Review of the Draft "Public Land Management Responsibility and Accountability Act"
Idaho Senator Larry Craig has issued a discussion draft of his proposed reform
of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). The entire bill, plus a
section-by-section description of it, is available on Senator Craig's website.
At 18,000 words, the bill is probably longer than NFMA itself. Very briefly,
its six major sections would do the following:
Even before seeing the bill, major environmental groups have taken the position
that no reform of NFMA should be allowed to take place while people such as
Senator Craig and Alaska Representative Don Young are in power. For this reason
you can expect to hear environmentalists suddenly endorse Forest Service
activities (subject, of course, to environmental lawsuits) and express surprise
that anyone should want to change the existing laws.
- Title I revises the forest planning process by, among other things, setting
deadlines for plans; limiting planning to two levels (forest and project, but
no region or ecoregion plans); and limits appeals and judicial review of plans
by, for example, requiring that lawsuits over plans be filed in the circuit in
which the forests are located and not in the (more environmentally sensitive)
- Title II gives the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management the authority
to review their own actions to see if they harm any threatened or endangered
species. This effectively takes from the Fish & Wildlife Service much of
its authority to protect endangered species on federal lands.
- Title III authorizes the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to
develop "ecoregion assessments" (but not plans) for the ecological resources on
- Title IV creates a "land improvement fund" out of public land receipts; creates
a "forest health credit" system similar to the purchaser road credit program
but aimed at forest health activities; and makes the Chief of the Forest
Service an appointment that must be confirmed by the Senate.
- Title V eliminates the RPA planning process and substitutes a "global renewable
resource assessment" (but not plan).
- Title VI allows any state to apply to have all of the lands in any national
forest or BLM district to be transferred to the state. Such a transfer would
require Congressional approval.
In fact, the National Forest Management Act and its parent law, the Resources
Planning Act, have completely failed to accomplish anything they set out to do.
The original goals of these laws were to improve public forest management and
reduce controversy over that management. If anything, the exact opposite has
In particular, the forest planning process is a complete failure. Ideally, as
defined in the forest planning rules and in any planning textbook, planners
practice, most national forest plans:
- Use the best available data;
- Objectively analyze that data;
- Prepare a full range of alternatives;
- Honestly estimate the outputs from those alternatives;
- Sincerely seek public opinion and involvement; and
- Base decisions on a fair analysis of all of the above.
Even if plans did not suffer all of
these defects, the fact is that the idea of preparing ten-year plans is a
fantasy. Forest planners can no more predict forest needs for the next ten
years than meteorologists can predict next year's weather. The result, as Chief
Jack Thomas admitted, is that "plans were good for only three or four years."
- Relied on obsolete or fabricated data;
- Biased the analysis of that data towards preconceived conclusions;
- Considered a stilted list of alternatives that often deliberately ignored
solutions that could increase both environmental and commodity outputs;
- Skewed the calculations of outputs from those alternatives to favor the
predetermined "preferred" alternative;
- Treated public involvement as a nuisance; and
- Based decisions on the best interests of the Forest Service rather than the
best interests of the American people.
It would be even more accurate to say that most plans were obsolete the day they were printed. Indeed, one of the reasons that Senator Craig is so concerned is that many Idaho plans were almost immediately junked when on-the-ground managers couldn't find the timber that the Forest Service computers said they had.
The Forest Service has undergone tremendous changes in the two decades since
the National Forest Management Act was passed. But virtually all of those
changes happened in spite of, not because of, the planning process. In many
cases, the planning process actually became a cause for delaying those
The factors that really influenced changes within the Forest Service included
such things as:
The one part of the
NFMA planning process that has had an effect on forests is the minimum viable
population rule. But that is contained in the planning regulations, not in the
- Installation of a Forest Service-wide computer system that allowed
employees throughout the country to communicate with one another using email;
- Changes in Forest Service personnel, including more women and more people
influenced by an "environmental ethic" inspired by the 1970 Earth Day;
- Successful environmental lawsuits reducing or shutting down timber sales on
entire ranger districts and national forests--almost always based on laws or
rules other than NFMA's planning sections;
- The Reagan administration which, in demanding that the Forest Service to
cut more timber, ended up pushing it the other way.
