*Why Not Honor Pinchot’s Old Promise?

Editor’s Note:  Below, a personal note that sprang from an exchange over on Sharon Friedman’s blog.  — Ron

Over on the “NCFP” blog, Sharon Friedman, commenting on a recent post, reminded her readers of Gifford Pinchot’s 1907 assurances to counties where national forests were located.  Pinchot wrote, in part, and Sharon quoted:

People who are unfamiliar with the laws about National Forests often argue that they work hardships on the counties in which they lie by withdrawing a great deal of land from taxation. They say that if the lands were left open to pass into private hands there would be much more taxable property for the support of school and road districts. The National Government of course pays no taxes. But it does something better. It pays those counties in which the Forests are located 10 per cent of all the receipts from the sale of timber, use of the range, and various other uses, and it does this every year. It is a sure and steady income, because the resources of National Forests are used in such a way that they keep coming without a break.

Another commenter, Jerry Gilmour, downplayed Pinchot’s promise. Gilmour wrote, in part:

Well, things have changed a bit since 1906. The federal government made a lot of promises back in those times that they either didn’t keep or the issues became very different from what they predicted. Making the case that the fed promised the people a steady income from timber sales at the beginning of the last century, so therefore they still should, just isn’t going to get a lot of play. The fact remains, counties with a large percentage of federal land need to find ways to broaden their horizons.

But, wait a minute, why shouldn’t the Forest Service, the forestry community, the Congress, and the American public want to honor Pinchot’s promise still?

My humble question is this:  Why not honor a promise that, while admittedly old, is nevertheless also a good and worthy promise, one that merits maintaining both now and in the future?

What’s wrong with managing forests in such a way that year after year they produce sustainable timber harvests, as Pinchot suggested? Why shouldn’t counties with national forests continue to enjoy the benefits of well managed forests and sustainable timber revenue, both for their labor forces and their county governments? It would appear to be a very good promise to keep – now, and in the future. Why would Gilmour suggest that Pinchot’s promise is now old hat and no longer worth honoring?  

Gilmour says counties with lots of federal land “need to find ways to broaden their horizons.” The other way this notion is frequently expressed is that these counties should “diversify their economies,” making them no longer reliant on timber revenue. But his suggestion seems to deny the importance of geography, and even cultural geography as well, in the sociology of place. One wouldn’t for instance suggest that the ocean-side community of Gloucester, Massachusetts should cease its fishing enterprise and do other things instead, nor that Aspen should close down its ski slopes, nor that California’s Silicon Valley should abandon its IT industry. These places are suited to their dominant economic pursuits by their geographies, by their histories, and by the combination of both. They have built up infrastructure, work force expertise, and institutional supports around their primary economic pursuits. The same pursuits are supported by traditions and local culture as well.

The same goes, of course, for many forested counties.  One doesn’t need to buy a ticket on a rocket ship to be aware, for example, that the northwest region of the United States is carpeted with a vast sea of evergreen forest.  Not surprising, therefore, timber was one of the important, proximate resource settlers made use of.  The suggestion that diverse economic pursuits should replace timber is easily said but not so easy to bring into reality. Tourism – a frequently suggested alternative industry for forested counties – tends to occasion mostly low-paying and only seasonal jobs, as we know only to well here in Shoshone County. Moreover – and this is a question that must be asked! — how many forest-based tourist venues can the American West support or does the rest of the nation actually need? The empty shops and boarded-up storefronts in many forested towns bear mute witness to the fact that not every timber town can attract the number of tourists necessary to sustain a viable tourist economy.

I ask again: Why shouldn’t our vast sea of national forests sustain Pinchot’s promise? Severely curtailing  or ending logging altogether isn’t after all official U.S. or Forest Service policy. We have official land use designations for places where logging and forest management are proscribed – for example, officially designated “wilderness areas.” I might have missed it, but so far as I’m aware the national forest system as a whole has not been re-designated as a wilderness area.  Instead, the great decline in logging and active forest management in national forests has resulted from a series of unintended consequences. The new regulatory reality and sensibility arguably emerged in part as a reaction against the logging excesses of the Forest Service in the past, when that agency’s dominant ethos was “to get the cut out.” But – and again, one wonders – does a “good” Forest Service, one that has wholly left behind its ill-spent past and mended its ways, still need to be hobbled by the same armada of regulatory impediments? Are environmentalists, in other words, still fighting – as Jack Ward Thomas once suggested — an adversary that has already been defeated and will not be seen again in the Forest Service?

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One Response to *Why Not Honor Pinchot’s Old Promise?

  1. Sharon says:

    Ron, this reminds me of folks who want other people to stop raising cattle or sheep. The fact is that many parts of the world are too cold or dry to grow crops, and even grains will not grow. Livestock, whether you were Moses, or live in Mongolia or Meeker, Colorado is what you can grow that you can eat. If you want to eat locally, anyway, critters and their hay is the main choice.

    I agree a place has certain capabilities for people to make their livings and to feed themselves, and these cannot be ignored. If they were private lands, I don’t think it would be an issue. It is only the idea that the land has, in effect, an absentee landlord, however well intentioned those landlords are.

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