Time to pay for work, forest chief says - Bosworth: Meeting everyone's
needs has a price
SPARKS, Nev. - Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth wants to prove to the American public that his agency can be trusted with the national forests. But the man who oversees 191 million acres warns it's time to pay for a system that he says has been stretched thin trying to be everything to everyone.
From timber production to wildlife protection, recreation and water supplies, the nation's forests have provided resources unparalleled in the modern world for more than a century, Bosworth said. Those demands have taken their toll.
"For a good part of our history I think people viewed the national forests as a revenue source," said Bosworth, who since April 2001 has led the agency that manages territory about twice the size of California.
"We were in the black in the 1950s and '60s and '70s. We were taking in more money than we spent. So people didn't see there being a big cost associated with the national forests," he said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
"On the other hand, if you look at what the national forests have provided the American people for the last 100 years, I think a little investment wouldn't be a bad thing."
Bosworth, whose father was a Forest Service supervisor in California, was "raised at ranger stations."
He spent his boyhood not far from here in the pine and fir forests of the Sierra along the California-Nevada border.
"It's quite different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s," said the 37-year veteran of the Forest Service.
Logging levels nationally have fallen to one-fifth or less of their historic highs of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Some environmentalists say it's still too much given the fragile state of many forests and watersheds.
In some ways, Bosworth said, the Forest Service has been made the villain by a fickle public that has changed what it demands of the forests the past half century.
"A lot was asked of the Forest Service after World War II," he said.
"This country had pretty well logged off all the private lands and there was huge demand for everybody to have the American dream of owning their own home."
The Forest Service produced about 25 percent of all the softwood timber used for lumber in the United States during that era and up to 40 percent during the 1980s, compared with about 5 percent today.
Bosworth recalls the Carter administration's interest in increasing timber production "because they wanted to keep housing starts going and that was a way to keep inflation down.
"Consequently, I think we have been accused by some people of being in bed with the timber industry and I don't think we ever were," he said.
"Our ethic has always been the land, but we've also had the ethic of doing what we're asked to do."
These days, the Forest Service is selling about 2 billion board feet of timber a year, compared with as much as
12 billion annually 15 years ago.
"And it really is not about timber. The things we have to look out for now are fire and invasive species," he said.
"I think the ... fire problem, is going to define us over the next several years especially in the West. It's a problem in the South, too, but it's a huge problem in the West."
While the Forest Service under the Clinton administration focused on regional protection plans in the Pacific Northwest, interior Columbia Basin and Sierra Nevada, the Bush administration has turned its attention to stepping up logging as a way to reduce wildfire threats it says pose the biggest dangers to fish and wildlife.
"Some people would rather let nature take its course," Bosworth said. "But I don't think that is reasonable when you look at how much we have altered the landscapes in the past couple of years."
Tim Hermach, director of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore., is among those who accuse the Forest Service of using the wildfire threat as a smoke screen to justify more logging.
He said Bosworth deserves credit for recognizing there are costs to managing forests properly but disputes his claim that logging revenue ever exceeded the costs of environmental damage.
"They were never really in the black in the 1950s. They may have had a positive cash flow, but they assume their inventory - the forests themselves - are worthless," Hermach said.
"They don't count one penny of the cost of degraded water or the lost soil or lost recreation," he said.
Bosworth said fires in recent years have gotten bigger and hotter due primarily to unnatural fuel buildups from past logging practices and decades of fire suppression policies.
"The fire suppression problems, the cost of fires, that is one of our most difficult challenges," Bosworth said. "Last year there was more blaming going on - 'Whose fault? Who's to blame for these fires?' The last reporter to ask me that, I told him it was his fault."
The best response, according to Bosworth and others, is to thin forests and thin them quickly. That's why the agency had to waive some environmental protections recently to speed the work, he said.
"We've added so much process into the work we do that it has gotten to the point we are just crumbling under the weight of process," Bosworth said.
David Bischel, president of the industry's California Forestry Association, said the Forest Service is "stuck in this perpetual planning loop."
"By the time you are done planning, you have to start planning all over because there is a new set of issues, a new set of scientific analysis, a new set of mandates. They never get to the point of implementing anything," he said from Sacramento.
Bosworth said the two major environmental laws dictating management of national forests are outdated - the National Environmental Policy Act passed in 1969 and the National Forest Management Act passed in 1976.
"The last time NEPA regulations were actually changed was in 1974 or something like that. I was using a slide rule in 1974. It was the Stone Age," he said.
Bosworth said special interests on both sides have access to so much information and are able to skew it to meet their own objectives so that "keeping and maintaining trust is very difficult across the spectrum.
"I can't prove it, but I'll bet you that 70 (percent) or 80 percent of the people do trust us. It's the 10 percent or 15 percent on the two ends of the spectrum that don't."
Bosworth said he wants to speed forest thinning to demonstrate the agency can do the work in an environmentally sensitive manner.
"If we keep sitting back and say, 'We've got to go real slow, we've got to tiptoe around,' then we are never going to build the trust we've got to build," he said. "The only way we are going to build the trust is by doing what we say we are going to do and by doing it a way that is respectful of people."
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