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What Bears Do in the Woods

Lee Green last wrote for the magazine about planning for California's continuing wave of immigrants.

One day two summers ago, Chad Hanson drove through the Sierra backcountry northeast of Chico, navigating the mountain’s twisting washboard roads in his green 1990 Toyota 4Runner with the ease of a man who has driven these roads many times before. When he arrived at a place in Lassen National Forest where in 2000 the 56,000-acre Storrie wildfire had burned, he found exactly what he expected to find--a living forest, not the dead and dying scene that the U.S. Forest Service had described in post-fire salvage logging proposals.

The Forest Service had planned to log about 1,500 acres of remote, protected old-growth, Hanson says, “trees that were five, six feet in diameter, three or four hundred years old.” The agency claimed that virtually all of the area had been severely burned, but Hanson and others had driven up to see for themselves. “I kind of wonder if they just figured nobody would actually go up there and take a look,” Hanson says, because “we went up there and found out that wasn’t true. Conservatively, 85% to 90% of the area was actually only mildly burned, and the trees were very much alive and green. We confronted them with this information. The Forest Service came back and said, ‘Well, those trees don’t look dead, but they are. They’re dead--they just don’t know it yet.’ ”

Hanson stands 6-foot-4, weighs 210 pounds and keeps his blond hair cropped almost to military shortness. For the last 14 years, the 38-year-old has spent much of his time wearing a heavy pack, tromping through the lush forests of California’s Sierra Nevada. Long outings in mountain backcountry are essential to his effort to hold the Forest Service to two standards--federal law and the best available science--that by the agency’s own calculus should inform all of its forestry decisions. Possessing a law degree with a specialty in public lands and natural resources, and currently working on a doctorate in fire ecology at UC Davis, Hanson co-founded and directs the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, which since 1997 has focused primarily on protecting the national forests in California.

In the face of environmental challenges, the Forest Service withdrew the original Storrie logging proposal but then announced a revised plan, prompting Hanson to drive back up the mountain. “Same problem,” he says. Most of the area “was not severely burned, and the vast majority of trees that they were claiming were dead were not.” Hanson filed an administrative appeal that would eventually kill the project for good. This spring he returned to the site, which by now he has visited a dozen times. “The trees were still green, healthy, vigorous and producing new growth,” he says. Forest Service managers “just wanted to cut them down to sell the timber and keep the revenue. And they were willing to say just about anything to do that.”

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Hanson’s Storrie wildfire tale is one of many he could have chosen to demonstrate why he believes the Forest Service routinely violates the public trust and the public forests. But Hanson is hardly alone in that opinion. The Forest Service may be the most common target of environmentalists upset about federal land management. Critics say that the agency, spurred by politics and financial incentives, pursues logging and fire suppression at the expense of sound ecological stewardship. The agency operates under a system that seems designed to put it at odds with itself, its mission and environmentalists, and maybe it’s time to take a hard look at what has become a persistent institutional problem.

Americans probably know the Forest Service best for Smokey Bear, its beloved, shovel-toting icon in a ranger hat who for 60 years has spent his every waking moment worrying about forest fires. But should you ever wish to locate the Forest Service, one of the best places to look--other than in the forest--is in federal court. Year in and year out, the agency entrusted to manage more than 8% of the nation’s land, including 155 national forests, must defend itself against an unremitting stream of allegations: that it violates our most fundamental environmental protection laws; that it puts threatened wildlife species at risk; that it degrades watersheds, jeopardizes soils, harms fish and wildlife habitats and damages ecosystems.

Conservationists “had been suing for decades,” Paul W. Hirt writes in his well-regarded 1994 history of the Forest Service, “A Conspiracy of Optimism,” “but in the late 1980s they started winning big. These ‘wins’ in fact indicated that the federal judicial branch found substantial merit in environmentalists’ claims that the Forest Service had been systematically and deliberately violating environmental protection laws to get out the [timber] cut.”

