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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Taming the wild

Fisherman Eric Lafko of Nine Mile Falls, Wash., leans back to reel in a cutthroat trout Friday in the Coeur d'Alene National Forest east of Coeur d'Alene. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Fisherman Eric Lafko of Nine Mile Falls, Wash., leans back to reel in a cutthroat trout Friday in the Coeur d'Alene National Forest east of Coeur d'Alene. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Forests across the West increasingly resemble the political system that governs public land, experts say.

They’re overgrown, costly to manage, difficult to understand and loaded with dead wood.

With Congress largely gridlocked over environmental and natural resource issues, concerned voters ought to pay close attention to the presidential campaign – even if these issues have taken a distant back seat to Iraq and education, said Martin Nie, associate professor at the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation.

“There is a whole lot at stake here,” Nie said.

The presidency is playing a growing, yet often unnoticed role, in shaping the treed landscape of the West, he said. Roadless rules, wildfire prevention and the protection of forest biodiversity are among the issues in the hands of the next president.

Buried deep in the candidates’ Web sites are the official talking points on forest and natural resource issues. President Bush wants to continue efforts made under his Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which many foresters consider the most significant piece of legislation in 25 years. The law limits appeals and environmental oversight of some timber sales, which allows for quicker action in diseased and damaged forests.

Bush, a Republican, also has been an advocate for increased local control of federal lands – he wants Western governors to determine which federal forest lands remain without roads – and less “analysis paralysis” in the U.S. Forest Service.

His opponent, Sen. John Kerry, wants the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to focus more on thinning forests near communities, not in the backcountry. The Democrat also wants to create a Forest Restoration Corps using $100 million diverted from “government subsidies to the timber industry,” according to his Web site.

Whatever the outcome, Nie said the biggest changes in forest management will be in the tweaking of administrative rules under the president’s direction. Thousands of pages of such rules serve as the marching orders for federal agencies that oversee two-thirds of Idaho’s landmass and a third of Washington’s. Bush and President Clinton have been among the most active chief executives in using the tool.

“I call it government by small print,” Nie said. “Congress has been in such a stalemate – they can’t agree on the day of the week, much less for what purpose our national forests are managed. We’ve started to see more and more changes made using the resource planning process and the administrative rule process.”

Conflict over style

Massive updates to the National Forest Management Act made during Clinton’s final days in office were put on hold by Bush. Clinton’s changes focused on a multi-use approach to forest management, but critics said it added ecosystem protection requirements that were impossible to meet and would have further hobbled timber harvest from public land.

Bush has proposed giving Western governors unprecedented power in deciding the fate of federal lands. Those changes won’t be decided until after the election.

Environmentalists, including Mike Petersen, of the Spokane-based Lands Council, are horrified by what they consider a lessening of protections on forest biodiversity.

“There’s no longer any requirement to protect wildlife species,” Petersen said, adding that many of the changes have been difficult to track. “You really almost have to be a forest activist to see how insidious they are.”

Apart from the president, courts also are playing a greater role in land management. The U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division is handling about 7,100 lawsuits, according to a recent Associated Press story. This is up from 3,200 cases during the Reagan administration and 4,500 when Clinton took office. Petersen predicted fewer lawsuits if the Democrats regain control of the House, Senate or presidency. “Lawsuits are less important when Congress and the presidency are more balanced,” he said.

Although timber jobs have vanished across most of the West – Colorado has no large sawmills to process massive amounts of trees killed during recent fires – the industry continues to play an important role in the economies of Idaho and Washington, said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council. Trees in national forests grow an estimated 24 billion board feet of new timber each year, but less than 2 billion board feet is harvested.

With growing demand for paper products and lumber, the Inland Northwest economy could see a boost if more harvests were allowed on national forests, West said. Although West supports much of Bush’s forest policy decisions, he said the president needs to play a stronger role in promoting domestic production. Otherwise, paper and lumber will continue to stream in from countries with weaker environmental laws.

“The demand for wood products is continuing to increase,” West said. “What we’ve done is displaced our domestic demand to foreign soils, where little or no regulation is in place.”

Tricky politics

Presidents often find their intentions are no match for the realities of managing Western lands, said Jay O’Laughlin, director of the University of Idaho Policy Analysis Group. Newly elected President Carter, for example, announced he wanted more timber harvested from certain parts of the national forest system.

“He found out that a president just couldn’t do that,” O’Laughlin said. “This is like trying to steer an ocean liner. You turn the wheel and eventually the ship starts to turn. It’s very slow.”

If Kerry is elected, expect a gradual shift from Bush’s local focus toward a more national emphasis on forest management, said John Freemuth, a Boise State University political scientist and expert on public land management. This might include a greater emphasis on managing wildlands for recreation and wildlife.

The big question will be if Kerry will learn from Clinton’s mistakes, Freemuth said. Clinton angered many across the West and lost political allies during his early days in office by designating massive new national monuments. Bush, on the other hand, has proceeded more cautiously and has emphasized local control.

Another important question, Freemuth said, is the fate of the U.S. Senate, which Republicans currently control by two votes. “Presidents can move quickly if they have Congress behind them,” he said. “But to expect rapid change, that’s not going to happen.”

Jim Riley, president of the Intermountain Forest Association, of Coeur d’Alene, said he supports the direction of Bush’s forest policies, but he doubts the outcome of the election will make a large difference.

“It takes anywhere from 20 to 100 years for a forest to go through its cycle. Presidents just don’t last that long.”

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