March 11, 2017

It’s a shame that the folks who are hyperventilating about the rumored “federal lands giveaway” aren’t equally concerned about the fact that some 90 million acres of western National Forest timberland are dying and burning in mega-fires unlike anything anyone has seen in recorded history.

The “giveaway” is rumored to be on the Trump Administration’s short list. It isn’t. Quite the contrary, Trump has said publicly that he will not support any proposal for returning National Forests to the states in which those forests are located.

Likewise, recently confirmed Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, a Montana native and Teddy Roosevelt devotee, who symbolically rode his horse to work his first day on the job, said something that sounded a lot like “over my dead body.”

We agree with the President and his Interior Secretary. But we also believe the Trump Administration needs to get serious about the wildfire-forest health crisis that is engulfing the west. The Forest Service’s motto, “Caring for the Land and Serving People,” selected in 1985, when the beleaguered agency was trying to nuance its’ new and more holistic mission, has become a bad joke.

In countless focus groups, conducted from coast to coast, Americans have made their National Forest management priorities very clear: clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round recreation opportunities. These are not amenities found amid mega-fire rubble.

“Nature” doesn’t give a damn about human need. Protecting and caring for these publicly valued natural assets requires that the government’s land managers first embrace the best available forest science, which they haven’t done for 30 years. In fact, many “boots on the ground” foresters are unaware that the Forest Service employs many of the world’s best forest scientists – men and women whose research is gathering dust on office shelves.

We have great sympathy for rural western counties economically devastated by the demise of the federal timber sale program that was their economic lifeblood for more than 70 years. The underlying problem for rural counties is that the government does not pay property taxes on the National Forest lands it owns in these rural counties. Yet National Forests blanket more than 80 percent of the land base in many western counties. Let’s take 80 percent of the taxable land base in Manhattan off the table and see how the five New York boroughs do with their budgets.

Today’s perspective, which we fervently hope the Trump Administration will quickly embrace: when we leave forests to “nature,” as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be very devastating at times, but with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature.

Jim Petersen

Founder and President

The Evergreen Foundation