Is this the future of America’s national forests, or will Congress wake up before it is too late?
Twenty-one Canadian forest products companies and nine major environmental groups recently reached a landmark agreement for the protection and management of 72 million hectares of boreal forest land in eastern Canada. For those wanting to know, 72 million hectares is about 180 million acres, or about 281,000 square miles, an area twice the size of Germany, and only slightly smaller than our entire national forest system.
The primary goal of this agreement is to protect threatened caribou habitat by creating a system of reserves, including a 29 million hectare area in which no new logging will occur until the caribou habitat conservation plan is completed. We congratulate our Canadian friends on their achievement.
This is an important story on several fronts, not least the fact that Congress has created such a regulatory nightmare in the United States that no such agreements are even possible. Begin with the fact that the Equal Access to Justice Act grants anyone with a grudge the power to sue our U.S. Forest Service for any reason whatsoever if they disagree with the agency's management plans. Even more astonishing, they can sue at taxpayer expense and get paid even if they lose the case.
The Equal Access to Justice Act was designed to help people who cannot afford lawyers hire them. But now it is regularly used by radical environmental groups who could afford a lawyer, but prefer to sue the Forest Service at public expense. Until Congress tidies up this legal nightmare, environmentalists and their lawyers will continue to line their pockets with the public's money.
For more than 20 years, we have used these pages to advocate for new approaches to the manner in which the nation's federal forests are managed. Our colleague, Tom Bonnicksen, argues for this in a nearby piece. His suggestions make a lot of sense to us. So does parceling out large tracts of federal land to different special interest groups.
Frankly, I'd like to see what the National Wildlife Federation might do with 10 million acres over the next 50 years - or the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy. I'd be especially interested in seeing what the sue-happy Center for Biological Diversity might do with its 10 million acres over the next half century. Kieran Suckling, CBD's executive director, who has a PhD in philosophy, shed some light on this question in a recent High Country News interview in which he opined that he wasn't much interested in hiring anyone at CBD with degrees in "environmental conservation and wildlife management" because they've "bought into resource management values and multiple use by the time they graduate."
"I'm more interested in hiring philosophers, linguists and poets. The core talent of a successful environmental activist is not science and law. It's campaigning instinct. That's not only not taught in universities, it's discouraged."
Okay, let's see what a group of poets, linguists and philosophers can do with 10 million acres of national forest land over the next 50 years. Surely, the exercise will tell the owners of America's national forests [that's all of us] a lot more about CBD's philosophy and values than the 600 environmental lawsuits they have under their belts or the 110 million acres they've successfully locked away in no management reserves that serve questionable economic or environmental value.
And while we're parceling out our national forest future, let's also see what some accountants, secretaries, loggers and advertising types can do. Back in 1966, Howard Gossage, who was the co-founder of a San Francisco ad agency, wrote the copy of an iconic Sierra Club advertisement that began with this famous headline:
"Should We Also Flood The Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer The Ceiling?"
The subject was Sierra Club opposition to a congressional proposal to build dams in the Grand Canyon. It garnered 3,000 new Club memberships and stopped the project in its tracks. I've seen the Grand Canyon many times, and can't imagine that anyone would want to build a dam in it, so I'm glad they were able to keep the Colorado River running free through the Grand Canyon, but I'm not happy about the legal choke hold that the nation's environmental groups have on federal forest policy and national forest management. I will leave it to Mr. Suckling to explain why. Here is his answer to a High Country News question concerning the role lawsuits play in CBC's overall strategy.
"They are one tool in a larger campaign, but we use lawsuits to help shift the balance of power from industry and government agencies toward protecting endangered species. That plays out on many levels. At its simplest, by obtaining an injunction to shut down logging or prevent the filling of a dam, the power shifts to our hands. The Forest Service needs our agreement to get back to work, and we are in the position to be able to powerfully negotiate the terms of releasing the injunction.
"New injunctions, new species listing and bad press take a terrible toll on agency morale. When we stop the same timber sale three or four times running, the timber planners want to tear their hair out. They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed - and they are. So they become more willing to play by our rules and at least get something done. Psychological warfare is a very underappreciated aspect of environmental campaigning."
Again for the record, there is no "logging" underway in our national forests. There are, however, numerous Forest Service projects in various stages of completion- all of them legal and all of them publicly vetted - that are designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in at-risk forest that are riddled with insects and diseases that killing millions of acres of trees that are, in turn, fueling stand replacing wildfires.
Frankly, I think the Forest Service's approach to this advancing crisis is far too timid, but they can't do anything more than what Mr. Suckling and his scorched earth policy permit. Meanwhile, inevitable wildfire is destroying our forest heritage in the same way that damming the Colorado would have destroyed the Grand Canyon.
You might ask how Kieran Suckling could accumulate so much power in a country like ours. He can because Congress gave it to him - because they have abdicated their role and their responsibilities to the rest of us. All the more reason why I think the national forest system should be parceled out to many groups that have different philosophies about land and its many values. Let's give these various groups an opportunity to prove their mettle where it counts - on the ground in forests that belong to all of us, not just Mr. Suckling.
Meanwhile, I have a new headline in the Howard Gossage tradition for your consideration:
"Should We Let Kieran Suckling Burn Down Our National Forests Just Because He Can?"
Jim Petersen, Co-founder and Executive Director, the Evergreen Foundation