RPA and NFMA should be junked entirely as wasteful, cumbersome processes that
end up being obstacles to, rather than vehicles for, necessary changes in
national forest management. Genuine reforms would fix the incentives that
pervert forest management and clearly insulate forest managers from political
As dramatic as the Craig bill appears to be, it is in fact too timid when it
comes to reforming the Forest Service and NFMA.
The bill's changes to the planning process--the elimination of national,
regional, and basin plans; setting planning deadlines; limits on appeals and
lawsuits; and other changes--sound dramatic. In fact, they do nothing to fix
the real problem with planning, which is that planning doesn't work.
- Instead of getting rid of the planning process, it merely tinkers around
- Instead of improving the incentives that face national forest managers, it
adds to the misincentives by creating the forest health credits and forest
improvement fund and expanding the salvage sale fund.
- Instead of insulating forest officials from political micromanagement, the
bill would make the Forest Service more political than ever.
The first three national (RPA) plans were hotly debated both among interest
groups and in Congress. But people soon figured out that these plans had no
effect on the ground. So the last couple of RPA plans were ignored by both the
public and Congress. Craig's bill is right to repeal this part of the
When Congress passed NFMA, which created the forest planning process, it gave
the Forest Service broad discretion to determine how the plans should be
written. We now know that the forest plans were an even bigger waste of time
and money than the RPA plans. But rather than repeal forest planning, Craig's
bill attempts to "fix" it by reducing the agency's discretion in the process.
One of the big problems with planning is the difficulty of introducing new
information. One Oregon national forest started planning using obsolete timber
inventory data. Halfway through the planning process, a new inventory found
that the old data were completely wrong. Rather than start the planning process
over, the forest elected to finish using the wrong data.
Craig's bill would actually make plans even more of an obstacle to new
information or change. Section 105 forbids the Forest Service from applying any
new policies or decisions to a forest until that forest goes through a forest
plan revision. If a scientific study finds that implementing a plan is
destroying the health of a watershed or some other resource not anticipated by
planners, forest managers must continue destroying that resource until they
have revised the plan--a process that can take years.
Craig's bill supposedly minimizes such delays by imposing deadlines on all
planning activities. Plans should take no longer than 30 months to write, 24
months to revise, and 12 months to amend. As reasonable as these deadlines
seem, they are completely unenforceable. What happens when a forest fails to
meet its deadline: Will the supervisor go to jail? Will Congress cut the
forest's budget? Will someone lose their job? The answer to all three questions
Craig's bill also has provisions for of plan "balance," community stability,
ecosystem management, budgets and costs, and monitoring. All of these will
simply make the plans more vulnerable to appeals and litigation and may have
serious unintended consequences if the courts interpret any of them in ways
that Craig did not expect.
Craig would limit appeals to people who had participated in the planning
process and place deadlines (again largely unenforceable) on deciding appeals.
In contrast to these relatively minor changes in the appeals process, the bill
creates an entirely new process: citizen petitions to revise or amend plans. If
such petitions are used to their fullest by a wide range of interest groups,
they could end up costing more time and money than the appeals process.
Despite the fact that the Thoreau Institute has helped people all over the
country file successful appeals and lawsuits against forest plans, I am not
sympathetic to those who say we need to preserve existing appeal and litigation
rights. For all of the efforts of environmental groups, appeals and lawsuits
have affected relatively small number of national forests (and even fewer BLM
districts). We need an entirely new process that will improve management of all
federal lands, not just those under the thumb of a sympathetic judge.
The real problem with the Forest Service is that its budgetary process biases
it to losing money on environmentally destructive activities. The Craig bill
will only make this worse.
The "land improvement funds" allows the Forest Service and BLM to keep all
public land receipts that are in excess of the receipts projected by "the
baseline budget of the President" and to spend those receipts on facilities
maintenance, inventories, "or other land improvements." This will create or
enhance all sorts of perverse incentives:
The "forest health credits" system is expressly copied from the
purchaser road credits program. The problem with purchaser road credits is
that, since the "timber is paying for the roads," forest managers have little
incentive to keep road costs down. So they typically direct purchasers to build
excessively wide roads to very high standards, even though those roads are not
needed by recreationists, loggers, or other users.
