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President George H. W. Bush: A Forest Service retrospective

December 4, 2018 at 11:30am

President George H.W. Bush in 1992, announcing the Presidential Proclamation to preserve, protect, and restore Giant Sequoia Groves within the Sequoia National Forest. The President traveled to the Forest for this historic event to sign this agreement to secure the future of the magnificent Sequoia Trees. USDA Forest Service photo by Heidi Hosler.

When George Herbert Walker Bush took office in 1988, he did so at a time of national environmental and forest management concern. Forest management exploded on the national consciousness in the summer of 1988 when the Yellowstone Fires raged for months across federal, state and private forestlands. The Northern Spotted owl controversy had embroiled the Forest Service and federal timber management in the Pacific Northwest for years and litigation was sending the issue to federal court. Amidst these controversies, President Bush ran on a promise to be an “environmental” president. In retrospect, he largely achieved that goal.

President Bush strove throughout his presidency for a balanced approach to economic development and environmental protection of public lands. He appointed respected environmentalists William Reilly and Michael Deland to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council for Environmental Quality, and also appointed industry veterans such as James E. Cason as assistant secretary of agriculture.

Timber management as a political issue reached the White House in 1988. A federal judge adjudicating litigation over the fate of the Northern Spotted owl, soon impacted federal forest management, particularly timber harvesting. In March 1989, a judge temporarily enjoined over 140 timber sales on national forests in the Pacific Northwest while hearing the case. This put the Forest Service timber program on a temporary hold and eventually permanently reduced the agency’s timber harvest levels.

President Bush was scheduled to attend and deliver an address at the United Nation’s Rio Earth Summit in July 1992. The President planned to encourage developing nations to curb harmful clearcutting practices on virgin forestlands and did not want to appear hypocritical when clearcutting on federal lands were nearing their peak. At the direction of the President, on June 4, 1992 Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson announced the agency was committing itself to ecosystem management. The new initiative was titled “New Perspective for Managing the National Forest System” or New Perspectives for short. The initiative promised to change management to be more responsive to public wishes and the ecological integrity of the forest. It also promised to end clearcutting as standard practice in the agency. Due to the time constraints with the upcoming summit, President Bush ordered Chief Robertson to make the announcement outside of the normal chain of command prior to notifying the Secretary of Agriculture.

New Perspectives represented a major policy shift for management of the over 193 million acres of national forests. The initiative ended clearcutting as a standard management practice on the national forests and re-prioritized Forest Service management away from resources use toward resource health. New Perspectives did not create pre-determined priorities, instead it promoted a management approach that would allow ecological concerns to be taken into account. This was a sea-change in agency policy direction and focus and would not have occurred without President Bush’s bold leadership. Without President Bush’s leadership in shifting forest management priorities during his time in office, the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture would not be able to deliver benefits to the public and sustain our nation’s resources the same way as we do today.

Retrospective by Lincoln Bramwell, PhD, Chief Historian for the USDA Forest Service

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