Amid the anti-government hype about turning federal lands over to Montana there are some genuine concerns about the current management of federal lands that happen to be also shared by federal land managers. More important than trying to figure out how to take national property is to understand how this management dysfunction came to be and find out how it can be remediated.
It had been my impression that the Forest Service budget had been cut over the years and that this had led to staff cuts and to less on-the-ground work being done, but after a long talk with a retired ranger, I found my impression was incorrect. The Forest Service budget has, in fact, been relatively stable since 2009, but there have been other activities that have consumed the share of the budget that was once devoted to timber management and forced the Forest Service spend far less time on timber management that they would like to.
One is that litigation, or fear of litigation, has caused a shift from working on timber sales to protecting the sales from litigation. Rightly or wrongly, there are groups that object to almost anything to do with timber harvest. Maybe they have a valid point, maybe they don’t, but regardless the Forest Service has to protect itself from litigation by making sure their plans follow the law to the letter. As a result there are fewer personnel involved in timber and more working on analysis of the impact of the sales.
But the largest impact by far has been the rising cost of fire management. Fire seasons have gotten longer and the fires larger and more intense. Making this even more difficult is that lots of people are building houses next to the forest. You can’t blame them for wanting to do that, but by dwelling in or near the woods they put their house in jeopardy of fires. Even though they made an unfortunate decision that carries consequences, they fully expect that forest fire fighters will protect their dwellings from burning when fire comes close. This has shifted the emphasis from protecting the timber resource to protecting homes, which is a lot more expensive. In the 1990s 14% of the Forest Service budget was spent on fire management, last year it approached 50%. The Forest Service does have a budget fund for fire-fighting, but once that fund is exhausted nationally, additional fire-fighting costs are covered by taking funds out of the non-fire budgets of budgets of Regional Forests and local Ranger Districts.
That alone should give pause to those contemplating the state taking over federal land management. Their argument is that the Forestry Division of the Montana Department of Natural Resources does a good job with timber management and is able to design sales that are not held up by litigation. The Forestry Division is indeed good at managing state forests, but it needs to be pointed out that unlike the Forest Service they do not have to manage for multiple use, nor does Montana have an appeal process that can delay sales. Still, objections to timber sales have to be resolved somehow. Most are resolved by the interested parties, some go to the Land Board for decision, and some do go to court.
The faith in the Forestry Division’s ability is well placed, but what makes the argument confusing is that the Legislature voted to cut the budget of the Forestry Division in 2013. Something doesn’t jibe there.
What can be done? First, the President and Congress could give the Forest Service enough money to do implement Congressional mandates and fight forests fires in addition to what they are supposed to do. Second is engaging in more collaborative projects with local and statewide interest groups, which is already being done with good success.
Lastly, instead of insisting on doing the impossible—state takeover of federal lands— people who are dissatisfied with the way things are should begin looking for ways to find solutions that actually could work. Listening to the other side is always a good beginning.