Changes in Interior Department policies endanger state forests

Nathan Hall

Minnesota’s state forests are in danger because of a proposed change in the National Forest Management Act, former Forest Service deputy director Jim Furnish said during a recent State Capitol press conference.

Furnish, a lifelong Republican, quit last fall in protest of President George W. Bush’s Interior Department policies.

Preservationist watchdogs also charge that the proposed revisions to the National Forest Management Act would turn back the clock for national woodland protection at least 20 years by effectively gutting safeguards for endangered species.

“This is a tremendous and priceless treasure, so I think every citizen should be concerned on how they are managed,” Furnish said. “Much of the balance achieved between nature and timber harvesting under (former President Bill) Clinton is being suspended and rolled back with these new revisions.”

U.S. Reps. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Martin Sabo, D-Minn., as well as former Agriculture Secretary Jim Lyons, oppose the reworded forest act, which would affect the Chippewa and Superior national forests.

Both Ramstad and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., have signed a letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth encouraging an extension of the review process before the new law takes effect.

“Coleman voted against the Arctic drilling, so it’s possible he may show some environmental backbone here too,” Furnish said.

The forest act changes come on the heels of the Bush administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative, which encourages increased logging for fire protection. Both bills would allow timber harvest to proceed without a traditionally mandatory ecological review.

“The Healthy Forest Initiative is not about protecting homes at all,” said Chris Johnson, an intern for the Montana-based nonprofit National Forest Protection Alliance. “It is really about increasing logging, and they’re doing it all under the radar, so that makes it even more of a threat.”

Another point of contention surrounding the Forest Service is the stewardship program, which now subcontracts a majority of its “thinning” work to private firms rather than doing it in-house. The corporations are paid for their services with the timber they decide needs felling.

“This notion of competitive outsourcing was an instrumental part of Al Gore’s so-called ‘re-invention of government,’ ” said Andy Stahl, executive director of the Oregon-based nonprofit Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “Under the Federal Activities Inventory Reform legislation, all government employees were classified as either commercial or governmental.”

Stahl said if an employee or service was deemed wholly commercial, typically two-thirds of the staff on that job was farmed off to the private sector.

Stahl said that could mean a federal contractor overseeing his or her own company’s timber count.

“Each agency has profit targets now,” Stahl said.

In a curious twist, Stahl’s group is organizing a bid this summer for the agency that handles all public comments concerning the Forest Service.

“Nobody else wants to do this, and I think it’d be great for those who are in favor of privatizing everything,” Stahl said.

Furnish said the stewardship plan has not been implemented long enough to accurately assess it yet. Nonetheless, the similarly managed thinning project “has shown precious little results for the billions of dollars we have squandered on what was an incredible opportunity.”

Furthermore, Furnish said, the new rules would primarily benefit large-scale timber corporations and therefore represent a conflict of interest.

“By making the environmental impact plans optional, they are taking away due process of law, and that is clearly an unwise approach to the issue,” Furnish said.

The National Forest System, which currently spans 191 million acres, includes 155 forests and accounts for 8 percent of the U.S. landmass.

Staff departures

Furnish, who now does consulting work for non-governmental organizations, is the latest in a number of environmental agency officers who have quit since the Bush administration took over.

“I generally support Bush, but his management of the environment has been severely misguided,” Furnish said. “If he honestly thinks the public wants forests managed by the timber industry, he is totally wrong.”

Staff changes are routine during a new administration, but several former Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management workers claim they left after being asked to dismantle work they spent their careers on.

Eric Schaeffer, former head of the EPA’s enforcement division, quit in March 2002 and accused the new administration of endangering public health by encouraging his officers to try a voluntary system for chronic pollution violators.

“I wouldn’t call these isolated cases at all,” said Jeff Ruch, spokesperson for the Washington-based nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “This is sending a strong message that those who disagree with us are not welcome to stay in public service.”

On Dec. 3, Yosemite National Park Superintendent David Mihalic resigned from his position, claiming he would rather quit than be reassigned after decades with the department because of policy disputes.

The current political appointee in charge of the Forest Service under-secretary position is Mark Rey, who previously worked for 18 years as a lobbyist for timber companies.

The state chapter of Washington-based nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife claims Rey has withheld key information concerning national forest regulatory activities and meetings.

Rey could not be reached for comment despite numerous phone calls and e-mails. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, chief operating officer Sally Collins and ecosystems manager Fred Norbury also did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Congress might attach a mandate for further review of the new forest act in the 2004 Interior appropriations bill, which will be decided this summer.

However, neither Congress nor anyone else except the Forest Service is allowed to vote on the rule revisions.

Nathan Hall covers the environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected]