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Know the West

Charter forests and the Valles Caldera don't mix

  Dear HCN,

While there's no question that U.S. Forest Service management and decision making could use some progressive reform, the Bush administration's proposal to establish "charter forests" takes it in the wrong direction (HCN, 3/18/02: Can 'charter forests' remake an agency?). Putting the future of our public national forests in the hands of any narrow collection of interests opens the door for all manner of mischief.

Fragmenting forest management and forest ecosystems, smoothing the way for corporate abuse or reducing environmental safeguards will serve very few of us. Citizen advisory councils and collaborative planning are potentially good ideas, as is a streamlined (if sound and accountable) decision-making process, but do we want to just hand over management authority to anyone who asks?

Here's one example of local management gone askew: County commissioners in northwest Colorado have proposed a Working Landscape Trust to manage all federal lands in Moffat County. Their proposal explicitly states that they do not support any wilderness protection for public lands in their domain. People are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn't mean an agenda-driven group like this is entitled to manage anything on behalf of the American public.

Trying to bring substance to its ambiguous charter forest proposal, the administration makes a direct reference to the Valles Caldera National Preserve on the Santa Fe National Forest. The new preserve is a "model," according to the proposal (and according to HCN's caption under a photo of the preserve), but the administration is way off the mark.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve came into the federal estate under unique circumstances. The former "Baca Ranch" had been a private working ranch for generations. After years of negotiations with the willing sellers, the ranch was purchased using federal Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars because of the significant cultural and natural values it could provide to the American public. The nine-member Trust does operate outside of the normal Forest Service structure, but clearly within all the requirements of federal law. The Trust is a wholly owned government corporation, whose members are appointed by the president, not a special-interest group who petitioned the government for a piece of land.

This preserve is truly an experiment on a grand scale, but we won't see the results on the land for years or even decades. We hope it eventually proves to be a model of progressive, holistic, science-based public-lands management, which is a lot more than we'd see from a "charter forests" model.

Sara Scott
Denver, Colorado

The writer is the New Mexico program director for The Wilderness Society.