Senator Dashle, thank you for inviting me to be here on this panel. Let me start by saying that I welcome this initiative to sit down together and try to reach agreement based on what we have in common. I think we ought to be doing more of this kind of thing all across the country.
A few days ago, I was at Grey Towers, the home of Gifford Pinchot, who founded the Forest Service almost a century ago. It gave me the chance to reflect a little on sustainable forestry.
Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt sought to establish the national forests as a model of sustainable forestry for the nation. To them, sustainability meant things like grazing and timber cropping on a sustained-yield basis. Over the years, it has evolved to mean more. Sustainability has come to mean sustaining ecosystem health as well as multiple products and uses. Our central mission in managing the national forests and grasslands has shifted from producing timber, range, and other outputs to restoring and maintaining healthy, resilient ecosystems.
Today, the American people own about 192 million acres of national forests and grasslands. Are these lands a model of healthy, resilient ecosystems? Sadly, many are not. About 73 million acres are at risk from fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity. Another 33 million acres are at risk from insects and disease, often due to invasive species. A number of riparian areas and rangelands are degraded, and there are other forest health problems as well. Human activity or neglect created many of these problems; they won’t go away on their own.
We know how to restore our ecosystems to health. For example, we can use a combination of thinning and prescribed burning to create healthy forest stands with diverse habitats. Too often, though, we spend so much time just trying to comply with laws, regulations, and procedures that we can’t do the necessary work on the ground. This problem is sometimes called “analysis paralysis.” The environmental laws and regulations we must follow have admirable objectives that I fully support; but the processes we must go through have become so complex and cumbersome that often we can’t do what is needed for the health of the land.
Let me give you an example. In Utah, there are Mormon cricket outbreaks on the Uinta National Forest. They move down onto private farmland and devastate crops. USDA has been treating the crickets with a pesticide certified by EPA as safe. It’s sold commercially under the brand name Sevin. We had a cricket outbreak in February, and we had until April to apply the pesticide. But we couldn’t, because we were first required to complete a new environmental assessment. By the time we were through with the EA, the damage was done.
Here’s a different kind of example. It has taken more than 10 years to complete a 15-year forest plan on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Meanwhile, in cases like this, the landscape might have changed. Different factors might come in, players can change. Suddenly, the assumptions we made early on are no longer valid. Appeals are made, and back we go to the drawing board. The forest planning process can become a perpetual nightmare.
Is that the way it was supposed to work? No way. When the National Forest Management Act was passed in 1976, Senator Hubert Humphrey proclaimed something to the effect that we have now taken national forest management out of the courts and given it back to the professionals. Instead, the opposite has happened. Now, judges are sitting in courtrooms and making resource management decisions based on points of law, not on conditions out in the field.
Alternative Pilot Projects
Don’t get me wrong: We can and must meet the requirements of our environmental laws. Besides, I think it’s good that the American people value the environment and have gotten more directly engaged in the stewardship of the lands that belong to them. I think that’s part of what democracy means. I just think we need to start thinking about other ways of working together. Do we really want the conflict industry telling us what we can do? Do we really want never-ending processes to keep us from doing what’s right for the land?
I have put together a high-level team in the Forest Service to explore some alternatives. We’re looking at ways to streamline processes and maybe propose some pilot testing for alternative approaches. For example, we’ll look at the July 2001 study on NEPA pilot project initiatives requested by Senators Baucus, Crapo, Reid, and Thomas. We already have some promising pilots out there, such as large-scale watershed projects, stewardship contracts, and “Service First” working agreements with BLM. Maybe you folks can offer some other ideas.
Whatever we do, I think we need to go back to the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, to the intent of the environmental legislation. The intent, in my view, was to produce a result most people want: healthy ecosystems on public lands with plenty of public input. Five years ago, at the Seventh American Forest Conference, more than a thousand people came together. They were able to agree, often by large majorities, on 12 out of 13 visions for the future of America’s forests. I think that gives us hope that we can work together in the future based on a common vision.
What should that vision be? As a basis for what unites us, I would offer this: What we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. Let’s work together for the health of the land through results-oriented, citizen-based land management. That’s what I think people want. We are currently bound by a straitjacket of conflicting processes and procedures. Meanwhile, in some ways, our forests continue to decline. We need to find some other way.
In the past, when America has put its mind to something and simply told its public servants, “Go to it! You figure it out,” we’ve always had great success: the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Manhattan Project, and the moon landing all come to mind. Isn’t it time we did the same thing for healthy ecosystems on our public lands? If we can work together based on what unites us, I think we can get there. I hope we can make a start right here in the Black Hills.