The U.S. Forest Service once provided nearly 25 percent of the nation’s timber consumption but today it provides less than 2 percent. The mandate has changed to forest preservation, a problem because forests are always changing and don’t preserve well.
Protected acreage in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest is a case in point. Portions of the forest have been set aside to maintain old-growth habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. As that old growth has grown older it has become more susceptible to beetle kill and is now crumbling to the ground.
The Gallatin National Forest much further north, surrounds Bozeman, Montana. Embedded in the forest is Hyalite Reservoir, the municipal watershed. Beetles have made their way into this forest too. Managers have been working on a plan to reduce dead and infected trees in hopes of preventing a catastrophic wildfire that could impair the community’s drinking water. Through thinning and prescribed burn the Forest Service is trying to help the city avoid devastation similar to what occurred in Denver following the Buffalo Creek fire in 1996. Denver spent millions of dollars to restore the watershed destroyed from fire erosion.
A wildfire in the Hyalite drainage could cause enough erosion to cut off Bozeman’s water supply. It would also devastate local recreation, destroy habitat, and send massive carbon emissions into the atmosphere. What would seem a rational restoration project and a benefit for the community has been appealed. No surprise there!
Nearly all restoration projects in Forest Service region 1 are appealed. A year after the announcement, the Forest Service recently stated that the plan will move forward next fall if not further appealed or litigated. This too is typical – they postpone the projects at taxpayer expense, though eventually the project is carried out. In the meantime, Bozeman residents had best hope for good moisture this summer.
The most troubling aspect of these stories is that they are not unique. The federal government controls about half of the western United States. Much of the Forest Service land is densely forested. Fire has been suppressed on the land for a century and harvest has declined by more than 80 percent in recent decades. Federal land management is designed to allow anyone the right to appeal active management. The administrative costs to the agency of postponing and preventing restoration come at the expense of taxpayers. The bulk of the environmental impact, from action or inaction, is borne by those that use and live near the land. There is, however, no method to appeal inactivity.