency they created.
“I think they would be distressed with the current state of affairs – the confusion and the lack of a clear mission,” he said. “I think they’d despise that.”
Thomas, who now teaches forestry at the University of Montana, compared the Forest Service to a race horse.
“Right now it’s sort of hobbled and unable to move, but that’s not their fault,” he said, blaming legal challenges – often brought by environmentalists – for keeping the agency at a standstill. Officials frequently find themselves waiting for a judge to decide policy, whether it is development of remote roadless areas or approval of a timber sale or mining lease.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said relentless litigation is obstructing the agency’s mission.
“The public didn’t entrust the courts with the management of these lands. They entrusted the Forest Service,” said West, who worked for the agency for seven years before joining the timber group. His father, Allan West, spent 40 years in the Forest Service, retiring as deputy chief.
Environmentalists concede the number of lawsuits has increased, but accuse the Bush administration of flouting long-established law in an effort to boost logging and gas and oil development. Courts are often the only way to protect the environment, they say.
“Over the last four years we have seen a remarkable step backward,” said Steve Holmer of the United Forest Defense Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife.
Under Bush, the Forest Service “is rapidly reverting to industry-biased policies from decades past that made logging and drilling the highest priorities,” Holmer said.
He and other critics cite the administration’s efforts to transfer control of remote, roadless forests to governors, and the Dec. 22 announcement of new forest rules that give regional managers more discretion to approve logging and other commercial projects without lengthy environmental reviews.
Forest Service officials say the new rules will allow managers to respond more quickly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats such as invasive species.
But critics say the rules weaken environmental protections and make it easier to log vast swaths of public lands.
Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group, called the Centennial Congress an exercise in self-congratulation.
“I think it makes a lot of sense to celebrate the national forests. I think it makes no sense to celebrate the Forest Service management of the national forests,” said Stahl, who accused the agency of a history of mismanagement based on an ingrained bias toward logging.
Jim Furnish, a former deputy Forest Service chief, said he was glad the agency was taking time to celebrate its centennial, but suggested the event take a hard look at reality.
“There is a certain giddy optimism” among some officials that problems that afflicted the agency in the 1980s and 1990s – when debate over the spotted owl and logging of old-growth trees reached a fever pitch – are now behind them, he said.
“In my view (the problems) clearly are not” over, said Furnish, who has strongly criticized the Bush administration’s roadless policy.
The agency has “miles to go before they win the hearts and minds of people who care deeply about national forests,” he said.