Privatizing our national forests doesn’t mean ownership necessarily changes hands. It does, however, mean control is handed over to a private entity.
The concern about keeping public forests in public hands was one reason why, in August, conservationists objected to a major timber sale in the Mill Creek watershed northeast of Colville: the A-to-Z Timber Sale on the Colville National Forest. In October, the U.S. Forest Service did right by withdrawing the timber sale.
The Mill Creek watershed was heavily and unsustainably logged years ago. Only about 154 acres of ancient forest remain out of 12,802 acres of national forest in the project area. That’s about 1 percent.
Given prior damage to wildlife habitats and watershed values, should further logging occur? If so, how much? Answering these questions requires careful, thorough, and unbiased analysis. Indeed, that’s what the laws protecting our National Forests require; laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and laws informed by nearly two centuries of deforestation on the American continent.
NEPA requires an objective process be completed for every proposed project and decision affecting federally managed lands and resources. Various alternatives are to be explored, environmental impacts thoroughly analyzed and disclosed, and scientific controversies and public concerns fully aired. And it’s the federal agency’s job, in this case the U.S. Forest Service, to prepare the environmental analysis on our behalf.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Forest Service contracted a private timber company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, to run the NEPA process from start to finish, or from “A to Z” as this pilot project is revealingly titled. According to Vaagen Brothers, they’ve already spent about a million dollars.
In an internal document found on the A-to-Z project website, an agency contract expert expressed concern about the objectivity of this new process, asking how the Forest Service rationalizes the ability of the contractor to invest upfront without any guarantee of compensation and “without artificially deflating the stumpage value or artificially inflating the costs of other service work.” The Forest Service replied that it was presented that way by Vaagen Brothers “and supported by the collaborative group… Contractor would recoup its costs by not having to competitively bid on the timber.”
Can the public really expect a logging company’s analysis of environmental risks and benefits to be objective and thorough? Or provide a balanced exploration of the scientific controversies say, over whether logging truly restores fire-dependent ecosystems when the logging company puts up $1 million to kick-start the project?
Having private, local collaborators cheer on the privatizing of our national forests should not be comforting, even if collaborators include environmental groups. This A-to-Z sale of the NEPA process to the highest bidder represents an ominous step towards privatizing our national forests.
To make ethical decisions about our national forests and the environment generally, actual or potential conflicts of interest must be disclosed and understood. For example, it’s not widely known that The Lands Council, one of the collaborating groups, takes annual contributions from Vaagen Brothers Lumber, one of its so-called “business partners.”
Decisions must be made by professionals, subject to strict codes of conduct, after the analysis is completed, not as a vaguely implied condition of the contract granting rights to prepare the NEPA documents. We must restore ethical integrity in our government’s decision-making process in order to restore ecological integrity in our forests.
The A-to-Z also teaches important lessons nationally because Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has touted it as a pilot process in moving legislation (HR 2647), impacting the entire national forest system, through the U.S. House of Representatives. This deceptively named “Resilient Federal Forests Act” is, as noted by the Seattle Times, “an opportunistic remedy that doesn’t pass the smell test, and the Senate needs to douse it quickly.”
This bill would exempt national forest logging up to 15,000 acres from normal NEPA analysis. Citizens challenging illegal and damaging timber sales in court would be required to post a bond upfront, making the constitutional right of judicial redress unaffordable in most cases. The bill would prohibit important watershed improvement by requiring local county commissioners to agree to the decommissioning of unneeded roads on national forests. It would also severely weaken protections for ancient forests in eastern Oregon and Washington, such as on the Colville.
Our national forests help define the Inland Northwest. The A-to-Z Timber Sale and the shenanigans in Congress are a reminder that constant public vigilance is a price we pay to keep our forests standing.
Jeff Juel is National Forest Chair of the Upper Columbia River Group of the Sierra Club, which successfully objected to the Mill Creek A-to-Z timber sale.
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