February 27, 2007

A Forest Service 'Perfect Storm'
John Freemuth

The federal lands and the bureaus that manage them may be entering a period from which they may well emerge very different than they are today. At first glance this might surprise people, as the Bush administration, led by the Secretary of Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, has proposed large spending increases for the national parks in a move not seen since days of Mission 66. All must be well.

Well not exactly. The parks are really a small part of the federal estate, some 76 million acres, with both the national forests (Forest Service)and Bureau of Land Management administered land amounting to around 450 million acres, while the national wildlife refuges (Fish and Wildlife Service)add around 87 million. Perhaps the most noticeable change is what is happening to the Forest Service and by implication the national forests. The bureau did have all lot of trouble in the recent past, adjusting to changes in public attitudes about the primary purposes of national forests. Rightly or wrongly, forests became seen more as places for recreation and resource protection, than for the provision of goods and services (notably timber) for society. The Forest Service struggled, but has tried steadily to work its way though adapting to those changes in public expectations. There have been successes and there have been failures. Yet now the agency may be facing a perfect storm of alarming proportions.

That storm has a number of forces within it. Fire costs are eating up higher and higher portions of the agency’s budget. The reasons include increased growth in rural forest interface lands, but also a fire fighting culture that still largely emphasizes suppression, and a Congress that that demands it. Some argue that states counties and localities should pay more of the costs, but that is difficult to imagine being accomplished anytime soon. The agency is also looking at a 25% reduction of its costs (it is unclear whether this is regional and Washington level, or agency-wide)over the next three years, leading to a reduction in personnel, while suggesting that it might have to close some campgrounds and other recreational sites. Some of its other core functions are being subjected to contracting, a process that could lead to a legitimate argument that the agency ought to simply abolished. If this is not enough, the agency has announced that it will no longer link forest plans with the preparation of environmental impacts statements (EISs), while at the same time also giving energy projects categorical exclusions (applications for permits to drill) at a project level, leading some people to assert that this amounts to a “double exemption” from NEPA. While there may very good reasons for some of this, and the agency might, if given time, be able to show that its decisions have actually gotten better and timelier, suspicion is rampant.

The agency is showing increasing signs of being an organization under stress and it knows it. It has begun internal discussions on what might be described as a return to key ideas (foundations) that might allow it to better govern itself, restore morale, and make consistent and principled decisions. We in the public should wish the agency well. We need to do something else. We need to consider what the alternatives really are. There are a hundred things that the Forest Service might do better….but that’s true about any organization, public, private or nonprofit. But what we may be embarking on here is a shrinking of a very visible and many would say cherished part of the public estate and its very public agency. If we want these lands to remain public and open to all then we need to realize that that is what may be ultimately at stake.

Posted by John Freemuth on February 27, 2007 at 12:00 PM Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

September 01, 2006

Is the federal land debate over? Don't count on it
John Freemuth

Every decade or so, people start pushing the idea of selling off big chunks of public land or transferring that land to state ownership and management. Outside of small parcels, it has never happened, probably because most of us support leaving public lands in federal hands.

With the recent pronouncements of Idaho's own Dirk Kempthorne, now Interior secretary, and Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho that large-scale federal land sell-offs are politically dead, it might appear that the latest attempt is finally over.

Conventional wisdom says the West has grown up, and we all realize that we need those open spaces to bike, shoot, boat, ride, hike, climb and picnic in. Maybe so, but there are a couple of trends that bear watching as they lead to privatization of our birthright.

The first trend has to do with land transfers done in the name of economic development. In some cases, these transfers, small in acreage, may make sense if important public purposes are met. But in southern Utah, for example, it's much messier. There, booming development in St. George has led to a proposal to sell off 40 square miles of federal land, while at the same time protecting some wilderness, much of it in Zion National Park, and desert tortoise habitat.

