Over-regulation as a Reason for the Timber Harvest Decline: Recalling Jack Ward Thomas’s Lament

Editor’s Note:  This is the first in a number of NWAF! posts examining some of the reasons or sources of the historic decline in timber harvesting in U.S. national forests.

The Congressional Research Service recently released a report detailing the legislative history of Secure Rural Schools (Katie Hoover, Reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, November 14, 2013).

One thing that caught my eye therein was the report’s handling of the question of why timber sales on U.S. national forests experienced their historic decline in the first place.   It was dismissed with, in effect, a wave of the hand — with a single sentence in a footnote.  “The decline in timber harvests,” the footnote suggested, “is attributable to a variety of factors, including a combination of forest management policies and practice, increased planning and procedural requirements, changing public preferences, economic, and industry factors.”

Well, so much for that!  

Yet, and of course, the issue merits more careful and fuller consideration.  It seems likely that reversing the timber harvest decline will require a clear picture of the decline’s historical reasons or sources.

The expansion of the Forest Service’s regulatory system is an oft cited source.  That source may perhaps be regarded as the unintended consequence of a number of significant regulatory changes that accrued in the agency over many years.  The combined impact of these changes would prove to have greater consequences for timber sales than any one of these changes might have initially suggested.  Jack Ward Thomas lamented just such a circumstance to a U.S. House subcommittee back in December, 2001, now more than a dozen years ago.  “The Forest Service and the communities it is a part of,” said Thomas,

are at a crossroads. The present state of affairs is a sad one and in the long term will prove intolerable.  I don’t know how it came to be.  What can we do about the present state of affairs? 

There are simply too many applicable laws with their pursuant regulations that don’t mesh well or at all, and they seem to be meshing less and less well as time and circumstances change. 

When I came into the chief’s job, my political overseers assured me that all of the problems inherent in simultaneous compliance were merely the fact that the previous — that my predecessors had just not been willing to do it. 

By the time I left the job, I knew that there were intractable roadblocks to management related to laws and regulation and the conflicts pursuant to those laws — legal interpretation and so on.  However, if I examine every one of those laws in isolation, I daresay I can’t find a one with which I disagree.  Not a single one.  But when they are considered in totality and the array of empowered agencies who wrote the regulations to achieve the objectives of the law and not coincidentally maximize the discretion and power of the drafting agencies, things get a little tough. 

Then consider that the laws are applied by an array of departments and agencies dealing with various Subcommittees and Committees in the Senate and the House.  Administrations come and go every 4 to 8 years.  In the case of the land management agencies, this adds up to a disaster for isolated affected communities waiting for a time and place to happen as significant land management actions on the Federal estate grind  to a halt. 

Jack Ward Thomas’s account suggests a picture in which the incremental accrual of regulatory layers ultimately had the unintended consequence of depressing harvest levels.  On the other hand, however, there are also voices and interest groups in the national
forests public arena that actually seek and advocate a zero-cut goal for national forests.  The Sierra Club for example has espoused an “end commercial logging” (ECL) policy for national forests since 1996 – although a more recent clarification of ECL, issued in 2012, arguably softens and contextualizes their position on the issue.  

The existence of this sort of anti-logging sentiment and zero-cut advocacy can’t help but raise the question of the respective roles and influences of intentionality versus unintentionality in the story of logging’s historic decline.  How much explanatory weight one places on one or the other of these factors may result in quite different paths and strategies for ultimately walking back the change.

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