- The "excess receipts" provisions will give managers an incentive to
underestimate receipts in advance and then to boost them after the fiscal year
- Since timber, oil & gas, and a few other minerals are the only
resources that Congress allows the agencies to sell for fair market value, they
are the main sources of public land income. So this provision gives agency
managers one more incentive to emphasize those resources above all
A forest health credits system will have the same result. Forest managers will
direct timber purchasers to do all kinds of work, some of it useful, some not,
but never with regard to the cost efficiency of the work. The Treasury will get
less money and agencies will be as or more bloated than ever before.
The bill also affirms continuation of expanded Forest Service and BLM salvage
sale funds (which partly expired with the lapse of the 1995 salvage rider).
These funds will allow managers to keep all receipts from salvage sales and
spend them on forest health activities, including more salvage sales. Again,
there is no incentive for managers to be efficient or to turn money over to the
Several provisions of the Craig bill will directly or indirectly make the
Forest Service more political, rather than less. Requiring senate confirmation
for the Chief's office is one of the more direct steps. But the increasing
micromanagement of the planning process and transfer of endangered species
authority from a relatively independent agency to the Forest Service and BLM
will both act to politicize the Forest Service.
Craig's bill offers national forests and BLM lands only one escape from
increasing political meddling, micromanagement, and red tape. That is in title
VI, which allows states to seek the transfer of national forests or BLM
districts to them. The bill specifies that:
This is an imaginative proposal that will no doubt receive the
brunt of demonization by environmental groups. And fundamentally, their
objections will be correct: There is no evidence that states, by virtue of
being states, are fundamentally better land or fiscal managers than the federal
- Governors could apply for any forests or districts;
- Congress would have two years to accept or reject applications;
- If transferred, existing leases, permits, mineral rights, wilderness areas,
and wild and scenic rivers would remain in effect;
- Otherwise, the lands would be managed under state laws, not the federal
laws applying to national forests or BLM lands;
- Transferred lands would receive transition appropriations of 75 percent of
pre-transfer budgets in the first year; 50 percent in the second; and 25
percent in the third year;
- Counties would cease to get payments in lieu of taxes or 25 percent funds
from transferred lands (although states may have similar funds under their
- Initially, states will not receive title to the lands. Instead, states will
have the lands for ten-year terms, at the end of which they can either reapply
to manage the lands another ten years or to have the titles formally
transferred. The final decision to transfer the lands (apparently) rests with
In 1995, the Thoreau Institute reviewed nearly 150 state forest, parks, and
fish & wildlife agencies to see if they were consistently better than the
Forest Service, Park Service, or other federal land agencies. While there were
exceptions, our findings were that, in general:
exceptional cases revolve mainly around the state trust lands, which are
managed by the states for the benefit of schools or other state or local
agencies. In some cases, these trust lands earn huge amounts of money for their
beneficiaries, and their management is at least as sensitive to environmental
concerns as the federal lands. Moreover, potentially at least,
environmentalists have the option of outbidding timber purchasers or other land
users for state resources--an option that does not exist on federal lands.
- State legislatures are no more likely than Congress to give state land
managers good incentives;
- In fact, like Congress, most legislatures micromanage state land agencies
and treat them as pork;
- The vast majority of state land and resource agencies lose money;
- Neither the forest, parks, or fish & wildlife agencies were found to be
consistently better land managers than their federal counterparts.
There are two problems with going from the trust lands to the idea that states
should manage national forests and BLM districts. First, most state lands
aren't trust lands, and they aren't managed any better than the federal lands.
Second, many, if not most, state trust agencies lose money or do little better
than break even and have proven resistant to environmental protection even when
environmentalists are willing to outbid other uses.
The unique feature that makes state trust lands attractive is not that they are
state lands but that they are trusts. Moreover, the best run trusts, such as
the Washington Department of Natural Resources, are run with incentives in
mind: Washington's DNR gets its funding exclusively out of a fixed share of its
So trusts and incentives, not state control, are the keys to improving federal
land management. That is why the Thoreau Institute's proposals for reforming
federal land agencies (described in more detail in Run Them Like Businesses) use those concepts but retain
federal lands in federal ownership.
Senator Craig plans to hold a series of workshops on his bill before formally
introducing it to Congress. This is an unusual step and Craig deserves credit
for seeking such participation. Despite the flaws in the bill, Craig clearly
understands that the Forest Service is broken and needs fixing. We need a solid
public debate on how to fix it, and these workshops can provide the forum for
such a debate.
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