That the agency is so embattled may come as a surprise to a public that, understandably, confuses the Forest Service with the more environmentally benign National Park Service. To those who know the agency best, though, the Forest Service credo--"Caring for the land and serving people"--mocks the reality in our forests. The picture of the agency that emerges from such disparate sources as liberal environmentalists, conservative economists, academics, taxpayer advocates, the Congressional Research Office and the Government Accountability Office (the GAO, formerly the General Accounting Office), to name just some of the most visible detractors, testifies to the inherent weaknesses of big government: mismanagement, inefficiency, waste, ineptitude, the disproportionate influence of special interests. These characteristics might describe any large bureaucracy, but the Forest Service evinces them so glaringly that if you owned a forest and were looking for someone to care for it, due diligence would persuade you to banish the organization from your short list.

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As the Forest Service approaches its centennial next year, the most persistent charge against it is that for at least half of the agency’s history it has placed logging above all else in forests that have timber, including the 11 national forests scattered about California’s Sierra Nevada range. Despite winning some big battles over the years, conservationists gradually have been losing the war as logging has reduced America’s old growth to a smidgen--perhaps less than 5%--of what existed before Europeans showed up with an implacable utilitarian ethic and the axes and saws to back it up.

Ninety-eight percent of America’s wood currently comes from state forests, private timber plantations, other federal land and imports. The 2% harvested in national forests generates controversy because those forests have been heavily logged since World War II, because conservationists have lost faith in the Forest Service, and because national forests contain most of the old and untrammeled forestland left in America. But more logging in those forests is in store as the Bush administration forges ahead with the program it calls “healthy forests,” an appellation environmentalists find so misleading that they usually preface it with “so-called.” The policy behind that name, encouraged by the Forest Service, became politically feasible because of the major wildfires across the West in recent years, including the deadly and destructive fires that charred 739,000 acres of Southern California a year ago and raised public concerns about combustible growth.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act was passed overwhelmingly by Congress late last year while those blazes still smoldered in the public mind. Responding to the administration’s push for widespread forest thinning to reduce fire threats to nearby communities, the legislation weakens bedrock environmental protections, limits public involvement, hastens judicial processes and prescribes new logging on 20 million acres of national forest. The administration and the Forest Service call this eliminating red tape. “We were spending so much time and energy on the planning and analysis and the process part that we weren’t getting the work done on the ground that needs to be done,” says Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

Environmentalists, however, call it exploiting public fears to increase logging, and then disguising it as fire prevention.

Recognizing that America’s wilderness, once lost, can never be reclaimed, President Clinton in 2001 decreed untouchable nearly 60 million acres of roadless areas within the national forest system. With the Forest Service’s blessing, the Bush administration is in the process of rescinding that protection. Given the administration’s ideological leanings toward resource extraction, ceaseless pressure from the timber industry and the historical imbalance between conservation and use, a salient question hangs in the air: Can we trust the Forest Service?

Jim Furnish, who served as deputy chief before retiring after 34 years with the agency, offers no reassurances. In a 2004 report on Eastern roadless areas that he wrote for the conservation-minded Heritage Forests Campaign, Furnish describes a Forest Service with “an inherent anti-wilderness bias.” The agency, he contends, “has flagrantly abused its discretion,” establishing a pattern of “deliberately minimizing and eliminating opportunities to protect the last intact roadless areas in the East.” Similar pressures exist in California and the rest of the West, particularly in Alaska.

There are other problems as well. Even though the Forest Service has been around since 1905, it has yet to devise a way to gauge how effectively it uses the money Congress gives it, $5.6 billion in 2004. The GAO has rebuked the agency repeatedly since 1991 for this shortcoming. A GAO report to Congress last year concluded that the Forest Service, unlike other U.S. land management agencies, has made “little progress” in demonstrating how well or poorly it gives taxpayers their money’s worth and “remains years away” from doing so in any credible way.

If the Forest Service has been unable to justify how it spends money, it hasn’t done much better at simply keeping track of it. The agency received a clean financial audit last year and the year before, but those were the first passing grades in the organization’s history. Bosworth admits that balancing the books consumed so much time and energy that the agency cannot possibly repeat the feat on an ongoing basis.

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Such nagging front-office problems might be less disturbing if citizens could be assured that the agency has excelled at “caring for the land.” But decades of road cutting, clear-cutting, over-cutting and corner cutting have taken an incalculable toll on land originally set aside as forest reserves to prevent logging operations from degrading them, as logging had degraded privately owned lands. Today old-growth wilderness has become the rarest of habitats. The Forest Service has crisscrossed its Texas-sized domain, 191 million acres with a latticework of roads eight times longer than the U.S. interstate highway system. Three-quarters of those miles have fallen into disrepair and need maintenance, according to the Forest Service. Some have been decommissioned, but 378,000 miles of serpentine byways remain in the agency’s system, nearly all of them built expressly to serve logging interests.

