"What's That Sound?": Rethinking National Forest Policy In The West
There are clear signs that the policy of “letting nature take its course” in the West's federal forests is a prescription for environmental disaster.
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“There’s something happening here What it is ain’t exactly clear There’s a man with a gun over there Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down There’s battle lines being drawn Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds Getting so much resistance from behind I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down”
For What It’s Worth Buffalo Springfield, 1967 Stephen Stills, lyrics
I was 23 when Buffalo Springfield recorded “For What It’s Worth.” The year was 1967, Vietnam was raging, and the whole damned country was in turmoil. The war shredded the generational fabric of oursociety in ways that have thus far made its mending impossible.
Although we are the best fed, best housed and most affluent nation in history, we are even more restless, directionless and unhappy than we were then. As Buffalo Springfield guitarist, Stephen Stills wrote 46 years ago, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
[quote align=‘left’]“This is a star-crossed moment and a good reason for someone to start a conversation about moving the nation’s forest management policies back toward the center.”[/quote]It still isn’t clear – at least not to me. But there is unquestionably something “going down.” What began as a student protest against a long forgotten war without purpose has infected every square inch of our society. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is real. Nothing lasts. The glue that held our nation together has dried and cracked, and our society is coming apart at the seams. Each seam has become an open wound and each wound oozes the puss of aggrieved citizens who believe their problems are of someone else’s making. We have become a nation of victims. It is painful to watch.
Our 24/7 news cycle feeds a kind of hopelessness and despair unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It fuels a frantic sense that only the federal government can dress the wounds of our disintegrating lives. Yet, it is the government that inflicted many of our most serious injuries. This is know for sure because I have lived in the West all of my life and have watched the federal government first embrace us when it needed us, and then toss us over a cliff when it no longer did.
It is along the bloody tear of this new wound that a new battle line – not unlike the one Stephen Stills wrote about in 1967 – is being drawn. Congress needs to start paying attention to the angry sounds that are reverberating along this rural western fault line because all hell is about to break loose. The kind of ethnic cleansing that has gone on in the West for the last 20 years cannot long endure in a free society.
Begin with the fact that more than half of all land in the western United States is owned and controlled by the federal government. Many legal scholars argue that federal land ownership is unconstitutional. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter because the same constitution forbids states from levying property taxes on federal lands within their borders.
In Oregon, where I live, 53 percent of all land is federally owned and thus not taxable. This means that the burdens associated with funding schools, local governments and police and fire departments are borne by the 47 percent of our land base that is taxable. To understand this inequity – and its’ crippling impacts – imagine for a moment that the federal government also owns 53 percent of Manhattan Island. What might be the impact on New York City’s public sector services?
The western federal lands story is long, with many twists and turns, but for nearly 200 years members of Congress understood that full development of the roughly two-thirds of the nation’s economic potential required that the government find ways to encourage private capital and initiative to venture west. The railroad land grant acts, the Homestead Act and many early mining and timber acts were all designed to encourage industrialists and settlers alike to head west. Millions did.
As recently as the post-World War II Truman years, Congress and its federal forest management agencies were fully and very publicly engaged in western economic development – a result of the Roosevelt Administration’s conclusion that western federal forests were the missing economic engine the nation needed to fuel its transition from wartime to peacetime footing.
FDR’s great fear was that minus a robust peacetime economy, the country would soon lapse back into depression – a political disaster for Democrats. The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, ratified by Congress in June of 1944 – and commonly known as the GI Bill – promised every returning veteran a free college education and a government-backed home mortgage. By then, deep thinkers in Roosevelt’s cabinet had figured out that the West’s vast federal forests were both a source of employment and wood needed to power the housing boom that followed the war. For the next 40 years, federal forests provided about 15 percent of the nation’s timber supply – and more than half of all the domestic timber used in home construction in the 11 western states.
The post-war federal timber sale program also fueled economic development in hundreds of small rural communities that had never before enjoyed such prosperity. Sawmills, plywood manufacturers, logging companies and their equipment suppliers created thousands of family-wage jobs that, in turn, created atimber-based tax revenue stream unlike anything the federal government had ever seen from western states. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations had solved two of the country’s most vexing post-war problems: jobs for returning veterans and wood to fuel the much anticipated homebuilding boom.The Vietnam-era rise of environmental activism changed everything. The federal government’s wildly successful timber sale program became an easy target for an assortment of left leaning groups hell-bent on reshaping the nation’s values and priorities. For years they made no headway, but as the makeup of Congress changed – a reflection of the country’s shifting social values – new House and Senate members began to chip away at the nation-building work their predecessors had done. Forty years hence, federal imber harvesting has fallen by 90 percent, to its lowest level since the end of the Great Depression. The economic impact in the rural West has left many communities in the same condition they were in when the U.S. entered World War II, effectively ending the Depression.
From my ringside seat, which I have occupied since 1986, I have watched disbelief become heartache; heartache become fear; fear become anger, and anger become a ticking time bomb. Disbelief because those who put down roots in the rural West after World War II still have a hard time believing that their own government would betray them as it has; heartache because countless thousands lost everything through no fault of their own; fear because no amount of pleading or politicking has made a difference; anger because their way of life has been taken away for no reason other than the fact that there aren’t enough votes in the rural West to affect positive change in Washington, D.C.; and a ticking time bomb because playing by the rules has not worked.
I have no idea how much money the federal government has spent “studying” this problem of its own creation, but it runs into the billions of dollars. Billions more have been lost in wages and tax revenues. Still more billions have been lost in the value of federal timber killed by insects, diseases and wildfires that could have been minimized had the post-war sustained yield, multiple use ethic still been honored on federal lands. But it disappeared soon after Vice President Al Gore ordered its last practitioners fired from the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C. office in 1992.
You can be forgiven for not understanding why Congress would allow such a marvelous federal program to be dismantled by environmental activists whose main goal is the “re-wilding” of the rural west. To do this, all economic activity must cease, so that “nature” can “heal” all of the “devastation” that “greed” has inflicted on the West since white settlement began following the Civil War.
I prefer not to go down this road because I long ago gave up tilting at windmills. I thus accept an explanation given to me almost 20 years ago by Leonard Netzorg, a brilliant lawyer and friend who worked in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, and represented the western lumber industry in some of its biggest battles against the federal government.[quote align=‘right’]“Unfortunately, few urban voters have any hands-on experience with nature. They thus do not realize there is no ‘web of life’ that exists in some mystical steady state.”[/quote]
When I asked Leonard why he thought the federal timber sale program was going down in flames he said, “Because society’s felt necessities are changing.” It is as good an explanation as any I have heard. Today’s voters – especially urban voters who hold defacto control over the federal forest policy making apparatus – are only concerned about the environment as they see it.
Unfortunately, few urban voters have any hands-on experience with nature. They thus do not realize there is no “web of life” that exists in some mystical steady state. Nor do they seem to realize that there is no “reverse” button in “nature.” Civilization can only go forward from where it is today having already accepted the fact that our global environment and the world’s economies are equal and indivisible parts of a larger whole.
Although there isn’t much bipartisanship in Congress today, there are clear signs that mainstream conservation groups have quietly concluded that “letting nature take its course” in the West’s federal forests is a prescription for environmental disaster. This is a star-crossed moment and a good reason for someone to start a conversation about moving the nation’s forest management policies back toward the center. It is likely to be a time consuming process because there are a lot of rotten apples in this barrel, mainly lawyers who represent the “re-wilding” crowd and are being paid handsomely by taxpayers who are on the hook for their legal fees. The sooner they are tossed in the nearest compost pile, the better.
“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”