Forest Service looking beyond timber sales for revenues
By JOHN HEILPRIN
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The lure of money is shaping the nation's 155 national forests: more advertising, more fees, more roads to draw timber sales and lumber mill jobs.
The Bush administration also wants to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forests and other public land to help pay for rural schools in 41 states. The land sales, ranging from less than an acre to more than 1,000 acres, are expected to generate $800 million and would be the largest sale of forest land in decades.
The Forest Service also hopes to raise money by allowing corporate advertisers to put up logos and banners at ski resorts, marinas or other buildings as well at events such as races, competitions and festivals held in national forests.
The agency, part of the Agriculture Department, is also planning to conduct more frequent appraisals of 14,500 private cabins allowed in national forests the past 90 years, mainly in California, Oregon and Washington.
Environmentalists are alarmed.
"Vistas of our national forests may soon include giant inflatable beer bottles, banners for chewing tobacco and snack food kiosks," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
President Bush's proposed budget for next year would trim Forest Service spending from nearly $4.3 billion to just under $4.1 billion.
The Forest Service says it has no estimates of how much money the increased commercial activity will provide but is intent on making government forests a bigger producer of jobs.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, said Tuesday almost all the changes were ordered by Congress and will raise money for the U.S. Treasury, not the Forest Service. He said one role of the agency is to provide economic relief to communities surrounded by public lands that have scarce year-round employment opportunities.
He disputed the notion of a growing commercialization of forests, but sees a growing demand for more campgrounds, trails, boat ramps and other "developed recreation" uses.
"Two-thirds of the Forest Service is still roadless wilderness and undeveloped, and the recreational use of those is not increasing nearly as much as the demand for the developed uses," Rey said. "What's decreasing is the amount of wilderness use."
However, the agency is having to amend its logging plan for its single biggest property, Alaska's Tongass National Forest, after a federal appeals court ruled it had overstated the demand for timber from it.
Timber programs in the Tongass, which covers most of the southeast Alaska archipelago, have provided hundreds of jobs a year. Congress in 1990 ordered an end to $40 million a year in spending to support two pulp mills in the Tongass, and ordered the Forest Service to sell logs at a profit.
The Forest Service still hopes to maintain logging on 4 percent of the Tongass' 17 million acres. The idea is not to create a profit, but to generate jobs through the revival of three mills near the Tongass _ the largest temperate rain forest in the world.
"I would expect expansion of some of the mills," Tongass supervisor Forrest Cole said in an interview. "We intend to make opportunities available."
Even some within the Forest Service say the agency skips environmental reviews, hoping to make logging more economical. Wildlife biologist Glen Ith, a Forest Service employee for 25 years, blocked a proposed timber sale of 190 acres. His formal appeal pointed out that a logging road was built before the decision to sell timber.
Cole acknowledged some logging roads have been built in advance of timber sales and said he has pulled back the sale challenged by Ith to clarify its wording. "Prior to us doing any development activities, we always do an environmental assessment," he said.