Vast tracts of forestland stripped bare from the 1950s through the 1990s now comprise tree plantations rather than natural forest ecosystems. Nearly 900,000 acres--most of them fire-damaged, according to the Forest Service--await replanting as part of the agency’s perpetual reforestation backlog. In the ceaseless struggle between those who see forests as art and those who see them as commodities, President Bush forfeited the appearance of balance early in his first term by naming a hard-core commodities guy, Mark Rey, to oversee the Forest Service for the agency’s hierarchal superior, the Department of Agriculture. Rey knows his stuff, having spent the better part of his professional life fighting environmental regulations and pushing for more logging as a lobbyist for the timber industry.

The Forest Service has maintained its predilection for carving roads and cutting down trees under presidents of all stripes, but under presidents who champion resource extraction, the organization’s inclination to mess with the woods becomes pronounced.

Among recent casualties is the Sierra Nevada Framework, a Clinton-era blueprint to protect wilderness and old growth on the 11.5 million acres of national forestland in California’s signature mountain range. A compromise between the timber industry, environmentalists and other stakeholders, the framework was the result of an eight-year process encompassing extensive public input and scientific analysis. Under the Bush administration, however, the Forest Service discarded the Sierra Nevada accord. The new plan permits the felling of bigger, older trees in the best remaining stands of old growth and triples the allowable logging volume in the Sierra.

One reason may be that the Forest Service operates under incentives that encourage the agency to cut down trees and fight fires, even if doing so makes no ecological sense. A bureaucracy’s first instinct, after all, is self-preservation. Instead of funding the Forest Service adequately, Congress lets the agency supplement its annual appropriations by allowing it to keep a share of whatever gross revenues it generates from timber sales--100% in some cases. This decades-old bonus system has helped create a Forest Service with an institutionalized, almost compulsive need to cut down trees, a logging habit entirely at odds with what surveys say most Americans want.

“The Forest Service has a huge incentive to sell trees because it gets to retain those receipts,” says Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club’s specialist on national forest policy.

“It’s a badly designed system,” says independent environmental consultant Randal O’Toole, who has analyzed and critiqued the Forest Service for nearly 30 years. “The Forest Service didn’t necessarily design it, but they’re taking advantage of it.”

The “healthy forests” agenda embraces the notion that many forests, particularly in the West, contain an unnaturally high volume of flammable material. Young trees, brush, fallen branches--all sorts of luxuriant growth and woody debris have accumulated over the years. The Forest Service unintentionally created these conditions by suppressing wildfires--natural and human-caused--for nearly a century. The agency realized the inadvisability of this policy at least 40 years ago, having recognized that fire is a beneficial and even necessary phenomenon in the woods, but it continued to fight wildfires anyway. Despite all of the incendiary rhetoric today about too much fuel owing to too little fire for too many years, the agency still fights more than 90% of all blazes in its jurisdiction.

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Fire suppression continues to occupy a special place among Forest Service priorities, O’Toole maintains, in part because the agency receives “an unlimited budget” for that activity. “Legally, the blank check for fire suppression was repealed back around 1980,” he says, “but in effect Congress always reimburses them when they overspend their fire-suppression budget, so really it’s still a blank check.”

Some forests have become unnaturally dense, increasing wildfire threats to nearby communities, and even many environmental organizations agree that the Forest Service should address this problem. But the Forest Service cites fire danger to justify new logging in backcountry far from homes and communities, often in previously protected wilderness and old-growth areas. Moreover, instead of concentrating on small trees and underbrush, the agency insists on allowing logging companies hired to do the thinning to take older, bigger, commercially valuable trees to help offset costs. Apart from the paradox of cutting down the forest to save it, the science runs contrary to this approach. Logging more than a few hundred yards from communities does little or nothing to protect them, and removing big trees eliminates canopy shade, thus creating a hotter, drier, more combustible environment. In fact, past logging has significantly fostered the growth of highly flammable brush in the openings it created.

