Editor’s note: In 2014, the NOT WITHOUT A FIGHT! COALITION produced a 30-minute video recounting the imperiled condition of U.S. counties with national forests. It was shown for the first time at our September, 2014 conference in Wallace. Below, for the record and FYI, our video’s full script.
…bringing the voices of counties with national forests to the national policy debate
Chapter 1: Geography
Geography doesn’t determine history, culture, or economic activity.
But it sets a table — and it imposes limits.
This is Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Once an important shipbuilding town, it developed into a major fishing port because of its access to the fishing banks off Canada’s east coast.
Its economy has centered on the sea for a long time.
Hence, its history, its workforce, its infrastructure, its knowledge base, and its local culture all developed accordingly.
It was never in the cards that Gloucester would become a farming town, or a ski resort, or any of numerous other possibilities.
The sea – along with its fearful perils – is the natural resource that has defined and shaped Gloucester.
Chapter 2: National Forests
America’s 155 national forests cover almost 190 million acres, the great majority in the West.
This great expanse of forested land falls across and affects more than 700 U.S. counties, almost a quarter of the nation’s total.
Some counties host only small areas of national forest; in others, they dominate the landscape.
Shoshone County, in northern Idaho, is 72 percent national forest.
Add lands governed by the Bureau of Land Management and the total federal presence in the West increases to levels that might surprise many Americans in the rest of the nation.
National forests have manifold consequences for the counties that host them.
The Forest Service governs these lands, thus limiting inputs from local citizens and local governments to an advisory role only.
For many years, national forests and local communities got along tolerably well.
The Forest Service’s multi-use philosophy made ample room for local needs.
But this relationship eroded in the 1990s.
Now, local communities and counties have in effect become unhappy captives of Forest Service policies and limitations.
The Forest Service has four basic responsibilities to local communities:
- Forest health must be cared for;
- forest-related economic activity must be fostered;
- the threat of catastrophic wildfire must be minimized; and, finally,
- local governments and schools must be appropriately supported.
In the past, each of these four domains helped serve the requirements of the others, all acting in concert to keep local communities and their surrounding forests healthy and productive.
But no longer.
Without timber harvests, for example, forest fuel loads increase, thus worsening the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
The absence of timber revenue weakens county governments and schools – and also deprives the Forest Service of revenue needed to manage forests at a landscape scale.
This breakdown sets the stage for perilous consequences — even crisis conditions.
Still, most Americans are unaware of the problem – despite graphic news coverage of the West’s worsening wildfire seasons in recent years.
Chapter 3: Deep History
The appropriation of land by government has a very long history in our Anglo-American past.
In 1079 A.D., almost a thousand years ago, William the Conqueror declared a large, 150 square mile area of southern England his private hunting reserve.
It was called the “New Forest,”
According to medieval English historians, William’s act destroyed many homes, villages, churches, and livelihoods.
There’s more to this story.
In 1100, William’s third son and the successor to his throne, King William Rufus — so named for his red hair and ruddy complexion — was accidentally shot dead by an errant arrow while hunting in the New Forest.
British historical memory has ever since regarded Rufus’s death as a sign of the Almighty’s displeasure over William the Conqueror’s callous land grab.
This longstanding interpretation offers a striking indicator of the enduring and bitter legacy created by government land appropriations where they are regarded as illegitimate by the people.
Chapter 4: National Forests Created
On our side of the Atlantic, the national forest system was a byproduct of the Progressive Era, around the turn of the 20th century.
Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s first head, and his good friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, were its passionate advocates and chief architects.
Together, they rapidly expanded national forest lands. From 1905 to 1910, while Pinchot headed the agency, national forest area ballooned out from 56 to 172 million acres across 150 forests.
By 1910’s end, the Forest Service commanded fully 90 percent of the land area it commands today.
The expansion drew heated opposition, particularly in the West.
Westerners were concerned that national forests would blunt potential growth in population and commerce.
