Impossible Dreams

By Beacon Staff

Golly gee, yet another U.S. Forest Service project has been blocked in court, this time on the Custer National Forest.

Yet again, for what seems like the millionth time, the plaintiffs were Alliance for the Wild Rockies, an Earth First! spinoff; and the Native Ecosystems Council, a one-woman show run out of a former KOA campground near Three Forks.

Yet again, I waded through another ruling by not-retired Judge Donald Molloy, 48 pages kicking the Forest Service back under their desks.

Yet again, I found myself “thanking” Congress for writing laws enabling a handful of misanthropic kooks to utterly waste the labors of hundreds of professional, professionally paid public employees.

Um, what’s it called when you do the same things over and over and expect different results? Crazy!

Utah’s government is trying something different. On March 23, Utah passed House Bill 148 into law, demanding the Feds transfer title to public lands (57 percent or 28 million acres of Utah federally “managed”) by the end of 2014. The bill had 60 co-sponsors, passing by a required two-thirds majority.

In short, Utah wants the Feds to keep the wildernesses, national parks and military bases, handing the rest to Utah to manage under Utah laws and regulations.

HB 148 also provides that if Utah later sells transferred lands to private parties, 95 percent of the sale proceeds go to the federal government, with the remaining 5 percent going to a permanent school trust.

Arizona (25 million federal acres, 48 percent of the state) passed a nearly identical bill (SB 1332) through their Senate, but it died (for now) in Arizona’s House Rules committee. The bill sponsor, Tucson Republican Al Melvin, told the Arizona Republic he spearheaded the legislation because “in the last 30 years, the radical environmental policies of these federal agencies have ground [resource] industries to a halt — right into the ground — and almost killed them.” Wow, THAT sounds familiar …

Now, it’s constitutionally impossible to force such a transfer. But – what if a bunch of states followed Utah’s lead, and Congress went along?

In attacking Melvin’s bill, Arizona Sierra Clubber Sandy Bahr rhetorically asked, “How in the world do they [states] think they could manage these federal public lands?”

Turns out the states (and tribes) already do a better job: Oregon State University forest engineering professor John Sessions has studied the comparative costs of forest management under various ownerships (federal, tribal, state, and private). Dr. Sessions found that, in post-spotted-owl Washington and Oregon, annual management budgets across ownerships were roughly comparable.

But when based on timber sold (which pays for management, imagine that), Indian forests harvested a thousand board feet for every $92 of budget. Private and state operators were in the $102-$107 range, with the Forest Service at a ridiculous $1,296. At the time (2001), wood stumpage in the region ran $150-$300 a thousand, putting USFS costs at four to eight times revenues – a loss carried by taxpayers. Other forests supported themselves.

Sessions’ pattern seems to hold for Montana, too. Both state and tribal forest management programs in Montana, operated under state or tribal laws and regulations, are fiscally self-supporting. More important, they are good, even excellent, forestry.

Compare that to “our” Flathead National Forest (FNF). I once asked then-Supervisor Cathy Barbouletos what her budget was – around $14 million. That same year, FNF offered 2.1 million board feet of timber – today worth only $200-250,000 on the stump at best. Ouch.

Even now, if FNF could sell its plan maximum (50 million feet), meeting FNF expenses with revenues is an impossible dream – a dream doomed to remain impossible as long as these lands are “managed” by federal employees under federal law applied in federal courts.

So, while Greens like Ms. Bahr are doing everything possible to portray legislation such as Utah’s as impossible, even crazy – the current federal land management regime is no less crazy.

Congress should seriously consider allowing states (and tribes) so inclined to have a go at managing these lands – if they succeed, they keep the land. If the states fail, well, I’m sure Congress will be delighted to take it all back.