As an impressionable teenager who had fallen in love with the wild landscapes of the American West, I was shocked to discover that the vast public lands were not all that wild, nor even fully public. That was particularly true of the deserts, grasslands and forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Ranchers grazed their herds on virtually every grassy acre, loggers cut miles of forests with the aid of taxpayer-funded roads, and oil and gas companies "owned” leases and could not be denied the right to drill.

My shock wore off as I became more familiar with the West's land-grabbing history, and it disappeared entirely once I learned how bureaucracies work. Lesson one is that public agencies are invariably "captured” to some degree by the interests they serve. After World War II, when American growth and consumerism hit their stride, "agency capture” meant that ranchers, loggers, miners and drillers called the shots in the West. The regulators assisted the regulated in profiting from the public domain, even as the regulated gave the regulators a clear reason for existing. The partners twirled in a perfect waltz, and damaged ecosystems were just the price of admission to the dance.

Eventually, however, the environmental movement cut in. Congress passed laws to protect land, water, air and wildlife, and the agencies slowly moved in a new direction. As HCN Senior Editor Ray Ring points out in this issue's cover story, environmentalists pummeled the Forest Service so successfully, hamstringing it with lawsuits and appeals, that they effectively killed off the logging industry in parts of the West.

Today, the environmental community may seem like the most powerful constituency that the Forest Service serves. But environmentalists have never had the muscle to dominate national forest management the way the timber industry did. And other interests have entered the equation, most notably off-road vehicle users. The result is that an agency that once proudly carried out a clear-cut mission, in both senses of the word -- producing timber for a growing nation -- is now suffering from an identity crisis. Though it's aware that it has to restore large portions of national forests riddled by logging roads and crowded with stands of unhealthy, densely packed trees, it doesn't seem to have a clear idea of how to get the work done.

A growing number of environmentalists are beginning to understand that it's time to change partners in the dance -- maybe even try a new tune altogether. In Montana, they are trying to create a partnership with local loggers, one that would give the loggers more access to small-diameter trees while asking them to perform restoration tasks, such as replacing clogged culverts. In return, environmentalists would get several new wilderness areas.

This is a new era of forest management, with ecology taking the place of the old-fashioned timber economy. Montana's Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership offers a dynamic new role for an environmental movement that historically has been much better at defense than at offense. But don't count on it being adopted quickly; both off-road vehicle groups and hard-line environmentalists are fighting the proposal, which needs congressional approval. And the Forest Service itself is only lukewarm on the idea, although the agency has embraced a similar effort in Arizona. It is too attached to its own long-winded, more traditional forest plan, which calls for less wilderness and less logging and is guaranteed to make everybody unhappy. 

That's the thing about bureaucracies: They hate to give up power or change, even when it's for their own good -- not to mention ours.