Environmentalists oppose the bill; developers and the county support it. Its main purpose appears to be making more land available for the "New West" phenomena of second homes and footloose retiree money. This is a land exchange that caters to the upper middle class, and the irony here should not escape us. This is mountain bike country, get-your-piece-of-the-West land. Perhaps these folks need public land to play on, but they want private land to live on, preferably close to the public land. And if that private land needs to be removed from the public estate - so be it.

This is not a small-scale transfer to allow an economically disadvantaged place like Salmon or Challis, Idaho, get some help. Just imagine the cascade effect as other booming towns seek to dig deeper and deeper into our common estate.

Trend number two may be worse. It is the outsourcing virus that is sweeping agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. Here, an idea that made sense in the past when applied to urban services such as trash collection may be focused on 75 percent of all the jobs in the agency, including fire suppression.

If we do this long enough, and the ideologues push for this hard enough, it's going to go like this: Why do we need the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, even the Park Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? So much of what they do has been outsourced; let's just get rid of them. Put some private sector, beltway, politically connected, market-mantra-chanting consulting firm in charge. It can manage the land, or else we could transfer the land to states. This move could make trend number one easier to accomplish.

While were at it, let's be consistent. Why not outsource the Congress, the White House and the courts? Clearly, the private sector can be more efficient in the running of government than politicians can, and outsourcing is all about efficiency. But since when is efficiency the primary aim of government?

Through the years I have been a critic as well as a supporter of federal land management. But I have a touchstone for what public service can mean. I once worked as a seasonal ranger at a national park and found that you cannot replace what rangers and other park staffers do or the way they approach their jobs. It may sound overwrought and ridiculous, but many believe they are on the "staff" of the Grand Canyon, of the Sawtooths, Escalante, Rocky Mountain National Park.

They work for the land they love. Can that kind of commitment be outsourced?

Right now, a majority of Americans want most public lands to remain public and under federal management. But pay attention. The debate won't be about that, as it should be, and it may not be a debate at all. The chipping away at our publicly owned lands will happen incrementally, over time. With the population growth in places like St. George, Utah, the battles will likely never end.

Posted as Opinion, the Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 1, 2006

Posted by John Freemuth on September 1, 2006 at 02:34 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

July 01, 2005

Follow the Money?
John Freemuth

It seems as if we are all following the money these days. Dave's "Revenue Enhancement: Good v. Evil" post got me to thinking. What we might be talking about here is the collapse of the public sphere, through the growing use of corporate/market influenced models of appropriate organizational action and governance.

Take the modern public university as an example. Today, the number one priority, I think, is funding. Thus if one is simply a run-of-the-mill academic like myself, I am most rewarded, most praised, and generally just a great guy, if I bring in funded research. The larger the dollar amount, the better. Good teaching, traditional scholarship, public service that makes a difference...who the hell cares. Show me the money. Or so it goes.

I honestly think, to use a hypothetical here, if the Goodgodalmighty Peanut Butter company gave a university 15 million dollars to fund a peanut butter policy center, then guess what would become a top priority of the university...why peanut butter policy of course! Even if it wasn't mentioned in the strategic plan. The reason for this, of course, is because state legislatures are not funding higher education (read the Forest Service in here and you get the point for Congress) at levels as in the past. The other reason is overhead/indirect capture that can be siphoned off to fill whatever is currently on the "leadership/vision" agenda of the current (they often don't stay long)university president.

This trend has profound implications for universities, and thus for agencies like the Forest Service, who will still rely on us for the next generation of employees. If the trend does not have some sort of checks and balances written into it, it is not hard to imagine a class system developing in universities, and an eventually collapse of disciplines that provide, at least, a critical approach to thinking about the world. The link to the Forest Service should be obvious. Nothing is preordained here, but the chase for fees (I am not opposed to fees) and sponsorship can greatly distort what is, for all its flaws, an agency that does having a public regarding mission.

Posted by John Freemuth on July 1, 2005 at 05:22 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (1)