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Know the West

The wisdom of the ground troops


The U.S. Forest Service has come a long way. No longer does the agency view the 190 million acres of national forests it oversees simply in terms of board-feet and dollars, as it did even as recently as 15 years ago. These days, most of its scientists and managers understand that forests are complex living systems that can be easily damaged. Instead of being the primary driver of all management activities, logging has evolved into just another tool — like fire and erosion control — to be employed in maintaining healthy forests.

This new, wiser Forest Service was on full display in the months following the humongous 2002 Biscuit Fire in southern Oregon, as veteran Northwest journalist Kathie Durbin points out in this issue’s cover story. The agency quickly put together a balanced plan that would have left much of the charred forest untouched to recover on its own, while testing the ability of careful chain-sawing in a few uncontroversial areas to speed the restoration of forests.

The plan didn’t please everyone, but most of the timber industry and many environmental organizations were willing to live with it. Unfortunately, the higher-ups in the Bush administration who oversee the Forest Service were not. They wrenched the plan’s focus toward massive logging in sensitive habitat, and turned what could have been the nation’s most progressive post-fire management efforts into a contentious mess.

Why did the administration ignore the wisdom of its on-the-ground agency personnel? We may never get a straight answer, but one disturbing possibility can be discerned from a comment made a couple of years ago by Mark Rey, the current Agriculture undersecretary in charge of the Forest Service. According to the Seattle Times, he told a ballroom full of Forest Service employees, with whom he’d battled for two decades as a timber lobbyist and Senate staffer: "Perhaps you have heard the old Sicilian phrase, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try to avoid it, this is part of my personal genome. I humbly request that you try to avoid encouraging that shortcoming."

I’m not sure if the dedicated federal foresters trying to carve a middle path in Oregon did anything to encourage Rey’s predilection toward revenge. Or even if he is really hard-wired that way. Part of me wants to just chuckle at his comment, as perhaps the Forest Service employees did that evening.

Regardless of Rey’s motivation, one would hope that he and the others who oversee the Forest Service are also hard-wired with the capacity to learn from mistakes. The next time they are presented with an opportunity to meddle with a carefully thought-out plan, they should remember the Biscuit fiasco, and defer to those who know the ground.