Can 'charter forests' remake an agency?

Experimental program seeks a cure for Forest Service analysis paralysis

  • Randal O'Toole


Randal O'Toole, the senior economist at a free-market environmental think tank called the Thoreau Institute, has crusaded for years to reform the Forest Service. He's dissected and critiqued the agency's notoriously unprofitable timber sales program, and in 1988 he proposed a range of market-based changes in a book called Reforming the Forest Service.

O'Toole also helped organize the Forest Options Group, a 19-member group of representatives from the Forest Service, the timber industry, and the environmental community that in 1999 put forward five pilot projects designed to test alternative ways of running national forests. The proposals included governance and planning by collaborative stakeholder groups, the establishment of forest trusts similar to state land trusts, and an "entrepreneurial budgeting" scheme in which individual forests would fund themselves entirely from user fees. All were designed to push decision-making and budgeting away from federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and back down to the forest level.

"Basically, a lot of people think the Forest Service is broken," says O'Toole. "Centralization has hurt the Forest Service, and local managers can't make very many decisions by themselves."

The ideas proposed by the Forest Options Group and other reformers sparked discussion both inside and outside the Forest Service, but they got a cool reception from the Clinton administration. Last month, however, reform advocates got some surprising news: The Department of Agriculture's Fiscal Year 2003 budget proposal declared that, "In an attempt to streamline the decision-making process, legislation will be proposed to establish 'charter forests' ... administered outside the normal Forest Service structure."

The proposal has set off a welter of speculation that the pilot projects might finally get their day in the sun. But it has also drawn criticism from some environmentalists, who say it is a thinly disguised attempt to turn control of national forests over to local resource-extraction interests.

Streamlining or steamrolling?

Mark Rey, who as undersecretary of Agriculture oversees the Forest Service, says that the charter-forest proposal doesn't signal a sweeping reorganization of the national forest system. It is an experiment, he says, that could help the Forest Service overcome what agency chief Dale Bosworth calls "analysis paralysis." Projects ranging from timber sales to off-road vehicle plans are stymied by endless rounds of appeals and lawsuits, Bosworth argues. That, in turn, has created a culture in which managers are gun-shy and reluctant to initiate any new ideas.

"When you try to advance a new initiative nationally," Rey says, "you tend to be so risk-averse (and) get so much data and analysis up front that you often don't get to the finish line."

With charter forests, says Rey, the hope is to avoid a "barren (theoretical) debate about whether something will be better or worse than the status quo," and instead provide real opportunities for local innovation.

But the original version of the proposal - which stated that "the legislation will require expedited endangered species consultation" - caused a fierce storm among environmentalists. Although the Forest Service quickly issued a new version which deleted the offending paragraph, that did little to calm the waters.

"Every time we run with a Republican administration, we come back to this idea that these lands would be better managed for the whole U.S. by some local groups whose interest usually only seems to be the extraction of the resources and not their preservation," says Michael Francis, The Wilderness Society's national forests program manager.

Meanwhile, the timber industry, which opponents of the plan say stands to gain the most, has offered only a guarded response. "We want to empower the resource professionals on the ground," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council. "But somebody needs to be held ultimately responsible and accountable, and having a pseudo-public board just doesn't do that."

The great experiment

What, exactly, the charter forests might look like is far from clear. The proposal names the recently created Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico as an example of a similar arrangement (HCN, 12/3/01: Cooperating on the Valles Caldera). There, a presidentially appointed board of nine trustees, overseen by the secretary of Agriculture, will manage 89,000 acres of land added to the Santa Fe National Forest in 2000. The preserve has been handed a mandate to achieve financial self-sufficiency by 2015. That goal will be accomplished, at least in part, through the collection of grazing, logging and user fees.

In the case of the proposed charter forest program, says Rey, financial self-sustainability is "only one aspect to look at. It's not in any way the bottom line."

But environmentalists worry that there might be another bottom line: gutting public process.

Gary Ziehe, the executive director of the Valles Caldera Trust, says that the board of trustees must comply with environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act when it makes its decisions. But although legal challenges can be filed against the trustees' decisions, he says, "Our statute exempts us from any kind of administrative appeals process."

John Horning, director of Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, says that eliminating administrative appeals could ultimately cut out the average citizen. "Not everyone (has) the wherewithal or the financial means to hire an attorney," he says. "If this is the model, what it's saying is Ôwe want fewer challenges to controversial decisions.' "

Another issue is representation. Although the press has already equated charter forests with "locally managed forests," O'Toole takes pains to emphasize that pilot projects could include input from both local and national levels. That could mean boards of directors appointed by the secretaries of Interior or Agriculture or elected from among dues-paying "friends" of the forest; they could also include collaborative councils that advise forest supervisors on planning and budgeting, rather than calling the shots themselves.

Mark Rey says it's up to Congress to flesh out the charter-forest proposal. The idea has support from New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall, D, and Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis, R, head of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, who last November sent a letter to Chief Bosworth urging him to consider collaborative efforts as a way to improve national forest management.

"It's not something that's easy to do," says Udall, "but we need to start looking at experiments and pilots and how (to) get out of the straitjacket that we're in now."

For The Wilderness Society's Francis, the very idea of a giant management experiment on national forests is unacceptable. "These are not private lands that some economist can go out and test his theories on," he says.

But Randal O'Toole says that it will be a chance to finally try out some ideas that haven't received enough attention. "Without doing (the tests)," he says, "we'll never know."

Matt Jenkins is assistant editor for High Country News.


  • View the Forest Options Group pilot proposal online at or by calling the Thoreau Institute: 541/347-1517;
  • Contact Congressman Scott McInnis' office at 202/225-4761.
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