Members Go Out on a Limb Over National Forests
By Charles Pope, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, April 18) -- The laborious oversight hearing into the U.S. Forest
Service's management practices was well under way March 26 when Rep. Sam Farr,
D-Calif., crystallized Congress' difficult relationship with trees. Gazing
across the crowded hearing room, Farr proclaimed, "There is 100 percent
agreement in this room that we all love forests."
"The difficulty is that 50 percent of them love it vertical, and 50 percent
of them love [forests] horizontal."
Overly broad though it may be, Farr's assessment is accurate enough to
explain why trees and forests have historically generated sharp divisions in
Congress. Poets may wax lovingly about trees, and children will spend hours
climbing them, but in Congress, forests have proved to be anything but
"Each side assumes the other side has the worst motives," said Michael A.
Francis, a Wilderness Society lobbyist who has been fighting forest battles for
Or, as the Forest Service's Richard A. Prausa, acting deputy director of
Forest Management, said: "Since the creation of the Forest Service [in 1905],
great debates have been going on about how to use these lands. . . . The same
debate seems to resurface through the years."
This year is no different. Of 32 bills that have been introduced in the 105th
Congress dealing entirely or partly with forests and forest health, only one
(HR2870) has shown promise of becoming law. HR2870 passed the House March 19
with the administration's support and is now awaiting action by the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee. That bill addressed tropical rain forests in
The only other forest bill to come to the floor was quickly reduced to wood
chips by the House. HR2515 was designed to enhance forest health by allowing
excess underbrush and decaying trees to be removed from national forests. It was
defeated 181-201 on March 27 despite months of painstaking work by its sponsor,
Bob Smith, R-Ore., to find a middle ground between conservationists and those
who are sympathetic to logging interests.
"Will this legislation answer all the questions? Of course not," Smith said
on the floor March 27. "This is a moderate, meager, bipartisan effort to answer
some of the problems and [address] some of the forests that are in the worst
condition in this nation."
Smith's effort failed, however, in the face of Republican criticism that it
would inhibit the harvesting of timber and Democratic arguments that it would
allow trees to be taken without restraint.
Year after year, with a regularity as reliable as spring blossoms, battles
rage in Congress over forest policy.
More often than not, the hottest debates revolve around such issues as:
Should logging companies get subsidies for building roads? Should the Forest
Service start fires to thin forests and keep them healthy? How much timber
should be harvested?
No matter the question, lurking near the surface is the memory of the timber
salvage rider in 1995. That measure, which was a prime force behind the
government shutdown that year, remains a powerful symbol even today.
Indeed, it was raised several times during debate on Smith's bill. The rider
would have allowed the accelerated harvest and sale of timber from the Pacific
Northwest. It was vetoed by President Clinton. (1995 Almanac, p. 11-48)
The philosophy behind Smith's bill, said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "is the
same rationale used in the 'Salvage Logging Rider,' which had devastating
effects on forests in the name of 'forest health.' It was a mistake then. It is
a mistake now."
Conservation vs. Jobs
Inevitably, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the forestry debate in
Washington divides into "two warring camps," with one side accusing the other of
pillaging the land in the name of jobs and the other deriding "environmental
extremists" who want to prevent even one human footprint from being left in the
"And the single hardest thing," Wyden said, "is to get people beyond those
Wyden is hopeful that Washington will take some cues from experiences in
state and local governments where opponents have reached agreement on a range of
environmental issues. In Oregon, for example, the Democratic governor and the
Republican-led legislature forged a broad agreement to protect coho salmon.
Wyden would like to see similar progress in Washington, but he is aware of
how slowly positions and habits change.
"Everybody comes to a hearing, and they could be giving the same position
paper from 10 years ago. All they need to do is change the dates," Wyden said.
"If you look at the tapestry of environmental legislation today . . . both sides
have the capacity to block each other."
In many cases, the Forest Service itself is a major obstacle. The agency,
with its 28,000 employees and $3.3 billion budget in fiscal 1998, spawns
strong and divergent opinions on the way it manages 191 million acres of
national forest, the way it looks after its money and the priorities it
An increasing number of Americans have some experience with National Forests.
The 155 national forests attract twice as many visitors as the more recognizable
national parks. Visitors may travel on some of the 373,000 miles of road within
forest boundaries, eight times as many miles as the federal interstate
Balancing the recreational, conservation and economic values has confounded
Congress since forests were first set aside in the 19th century.
"The American public is somewhat ambivalent about what they expect out of the
national forest," Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, said at the March 26 joint hearing
before the Budget and Resources committees and the Interior Appropriations
"They obviously like to have wood fiber at a reasonable rate to build their
homes, to achieve their dreams in terms of housing. But they also like the
multiple use of the Forest Service."
Even lawmakers who have little interest in trees can be drawn into the fray
over the way the Forest Service manages money. The latest installment in that
long-running serial was a General Accounting Office report which found that the
Forest Service "could not identify how it spent $215 million" of its fiscal
This year, the Forest Service has a budget of $3.26 billion, with
$1.3 billion used for the "national forest system," $583 million for
"wildland fire management," and $187 million for forest and rangeland
research. President Clinton has requested $3.3 billion for fiscal year
"We often find ourselves caught in the midst of social changes, shifting
priorities and political crosscurrents," Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck told
lawmakers during the hearing.
"There are interest groups in all areas and in all states, everybody from
those who think it is a sin to cut a tree to those who want to cut them all. And
we deal with the whole spectrum of those interests," Dombeck said.
That diversity of opinion is at work in Congress as well. The reasons go
beyond strict economic or political interest. Nearly everyone has an opinion
about and affinity for trees, which greatly complicates the picture on Capitol
"If you took a poll, most people would be in favor of preserving national
forests. They see it as a national heritage," said Gary Poliakoff, a South
Carolina attorney who has successfully challenged Forest Service decisions.
That is the common view in the East. In the West, where national forests are
more numerous, and the economic stakes are larger, there is a different
Timber is big business in the West, and the national forests are an important
source of trees. In Washington, the forest industry is an influential presence,
donating generously to sympathetic candidates. In the 1996 election, for
example, the forest and forest products industry gave $3.6 million to
candidates, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics, a
nonpartisan group that monitors campaign finance.
The industry has four strong advocates in influential positions. In the
House, Don Young, R-Alaska, is chairman of the Resources Committee, whose
Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health is chaired by Helen Chenoweth,
R-Idaho. In the Senate, Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, is chairman of the Energy
and Natural Resources Committee, whose Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land
Management is chaired by Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho.
Those four and other lawmakers who represent timber-intensive districts such
as those in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho and Alaska, are irritated by the fact
that timber harvests from national forests have declined in recent years.
That is where the real battle is fought.
"They still view forestry in 19th century terms, as an economic engine that
gets people jobs in rural communities," Francis said.
But Craig said, "Our forests have helped educate our children, receipts from
the sale of fiber and forage have been a vital component of county school and
road budgets. In a very real sense, the bounty of our forests has allowed us to
give a hand to our most needy rural children."
Chenoweth is also worried that forest policy is tilting too far toward
conservation, jeopardizing local economies like those in Idaho that depend on
"It baffles me," said Chenoweth, "why it is so trendy to oppose cutting
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