“We’re really not that bad,” Bosworth, the agency chief, told me this summer. He said it with an air of earnest dismay as he walked out the door of a hotel suite near LAX, having just spent two hours patiently defending his organization against its critics’ most serious grievances.

Bosworth is a likable, clean-cut man, a youthful 55 with a touch of gray dignity at the temples and not a whit of Beltway slickness in his bearing. His 38-year tenure with the agency has afforded him experience on the ground and at every level of management. “I’m a forester, not a politician,” he tells people. At one point, his face tightened around the eyes and his cheeks reddened in response to a litany of allegations of agency subterfuge and credibility problems. Anger? Embarrassment? Indignation? He kept his composure.

“I don’t disagree that there are things that we have done [where] we could have done a better job,” he said. But as he hurried off to catch his flight back to Washington, D.C., more than anything he seemed bewildered.

“I thought a lot about the conversation we had when I was on the plane heading back,” he said by phone two weeks later, “and in a lot of ways I really think you got it wrong.” The Forest Service isn’t embattled, he explained, it simply manages a resource that inspires passionate disagreements because people care so deeply. “Probably as long as there’s a national forest, we’re going to continue to have a fairly broad diversity of viewpoints about what should be done on the national forests.”

That’s probably true, but organizations and activists devoted to forest protection have long regarded the Forest Service not as an ally or even neutral, but as a powerful adversary. Worse, a deceitful one. The problem, many say, stems in large part from what they feel is the organization’s ingrained bias toward timber and logging over recreation, aesthetics, habitat protection and all other values--even, ultimately, forest health.

“Every profession has its own ideology,” says former forester Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group in Oregon. “Foresters primarily are taught that the growing of wood fiber is the highest and best use for timber land.” It’s the utilitarian thing, which helps explain why the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture. Trees are crops. Crops need tending.

In activist Chad Hanson’s view, however, the Forest Service has widespread credibility problems. “Over and over and over again we see increasingly creative subterfuges to justify logging,” he says. “There are a lot of really good people in the Forest Service,” especially in the scientific divisions, Hanson says, but there also is a “pervasive dishonesty within the Forest Service to justify timber sales, to misuse scientific evidence to justify logging.”

The first time I heard such charges, in the late 1980s, activists claimed they had discovered that the Forest Service had quietly abandoned its long-standing policy of staying out of the giant sequoia groves in California’s Sequoia National Forest and was conducting virtual clear-cutting among the big trees. I was skeptical, but months of research revealed a disturbing pattern of duplicity on the part of agency officials. They claimed that they were logging in the groves to promote sequoia regeneration, but the evidence made clear that their overriding objective was commercial harvesting of the valuable whitewoods that grow within the groves.

“The hardest part,” said one of the sequoia activists at the time, “is for us to tell other people what’s happening and watch them disbelieve us instead of the Forest Service. We have to work on each new group, each new person, and they have to learn that lesson themselves.”

“And,” said another, “they think we’re awful people for suggesting that their Forest Service wouldn’t tell the truth.”

The lyrics have changed over the years, but the opera remains the same. The agency doesn’t so much “log” anymore; it manages the habitat and does “thinning.” But for at least four decades environmentalists have objected, not always to logging per se, but to where it is allowed, how it is conducted, the extent to which it occurs and how brazenly the Forest Service has favored timber extraction over all else.

Long-simmering dissent within the Forest Service itself finally boiled over in 1989, as the agency’s employees created an outside reform lobby to hold their employer “accountable for responsible land stewardship.” Among the agency’s 30,000 employees, one in 60 pays dues to Stahl’s group--quietly, because the Forest Service prizes loyalty. At congressional hearings in 1991, John McCormick, head of the Forest Service’s whistle-blower review program, testified that management frequently retaliated against boat rockers by harassing or reassigning them. Having thus rocked the boat himself, he resigned soon after and then elaborated in a New York Times opinion piece: “The Forest Service simply does not tolerate freedom of dissent.”

McCormick also described in that piece why someone in the Forest Service might be moved to dissent in the first place: “The agency has become comfortable with lying to the public, ignoring long-festering problems and serving the timber industry as government agents of environmental destruction rather than environmental protection.” Environmentalists had been saying the same thing for years, but with a high-level insider like McCormick now leveling the charges, suddenly forest fires were the least of Smokey’s problems.

