Forest Planning & Transit Planning

In 1985, the Hoosier Environmental Council hired the Antiplanner to review the Hoosier National Forest plan, which called for clearcutting most of the southern Indiana federal forest. My review uncovered a document admitting that planners had fabricated data to justify money-losing timber sales. Looking at the plan that was then in effect, I discovered that the forest had attempted to meet legal requirements for public involvement by having the forest’s own soils scientist and biologist review the plan.

Wildflowers in the Hoosier National Forest. Forest Service photo.

Since this proved that the existing plan was illegal, and the proposed new plan was not credible, the Forest Service responded to my visit by shutting down the Hoosier Forest’s timber program for more than a decade. Even after that time, it cut very little timber compared to what it had been cutting before 1985.

In the course of reviewing plans for the Hoosier and some 60 other national forests, I built up a database of tens of thousands of timber sales. The data and supporting background documents proved that the Forest Service designed sales with the primary goal of maximizing its budget and minimizing returns to the Treasury.

Under the Knutson-Vandenberg (K-V) Act of 1930, as amended in 1976, national forests could keep a nearly unlimited share of timber sale revenues to reforest the land and restore damage to wildlife habitat and watersheds caused by the timber cutting. This created a perverse incentive for the Forest Service to use clearcutting, which creates the harshest environment for reforestation and does the most damage to soils and watersheds, thus allowing forest managers to keep a large share–in some cases nearly all–timber sale receipts to repair the damage. What made this especially perverse is that clearcutting was unpopular with other forest users and the Forest Service, until the 1950s, was proud to say that it mainly used other, more visually sensitive, cutting methods.

National forest timber sales declined by 85 percent between 1990 and 1995, and I flatter myself by thinking that the 1988 publication of my book, Reforming the Forest Service, which revealed all this information, was a contributing factor. I know it led many Forest Service employees to question whether they wanted to continue to respond to their incentives in the way the book described.

I thought about this when I returned to Indianapolis this week and enjoyed the chance to renew a friendship with Tim Maloney, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s policy director. I wasn’t surprised that Tim and I are on the opposite sides of Indianapolis’ transit issue, but I wonder why this is so.

Having worked myself out of a job challenging the Forest Service’s timber program, I started studying transit in 1995. I soon found that the transit industry faces the same perverse incentives as the national forest managers. Just as the K-V Act gave the Forest Service incentives to use high-cost timber cutting methods–clearcutting instead of shelterwood or selection cutting–the New Starts program that Congress created in 1991 gave transit agencies incentives to choose high-cost transit systems–namely, rails instead of buses.

Just as the Forest Service developed a detailed (but flawed) rationale for why clearcutting was better, the transit industry has developed a detailed (but flawed) rationale for why rails are better. Just as Forest Service practices were supported by timber companies dependent on taxpayer-subsidized sales, transit agency policies are supported by rail contractors and railcar manufacturers dependent on subsidized rail projects. Just as clearcutting ultimately did more harm than good to many national forests, building rail lines has done more harm than good for transit riders in many cities.

Why were environmentalists able to see through the clearcutting scam but not the rail transit scam? Did the environmental community change? Are environmentalists correct that rails really are that much superior to buses? Or is it simply that trains are pretty while clearcuts are ugly?

The most visible change in the environmental movement is that it supports big government more strongly today than it did when I was active in it. But environmentalists supported rail transit in the 1970s and 1980s, so that isn’t the reason.

Environmentalists like to say rails are more environmentally friendly than buses, but it doesn’t take much effort to show that this isn’t always true and even when it is true the benefits are small. Cars use an average of about 3,400 BTUs per passenger mile and buses use about 4,000. Portland’s commuter train uses nearly 4,500 BTUs per passenger mile, and Nashville’s uses 7,000, and their Diesel locomotives spew proportionately more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Light rail on average uses 3,500 BTUs per passenger mile, less than buses but more than cars. Many light-rail lines, including those in Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, and Pittsburgh, use 5,500 to 9,000 BTUs per passenger mile. Even the ones that save energy in day-to-day operations required decades’ worth of that savings to build the lines. Except in California, Oregon, and Washington, the electricity powering light-rail lines comes mainly from burning fossil fuels, so they are also not greenhouse friendly.

The only form of transit that is truly energy efficient is van pooling, which averages less than 1,400 BTUs per passenger mile. Van pooling, of course, is just transit with cars. Though only about 60 urban areas have van pooling programs, you don’t hear many environmental groups pushing for an expansion of van pooling.

I suspect it really comes down to aesthetics. Compare photos of a clearcut with a wilderness and most people will choose the latter (which doesn’t mean they stop using wood products). Compare photos of a traffic jam with a sleek train and most people will choose the latter (which doesn’t mean they stop driving and ride the train).

In addition to helping to reform the Forest Service in some small way, my work also helped transform the public lands portion of the 1970s and 1980s environmental movement from one focused mainly on aesthetics to one that was acutely aware of scientific concepts such as wildlife habitat relationships, silviculture, and economics. If the environmental movement has changed since then, it is that it has lost that scientific focus and gone back to relying on aesthetics. That ultimately harms both the environment and the nation as a whole.


8 thoughts on “Forest Planning & Transit Planning

  1. paul

    My experience at planning meetings is that people like trains. They like riding on them for the experience. I certainly do, even though I think them cost ineffective and generally do not support construction of new systems. It appears that there is a “myth of rail” that people want to believe and therefore an industry has developed that takes advantage of this myth. Interestingly, this is shown by the number of museums and volunteer organizations in the USA. Google “bus museums USA” come up with just three museums, Google “train museums USA” finds a listing of 296 in N. America. This may explain why trains have such an allure. My experience is that most who support trains are proud to have a rail system in their area even if they seldom if ever use it. As one person I know put it “a real city should have a train system”. I have no idea why, nor did he. Yet he was willing to pay taxes to support one, even if he hardly ever used it. He would never consider using a bus.

  2. LazyReader

    Compare clear cutting to selective harvesting, while selective harvesting is more expensive, clear cutting’s environmental consequences are more substantial.

    Clearcutting can be practiced to encourage the growth and proliferation of tree species that require high light intensity or faster growing species at the expense of native varities. Just like planting pine and eucalyptus in South America both of which produce resins that are notable fire hazards. Clearcutting in positive light has however proved to be effective in creating animal habitat and browsing areas. Typically a natural fire destroys a old section of forest, the first thing to grow back for years is grass and forbes, very desirable to herbivores. Clearcuts are used to help regenerate species that cannot compete in mature forests. A number of them—aspen, jack pine and, in areas with poor soils, oaks are important species for both game and nongame wildlife species. But there is only one species of animal that clearcuts a region like that other than humans……the Beaver. Areas that were clear cut had nearly three times the rate of soil erosion due to slides. When roads are built and factored in, the increase in slide activity appeared to be about 5 times greater. Which can also lead to an increased possibility of rapid runoff, loss of economic sustainability in that no timber products are available for a long time when the soil is gone. And increase water pollution with all the sediments that wash downstream all of which can harm hunting and fishing opportunity. It also can promote the growth of invasive weeds.

    The worlds rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years at the current rate of deforestation. Between June 2000 and June 2008 more than 150 000 square kilometers of rain forest were cleared in the Brazilian amazon. While deforestation rates have slowed since 2004, forest loss is expects to continue for the foreseeable future. Farmers slash and burn large parcels of forest every year to create grazing and crop lands, but the forests nutrient-poor soil often renders the land ill-suited for agriculture, and within a year or two, the farmers move on. Round that up to the 1-2 billion heads of cattle cows that are slaughtered to keep cheap beef on the American dinner table. I don’t wanna sound preachy. Chickens, goats and fish are far simpler to raise, I’ve given up eating beef.

  3. T. Caine

    I would say that one aspect of our current transit existence (and correct me if I’m wrong on this) that parallels the Forest Service timber model is that federal spending for transit use usually has to be for new capital projects and cannot include maintenance on existing infrastructure. The reason for this seems clear: the government wants to be associated with expansion and the creation of new facilities, which is much more glamorous than repairing signals, or bridges, or tunnels, etc. At the same time, it means that a little bit of money goes to very expensive projects (like say, Cali HSR) rather than bolstering the integrity of the systems we already have (like say, NYC subway). So instead of helping to fund proper maintenance and upgrades to keep our systems in better repair and lasting longer, we fund new work to make systems bigger and let local transit agencies run in a deficit (which more infrastructure will only expand). Craziness…

  4. msetty

    One of the big differences between rail supporters and the stance held by The Antiplanner et al is that we believe large investments are often justified where there is a potential to carry large volumes of passengers (I personally am more dubious about some streetcar lines designed mainly to focus development, particularly when ridership potential is low compared to investment costs; but that’s a tangent).

    One important point is that The Antiplanner generally opposes major capital investments in transit, whether rail or busways. But rail supporters are prone to point out that BRT/busways with high performance similar to rail cost nearly as much to install as rail transit, sans rails, signalling and electrification.

    The differences are outlined in an “on the ground” empirical analysis of the Orange Line Busway in Los Angeles, which would have cost as much or more to construct as an LRT line if provided with needed grade separations at major arterial intersections, while LRT can provide much greater capacity down to the 3-minute headways the Orange Line is currently limited to without disrupting cross traffic completely.

    Link: Of course some here think this link is from a biased source, but the arguments are based on visual evidence, not theoretical musings that The Antiplanner and many “pro bus, anti-rail” types engage in far too often.

  5. Sandy Teal

    The environmentalist attack on the “timber subsidies” (which is really a dispute over how to account for road building costs) was effective because the money went to rural areas of relatively few states, so a great majority of Congress members did not benefit from the subsidies. However, as the Antiplanner well knows, it was a faux attack because environmentalists generally favor subsidies.

    The environmentalists have joined the “liberal coalition” as one of many special interest groups that work to elect liberals, but in return the environmentalists have to support all the coalition causes even if they hurt the environment. When the coalition helped elect Obama, who promised to save the earth from global warming, the environmentalists were told they were fourth in line for goodies behind (1) stimulus, (2) healthcare, and (3) immigration. When healthcare was stalled and delayed, the global warming issue got pushed back until after the 2010 election when the liberal coalition lost the House of Representatives.

    If environmentalists truly thought global warming was a disastrous as they say, then why in the world did they sit quietly around for two years during their golden opportunity for action with a liberal House, Senate and Presidency? Because they had to hold up their responsibility to the liberal coalition rather than protect the environment.

    A powerful part of the liberal coalition is government unions, so transportation projects that add government workers is very popular within the liberal coalition, even if it has little to no environmental benefit. Like timber sales, they also sell transit as “reducing congestion” even though they really don’t want to reduce congestion.

  6. Dave Brough

    “The only form of transit that is truly energy efficient is van pooling, which averages less than 1,400 BTUs per passenger mile. Van pooling, of course, is just transit with cars. ”
    Ya, but…
    While van-pooling is efficient, it is also deadly.
    I reside in northern Utah, where recently, 9 students and their instructor were killed when their van blew a tire and it rolled. It rolled because those things are, as Ralph would say, unsafe at any speed. Had those students, instead of being in a university, been in an elementary or high school, they would have had to been transported in a mini-bus that was designed with safety in mind. Moreover, the driver would have had to have possessed a bus drivers licence, which would have meant training. But not here: van-pool drivers need only their existing drivers licence and NO training.
    The only reason these vehicles are purchased is because they’re cheap – a fraction of the cost of a conventional mini-bus. Which is why, in addition to the universities, we see church groups, boy scout troops, day care, resorts, and intercity and airport express all using these vehicles. The worst of the worst are those that use roof-mounted luggage racks, which you can surmise, increase the C of G even more.
    Jamming fifteen 250 pound humans into a vehicle with high centers of gravity and purpose-designed to overpass crash and roll-over protection is madness. Yet ‘we’ allow it.
    At the very least, transit agencies should convert to existing mini-vans that are covered by crash and roll-over regs. But they don’t and (I can attest to personally) won’t. My local transit provider, UTA, has more than 600 of the damn things, and even with the recent tragedy staring them in the face, won’t do a thing about it.
    It’s time that in addition to waging war on transit as a whole, the Antiplanner also waged war on safety – starting with the death vans. Please!

  7. redline

    You may be aware that in the case pf PMLR, currently under construction at a cost of $1.5 billion for 7.3 miles of rail, TriMet could have built dedicated busways instead of laying rail. They could have purchased 32 state-of-the-art double-decker buses with wi-fi and satellite television, set half aside for future use, hired operators and maintenance staff to run them every 15 minutes 24/7/365, made the trips free for all riders, and had enough money left over to buy every incoming high-school freshman a new tablet computer.

    And they could have done this for the next 150 years.

    Sorry, rail is inordinately expensive (and unjustifiably so, in most markets).

  8. C. P. Zilliacus

    I suspect it really comes down to aesthetics. Compare photos of a clearcut with a wilderness and most people will choose the latter (which doesn’t mean they stop using wood products). Compare photos of a traffic jam with a sleek train and most people will choose the latter (which doesn’t mean they stop driving and ride the train).

    The above is absolutely correct.

    Case in point is this poster which was circulated in advance of a regional vote on issuing bonds to build the Washington Metrorail system (the only time a regionwide vote has ever been held on anything involving Metro).

    The implied sales pitch to people who preferred to drive their cars was that other people would be forced onto the shiny new trains.

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