Because federally owned lands would pay no taxes, county governments and local school districts saw that their property tax base shrink – in more than a few cases, dramatically.
Local counties, moreover, retained the responsibility for maintaining forest roads and public schools.
Idaho’s Senator Weldon B. Heyburn, among others, wrote long, detailed, and passionate letters to T.R. and Pinchot, laying out the hardships imposed by new national forest designations in that state.
In 1907, Congress reacted with the Fulton Amendment to the agricultural appropriations bill.
It terminated the president‘s authority to proclaim new national forests, now reserving that authority to itself.
Pinchot and Roosevelt, in turn, responded by further hastily expanding the national forest system before the new appropriations bill took effect, on March 7, 1907.
This bold – some might say, audacious – action added some sixteen million new acres to the system with the stroke of a pen.
They became known as the “Midnight Forests” for their rushed mapping and last-minute designation.
Chapter 5: Pinchot’s Guarantee
Gifford Pinchot couldn’t ignore the howls of protest coming out of the West.
He reassured westerners that what appeared to be the disadvantages of national forest lands were actually blessings and advantages, because such forests were now protected from the depredations of private ownership and big business.
Pinchot’s “Use Book” manual argued that federal governance wouldn’t limit the uses of national forests but instead would insure that they achieved their highest use.
All the customary productive uses of forests would go on unfettered.
Also, national forests would proffer a ready timber and wood supply to the local “ home builder, the prospector, the miner, the small mill man, the stockman, and all kinds of local industries.”
The 1907 edition of Pinchot’s “Use Book” addressed the issue of lost county property tax revenues directly. He painted a rosy picture of greater benefit in return for this seeming deprivation.
Federal ownership, he boldly asserted, “did something better” than paying property tax.
It paid counties a portion of federal receipts from timber sales – and, did so year after year.
Private timberlands, on the other hand, he wrote, tended to be laid waste by greedy owners, thus reducing taxable value.
A national forest, Pinchot wrote, “does not act like a wall built around the public domain, which locks up its lands and resources and stops settlement and industry.”
Instead, national forests offered an enduring, well cared for, productive, and rich resource for the states privileged to host them.
This, then, was the understanding, the grand bargain — with its guarantee of enduring forests and productive forest use — that helped assuage the West’s grave concerns and helped quell the roiling controversy surrounding the creation of the national forests.
It would last almost a hundred years.
But by the 1990s it had broken down.
Chapter 6: Regulations Accrue and Accrue
There is a complicated history behind the long-term evolution of Forest Service policy.
Changing circumstances, values, and politics have continually reshaped the agency’s goals and priorities.
By the mid-1990s, Pinchot’s guiding multi-use principle had become displaced by the concept of “ecological forestry.”
This represented a major shift in the agency’s ethos.
The ecological sensibility, as one environmentalist once put it, holds, simply, that “everything is connected to everything.”
There is no science, of course, that fully comprehends all the everything-to-everything relationships in a forested environment.
Instead, ecological forestry is more accurately seen as a broad value orientation or perspective.
This umbrella concept is put into action in different ways by different actors in different situations.
Sometimes, for example, the ecological agenda is taken to mean the restoration of forests to their state before European settlement;
sometimes it means enhancing or protecting biodiversity;
sometimes, say in relation to wildfire, it means “whatever is natural”; and
sometimes it means, simply, enhancing ecology, per se – perhaps the vaguest of its operational meanings.
These operationalizations are by no means identical. They can imply quite different bases for thought and policy.
In this sense, “ecological forestry” may be said to provide only a fuzzy scientific framework, one with multiple and flexible meanings and applications.
One of ecological forestry’s chief social and political implications is that it justifies and fits in well with an enormous expansion in the Forest Service’s regulatory reach.
After all, if ecology means everything is connected to everything, then proper management must have authority over everything.
Consider an instructive example: Before the expansion, the terms “fish and game” referred to the need to supply the fishing public with fish to catch and hunters with game to hunt.