I read Bosworth a few lines of McCormick’s testimony, and he dismissed the allegations. “I don’t think the Forest Service has ever lied to the public as an agency. I just don’t believe that that’s the case. That implies that there was a conspiracy in the Forest Service to mislead the American people. I’ve never seen that. I’ve been in the Forest Service a long time, and I’ve never seen anything that would indicate that we in the Forest Service are supposed to mislead the American people.”

Around the same time as the McCormick debacle, a similar embarrassment to the agency occurred with the defection and public denunciation of the Forest Service by John Mumma, one of the agency’s nine regional foresters. Mumma’s allegations, like McCormick’s, played big in Congress. “In these sensational cases,” the agency’s national historian, Gerald W. Williams, acknowledged in a surprisingly frank follow-up report, “the Forest Service has been shown to be lacking in credibility or, worse, to be covering up instances of wrongdoing.”

The great irony is that for all of the controversy that logging provokes, the national forests provide so little of America’s wood. “Stopping logging on national forests will not create a timber supply crisis in any way, shape or form,” Hanson says. “I don’t think that any of the country’s timber supply should come from national forests. It’s the last, best forest habitat that we have in this country.” Eliminate logging, he says, and “you would see a profoundly different agency, one that would be much more positive.”

The Sierra Club since 2000 has advocated an end to logging in national forests. “I think the type of projects that you would see the Forest Service undertake would be absolutely different if they were not in the business of selling timber” and keeping a share of the revenues, says Cosgrove, the club’s forest expert.

“No, I’m not in favor of that,” Bosworth says, which makes sense. He’s a forester, not a conservationist. In any case, policy matters are not up to him. Congress, the president and the Agriculture Department want timber to come out of those forests, so Bosworth will continue to make that happen.

The Forest Service nonetheless remains culpable, Hanson argues. “They don’t have to abuse the science, they don’t have to misrepresent the evidence, they don’t have to cut down old-growth trees or try to come up with increasingly creative justifications for logging big trees when the science doesn’t support those acts. They’re still responsible for doing the right thing.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE FOREST SERVICE’S NEW MATH

Part of the U.S. Forest Service’s credibility problem stems from environmentalists’ revelations, beginning in the 1970s, that the agency skewed bookkeeping numbers on its timber sales to help justify widespread logging.

Repeated Forest Service claims of timber profitability proved false. National forestlands tend to be remote, steep, rugged and far from the mills, and getting timber out is costly. Not only has the timber-sale program lost taxpayer money, it has lost big.

Eventually both the Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office) and the Congressional Research Service, after conducting their own analyses, agreed that the Forest Service used questionable accounting methods to hide or minimize expenses. Millions of dollars invested in building roads that could reasonably be expected to last 20 years, for example, were amortized over 100 years to make the annual cost negligible. The agency has been known to amortize roads over 1,800 years, or nearly eight times longer than the United States has existed. Using the same accounting technique, appropriations for the Iraq war--$151 billion so far--could be represented as a mere $80 million or so per year.

During the 1980s, timber sales deemed profitable by the Forest Service actually lost more than $5 billion. Congress demanded accounting reforms, but discrepancies persisted. While the agency calculated that timber sales between 1992 and 1994 generated $1.1 billion in profits, the GAO calculated nearly $1 billion in losses. The Forest Service acknowledged a deficit in 1998, reporting a timber-program loss of $126 million. But according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, even that number was bogus.

“We did a study,” says Jill Lancelot, president of the Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group, “and we looked at all the numbers, and we found that the loss was actually at least $407 million,” more than three times the reported loss. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth says that, over the years, the agency probably did what it could to make its timber-sale numbers “look pretty good,” but says he sees nothing inappropriate about that. “I believe that we believed we were using generally accepted accounting practices,” he says. “I don’t think it was intended to be duplicitous.”

After that, the Forest Service stopped reporting altogether. “We have no reporting on profits or losses since 1998,” Lancelot says. “This is really outrageous.”

And bizarre, because even when the agency loses, it wins. Whether or not a timber sale turns a profit, the agency gets to keep a share of gross receipts, a funding quirk that encourages logging and, some would say, over-logging. In any case, an agency spokesman explains that the Forest Service no longer reports timber profits and losses because doing so “perpetuates a largely inappropriate focus on profitability.”


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