Our National Forests weren't designed just for timber
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For decades, our nation's efforts to conserve resources and protect the environment have been challenged by the utilitarian argument that the best action is that which maximizes usefulness or benefit. "The greatest good for the greatest number," a slogan popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt, seems straightforward enough, but some utilitarian-framed challenges to conservation defy even that basic idea. Such is the case with two bills passed by House committees that will shift the management of millions of acres of federal public lands to state and local control. Passed by the Natural Resources Committee, the bills now could go to the House of Representatives for a full vote. 

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The two bills in question are H.R. 3650, the State National Forest Management Act, sponsored by Rep. Don YoungDon YoungHouse Republican causes stir claiming female lawmaker 'doesn’t know a damn thing' Alaska lobbies for defense boost after North Korea launch Puerto Rico statehood bid a total failure MORE (R-Alaska), and H.R. 2316, the Self-Sufficient Community Land Act proposed by Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho).

The first bill directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), through the Forest Service (USFS), to shift up to 2 million acres of eligible National Forest land to state management with the additional provision in Section 5 that "land selected by states should be managed for timber production." The second directs the USDA to establish "community forest demonstration areas" in states that each consist of at least 200,000 acres of National Forest land, if requested by an advisory committee appointed by the governor.

Supporters of the bills cite loss of jobs from declining timber harvest and growing risk of wildfire as two key reasons that state and local groups should take control of large portions of our National Forests. When testifying at a subcommittee meeting earlier this year, Gordon Cruickshank, a county commissioner from Idaho, said:

"When the National Forests were created over 100 years ago, the federal government sold the idea of public ownership of forest lands by promising a steady supply of natural resources produced from the forests, especially timber. Today, I am here to say that the current federal forest management practices are not fulfilling that promise."

Were our National Forests really conceptualized around a promise of resource extraction? The National Forest System was created in 1891 with the Land Revision and Forest Reserve Acts, which were motivated in part to reduce extraction rights of private owners, especially land speculators. Neither act explicitly authorized the use or development of resources on reserved lands.

In fact, the Weeks Act of 1911 allowed the federal government to purchase private land specifically to protect headwaters of rivers and streams in the Eastern U.S. Today, the 193 million acres of USFS land distributed among 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands — which collectively represent only 8 percent of U.S. lands — serve the agency's mission "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations."

That perspective harkens back to the first chief of the USFS and proponent of the wise use of resources, Gifford Pinchot, who cautioned that, "Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run." In his 1916 book "A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open," Theodore Roosevelt echoed this sentiment and made explicit that the greatest number includes unborn generations:

Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the 'the game belongs to the people.' So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.

The concept of the greatest good is at the core of the USFS and reflected in one of its guiding pieces of legislation, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960. All land in the National Forest System must be managed for multiple use and sustained yield of products and services and, therefore, are managed for timber harvesting, livestock grazing, watershed protection, fish and wildlife, and recreation — among other things.

The two proposed bills run counter to the multiple use philosophy by elevating one use — resource extraction, especially timber production — above others. By doing so, the bills restrict who stand to benefit from federal lands, including local communities.

For example, a recent report showed that recreation activities on national forests and grasslands sustained 223,000 jobs in rural areas and contributed $14.5 billion to the U.S. economy, $13 billion of which directly benefited communities within 50 miles of federal land. The report emphasized the importance of recreation in the creation of "rural wealth," which experts say is best supported by creating and maintaining a broad portfolio of income opportunities rather than focusing narrowly on one sector.

As Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE explained, "Outdoor recreation is a crucial part of USDA's effort to help generate wealth and economic opportunities in rural America." Even hunters, anglers and other sportspeople — groups often allied with conservatives — have voiced strong opposition. President Whit Fosbergh of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of fishing and hunting groups, called it the "most overt discussion of seizing or selling off public lands to take place on Capitol Hill."

The two proposed bills are predicated on the tacit presumption that local communities have insufficient opportunities to provide input or derive benefit from the management of national forests. Yet, paradoxically, the bills will reduce opportunity for public input. The bills place management authority of millions of acres of land into the hands of governor-appointed individuals and special interest groups, rather than natural resource professionals.

Moreover, the bills contain provisions that circumvent existing federal protection laws by exempting management of lands from being considered a "federal action." If state and private forestry regulations are substituted for existing federal environmental protection laws, the American public will lose the right to participate in decision-making as provided by the National Environmental Policy Act. The ability of other cornerstone laws, like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, to protect local communities also would be compromised. Thus, the very same communities that the bills' proponents claim to empower would surely bear the brunt of the health and environmental consequences of poorly managed, degraded or contaminated land.

Although the USFS is sometimes challenged by limited capacity, the agency has launched innovative and successful partnerships that provide multiyear awards to groups, often state and local entities, to do stewardship work on hundreds of thousands of acres — something that also provides steady work and income opportunities to local communities. In its first five years, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) program worked with partners to reduce fire risk on 1.45 million acres, improve wildlife habitat on more than 1.3 million acres, and sell over 1.2 million board feet of timber that resulted in $661 million in local labor income and over 4,300 jobs per year.

The recent farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, also permanently authorized the agency to contract stewardship of federal lands on projects related to fire management, roads and trails, soil productivity, habitat management, watershed restoration, and control of invasive plants.

Conservationists, recreationists and proponents of responsible use should be able to unite in opposition to H.R. 3650 and 2316 because the answer seems clear. If we want to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, we will safeguard federal public lands and invest in, instead of strip, the ability of the USFS to effectively steward our nation's resources for current and future generations.

Rodewald is director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.