After it, however, the orbit of “fish and game” interests expanded to all manner of fish, animals, and birds, most with no direct value to anglers or hunters.
It was a sea change in perspective.
The ecological paradigm inherited and provided an accommodating setting for the Forest Service’s great expansion in regulatory provisions of the 1960s and 1970s – this expansion ostensibly aimed at enhancing the protection of forest health, watersheds, plant life, and endangered or threatened species.
As Jack Ward Thomas once noted: While any one of these regulatory agendas might by itself seem entirely reasonable, the aggregate effect of all the regulations taken together became stalemate and a regulatory nightmare.
Too much Forest Service energy became devoted to expensive and time consuming preparation and study.
Moreover, the default option of doing nothing became much more attractive – even though millions of acres of national forest land sorely needed treatment.
Even when doing nothing was the worst of several action alternatives, it was nevertheless the alternative that did not burden the agency with costly processing, daunting challenges, and potential court suits.
The change happened, for the most part, gradually and as the regulatory rulebook accrued and accrued.
Part of the change was intentional.
But unintended consequences also played an important role, too.
Pinchot’s multi-use philosophy, by the 1990s, had become, by default, largely transformed into largely a no-use philosophy.
And although Congress has never transformed the entire national forest system into a hands-off wilderness area, the default alternative pushed national forests in that de facto direction.
The change is readily apparent in the precipitous decline in timber harvesting on our national forests.
In recent years, only one percent of America’s lumber supply has come from them.
A second disturbing indicator is the increase in wildfire acreages and fire intensity over the past two decades.
Of all the paradigm change’s consequences, the West’s new catastrophic wildfire reality is certainly the most alarming.
What was once considered a very large fire season in the U.S. has now become the average fire season.
The costs of this scourge of catastrophic wildfire are immeasurable.
Fires have squandered immense value in timber, incinerated homes, destroyed cherished viewscapes, decimated fauna and flora, and dumped millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere.
Brave young firefighters’ lives have been lost.
The decreasing-federal-timber-harvest trend and the worsening-fire-seasons trend have accompanied each other in a perilous and foreboding partnership.
Forest Service expenditures for firefighting have risen at an even greater rate than fire, so that some have suggested that the agency has become more a “Fire Service” than a “Forest Service.”
Waxing fire expenses have also forced the agency to borrow internally from other mission accounts, thus leaving important agency work undone or unfinished.
Counties with national forests, it should be noted, had virtually no say in the “multi-use to ecological forestry” policy change.
The great shift was carried out chiefly by the agency itself and by national level pressure groups.
Yet counties and local populations must of course inevitably bear the brunt of the new paradigm’s fateful consequences.
Chapter 7: The D.C. Parallel
In 1908, the year after the publication of Pinchot’s 1907 “Use Book,” Congress increased the county share of timber harvest revenues from ten to twenty-five percent.
The question sparked debate in the Senate.
Senator Augustus Bacon, of Georgia challenged the proposal, arguing that the revenue of the United States wasn’t usually paid back directly to the state whence it came.
Senator Francis Warren of Wyoming responded to Bacon by arguing from analogy.
He pointed out that the federal government covered half of Washington, D.C.’s annual municipal budget — because D.C. had so much non-taxable, federally owned property within its borders.
Not dissimilarly, Warren continued, throwing half of a state’s land area into a forest reserve had much the same impact on property tax revenue.
Hence, Warren concluded, it was simply a matter of “equity and propriety” that the federal government should also compensate states with national forests.
Warren’s parallel with D.C. is as apt today as it was in 1908.
The federal government still covers a significant portion of D.C.’s annual budget.
Roughly a quarter of D.C.’s area is owned by the federal government, thus paying no property tax.
Another fifteen percent is owned by foreign embassies, the headquarters of NGOs, and other non-tax-paying entities – all on account of D.C.’s role as the national seat of government.
Which brings D.C.’s total non-taxable area to about forty percent – it may be noted, about the same percentage of land area occupied by national forest in Idaho.
Counties with national forests share another remarkable, if unfortunate, historical similarity with D.C.
In the 1990s, forested counties started feeling the pinch of declining federal timber harvests.
During the same period, D.C. skidded toward bankruptcy, owing, among other reasons, to bad management of city finances.
About the crisis in D.C., a 1996 New York Times article reported:
“On any given day here in the capital of the richest nation in the world, nearly a third of the 16 water-pumping fire trucks are kept out of service to save money. Police officers dip into their own pockets to buy tires and put gasoline in squad cars.”
Meantime, regarding the crisis in counties with national forests:
The federal government responded with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.
It compensated counties with a formula based on past, rather than current, timber revenues.
But “SRS,” as it became known, was intended as a temporary or stopgap measure only – merely something to tide counties over a rough patch until they could diversify their economies, making themselves less dependent on timber.
Respecting the D.C. crisis, however, the federal government came up with an enduring solution.
The Revitalization Act of 1997 radically reshuffled D.C.’s and the federal government’s fiscal responsibilities.
And the results have been impressive.
By 2008, analyst Alice Rivlin could note that D.C. had recovered from its virtual financial meltdown of the mid-1990s and was currently in sound fiscal shape.
Its budget since ’97 had been balanced, its general fund had swelled to more than a billion dollars, and its bond ratings were high.
Since Rivlin’s evaluation in 2008, moreover, D.C.’s financial health has remained strong – indeed, has boomed.
On the other hand, national forests and the counties hosting them have grown weaker and weaker over the same period.
Timber harvests have remained depressed. And federal SRS disbursements have steadily declined since 2008 — to less than 60 percent of their 2008 level by 2013 — as the federal government sought to wean counties away from them.
Chapter 8: The Choice
No one is suggesting that Washington, D.C. should change and diversify its economy in order to relieve the federal government of its funding obligation to the nation’s capital.
D.C.’s political geography, and Gloucester’s physical geography, are what they are.
The same is true of America’s counties with national forests.
They, no less than Gloucester, have been shaped by their histories, their surrounding environments, and their natural resources.
Like Gloucester, they must play the natural resource cards they were dealt.
For American’s forested counties, a vast sea of green forest has effectively the same consequence as the great blue ocean Gloucester looks out upon.
Trees, it may be noted, grow and grow. Every year. They are a naturally renewable resource.
It is folly to separate communities – or for that matter a nation – from the natural resources in its environment.
These resources, after all, must come from somewhere.
Why not from proximate environments, where reasonable and sustainable practices may be employed?
Counties with national forests want and need sound forest management, viable forest-related economic activity, aggressive fuel reduction projects, and appropriate support for schools and local governments.
After all, by themselves, SRS payments cover only one of the four essential functions the Forest Service owes local communities, leaving three unmet.
Forested communities do need to expand and diversify their economies. But they need to do so by making use of their surrounding natural environment, not by ignoring it.
For example, new home-grown electrical power production plants, driven by woody biomass, would provide a crucial economic base for harvesting the non-commercial growth choking our overly dense forest stands.
Without new and enduring economic drivers, like power generation from woody biomass, landscape-scale forest health and fuel reduction projects in our national forests are not going to happen.
In the meantime, however, the federal obligation to compensate counties for lost annual property tax revenue – an obligation articulated by Gifford Pinchot in the Forest Service’s formative years – still holds.
No less than the nation’s capital city, America’s national-forest counties warrant federal compensation.
And for at least as long as it takes for the nation to escape the do-nothing, ecological forestry cul-de-sac.
The nation and its forested counties are at a crossroads.
We can either forge a new compact between the federal government and national-forest counties or we can look forward to more and more destructive wildfire seasons, to soaring firefighting costs, to more and more weakened and infested forest landscapes, to dwindling local economies and revenue-starved local governments and schools.
Counties with national forests cannot reform this grave situation on their own.
They don’t have authority over national forest lands.
On this public problem, the federal government — and the American people — must step up to the plate.
And before it’s too late.