Administration Proposes "Charter Forests"<

The Bush Administration's 2003 USDA budget, released February 4, includes a provision for a "pilot charter forest legislative proposal that establishes forests or portions of forests as separate entities, outside of the existing structure and reporting to a local trust entity for oversight."

Administration sources say that they haven't actually written such a proposal yet. Instead, they wanted to open the door to the many different proposals that have been made to test various ideas as pilot forests. Such proposals have come from the Lubrecht Group in Missoula, Montana; the Idaho Federal Lands Task Force; and the Forest Options Group.

Most of the proposals are based on one or more of three basic ideas:

These ideas are not mutually exclusive and could be tested individually or in combination. The Forest Options Group, for example, proposed five different experiments, including two collaborative groups, one trust, and four different financial arrangements either singly or in combination with one of the other tests.

Sally Fairfax and I developed an elaborate proposal in response to a request for proposals from the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE). Though this proposal applied to a national monument, not a national forest, its combination of a trust, a board of directors partly appointed and partly elected by a friends group that anyone can join, and innovative funding structure could easily be applied to a national forest or any federal land unit.

Some administration critics have vowed to oppose the charter forest proposal. American Lands calls the proposal "dangerous" even though they admit they don't know much about it. Chris Wood, currently with Trout Unlimited but formerly assistant to Chief Mike Dombeck, worries that the proposal will fail to maintain a balance between local needs and national interests.

All of the proposals for tests -- collaboration, trusts, and new funding sources -- aim to decentralize the agency by moving authority from Washington, DC, to local forests. But this doesn't mean that any of the proposals would necessarily exclude national interests. A collaborative group could include representatives of national groups. A trust could have national values in its goal and national representatives on its board of trustees. A forest funded out of its receipts would respond to the combination of local and national users of the forest.

Decentralization doesn't mean excluding national interests. It means replacing one-size-fits-all decisions made in Washington, DC, with decisions tailored to the needs of each individual forest.

Collaborative groups may be the most popular idea with many members of Congress because they promise an end to controversies. Collaboration will play an important role in whatever solution is eventually found for the National Forest System as a whole. But by themselves, collaborative groups will not solve the problems.

First, the existing system places enormous pressure on everyone not to collaborate. Unless incentives are changed, spotted owls will nest in downtown Washington, DC, before forest managers, forest users, and environmentalists suddenly work in unison counter to their own interests on every national forest.

Second, even if a collaborative group successfully agrees on how to run a particular national forest, that group will face the same incentives to overuse some resources and ignore others that now face forest managers. Just as Forest Service wildlife biologists sometimes supported habitat-destroying timber sales to get Knutson-Vandenberg funding for wildlife, any collaborative group in charge of a forest will respond to whatever appropriations and fee-based incentives now exist on that forest.

The proposal to fund a national forest out of its own fees is even more controversial than collaboration. Many environmentalists view markets as enemies of the resources they care about. Yet the best way to protect a resource is to create a market for that resource. Markets for recreation, water, and some species of fish and wildlife could go far towards improving the incentives for forest managers. Funding out of net receipts will take away the current incentives to lose money on timber and other commodities.

The forest trust is the least-understood proposal, mainly because the word trust is frequently applied to institutions that are not true fiduciary trusts. Forest managers sometimes refer to the "Knutson-Vandenberg trust fund," but it is not a true trust. The Baca Trust, created by Congress last year, is an innovative idea, but as far as I can tell it is not a true fiduciary trust.

Calling something a trust doesn't make it a fiduciary trust, and conversely something doesn't have to be called a trust to be one. The distinctive elements of a trust are:

The trust document ought to also state:

It is my hope that Congress will include in the budget language that allows the Forest Service to try all of these ideas. Ideally, the language should make it clear that the Forest Service must try all of the ideas and can't just go with the ones that it thinks will increase its budget.

For discussion purposes only, I have drafted some language that authorizes a wide range of experiments. Because it focuses on the trust idea, it is still incomplete but it could become a part of a larger proposal. I can send this to anyone who would like to review it.

Everyone agrees that charter forests will go nowhere without bipartisan support. So far several key Democrats have offered such support. People who want to support the idea of charter forests in any form should contact members of their Congressional delegations, especially Democrats, and suggest that they ask the chairs of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and House Natural Resources committees to hold hearings on the idea.

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