A Burning Issue

A Case for Abolishing The U.S. Forest Service




This book argues that the U.S. Forest Service has outlived its usefulness.  It should be abolished.  Founded in 1905, the agency no longer serves its original purposes.  For many years it has struggled to find a new suitable mission without success.  Like many old agencies, in the end the real mission becomes simply the perpetuation of its own existence.


The Forest Service has experienced decision making gridlock throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  This has been documented in numerous GAO studies and other outside reports.  Its land use planning system has been revised many times since the 1970s and has received hundreds of millions of dollars.  Yet, Forest Service planning is still unable to serve as a guide for future decision making.  The current state of the Forest Service serves best those people who believe that “no-management” is the best form of management. 


Unfortunately, that is likely to prove a disastrous recipe for the national forests in the twenty first century.  It also leaves an agency  with more than 35,000 employees and a resource management budget of more than $2 billion per year with little constructive to do.  Instead, many of these employees today justify their existence by complying with procedural requirements and other paperwork.


The book uses the policy failures of the Forest Service in managing and controlling forest fire as the leading case study for its broader themes.  The recent fires at Los Alamos burned mostly on national forest land – although the fire started on Bandelier National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service.  The book was of course written before the specific events of Los Alamos.  However, as A Burning Issue describes, there are many other cities in the western United States that face a similar fire hazard.  Unless improved federal government policies are adopted, it is only a matter of time until these cities will also be confronted with their own menacing fire conflagrations.


For many years the Forest Service led the effort to put out all forest fires.  Smokey the Bear was the publicity arm of this campaign.  It turns out that, like many Forest Service actions over the years, suppressing fires was a great mistake.  Suppressing fire did not eliminate the fire hazard but pushed it into the future.  As wood continued to build up on western forests, not only did the fire risk grow but the character of forest fire was changed.  The new fires are larger, more dangerous to lives and property, and more environmentally harmful.  For the past decade numerous forestry experts and official study groups have been warning that remedial actions are urgently needed to reduce the future risk of forest fire.


As analyzed in A Burning Issue, there are two options for removing the “excess fuels” that have now accumulated on western forests.  They can be removed by controlled burning or by direct mechanical means.  However, controlled burns are risky, cause air pollution, cost a large amount of money and for other reasons will be infeasible in many areas of the national forests.


The Forest Service has also been reluctant to employ mechanical means of removing the excess fuels.  It would make sense to sell any of the wood removed for whatever money it will bring.  However, that would then amount to a “timber harvest,” and the agency has virtually declared war on timber harvesting during the decade of the 1990s.  The level of timber harvested on the national forests has fallen from 12 billion board feet per year in 1989 to less than 4 billion board feet today.  Many environmental groups would like to reduce the level of harvest still further.  Indeed, some of them such as the Sierra Club officially support a complete ban on timber harvesting in the national forests.


A Burning Issue describes how the Forest Service and its political leadership have been sensitive to these environmental group pressures.  Even when the agency might not fully agree, the land use planning, environmental study and other procedural requirements have created so many hurdles that it is often easy to hold up any Forest Service action.  One result of the management gridlock has been that the level of thinning and other mechanical removal of excess fuels has been far below what is needed to reduce forest fire hazards in the West.


The stage for the Los Alamos fires – and for other similar fires in other places and times in the West – has thus been set by national policy failure.  The de facto policy of the Forest Service — another outcome of do-nothing management – has been to let the West burn.  Forest fire is only the most important area of policy and management gridlock of the Forest Service.


Such policy failures affect a vast amount of land.  The national forests contain 192 million acres, almost 10 percent of the land area of the United States.   They represent 40 percent of the land area of Idaho and a significant proportion of many other western states.   Ski resorts, recreation cabins, interstate highways, and many other forms of development have historically been built on the national forests.  They never were conceived to be another national park system.  Yet, that is the direction of current events.  By the calculations of the Forest Service’s own economists, the total economic value of the outputs of the national forests in all their forms – including various kinds of recreation — has declined by more than 60 percent in the past decade.


The book finds that the recent failures of the Forest Service in part reflect the changing character of policy decisions for the national forests. The national forests were conceived almost 100 years ago as one element of the grand plan of the progressive era for the “scientific management” of American society.  Policy making should be a matter of finding the “scientific” and “efficient” solution, something that could be left in the hands of forestry experts.  For many years the U.S. Forest Service sought to maintain its tradition of excluding overt political influences from its decision making.  However much it often departed in practice, the Forest Service did have a sense of mission and direction conceived in a utilitarian way – the maximization “of the greatest good of the greatest number over the long run.”


However, this mission has been undercut and abandoned in recent decades.  One example is “ecosystem management” which has been offered as a substitute mission in the 1990s.  It is often unclear what ecosystem management really means in practice.  However, the adoption of ecosystem management does shift the focus of management from meeting human needs to the future physical condition of the forest itself.  It rejects the utilitarian worldview.  Yet, in a political world an agency is unlikely to survive without a (human) constituency.  The Forest Service thus is forced to compromise frequently with the professed ideals of ecosystem management.  It does not really know what it is supposed to be doing.


Moreover, as A Burning Issue analyzes, the tenets of ecosystem management are often internally inconsistent and otherwise flawed.  For example, ecosystem management puts an important value on achieving a “natural” condition on the national forests.  However, human impacts have been so great in the past that it would be impossible to return to an earlier condition of "nature" without actively using modern methods of intervention in forest outcomes.   The result then is not real nature but a modern simulation – virtually in the same category as the “frontierland” and other fantasies of Disneyland.


The Forest Service confusion in part reflects the lack of value consensus in American society.  The debates over the future of the national forest system have shifted from the grounds of technical efficiency to grounds of the appropriate value systems that should be applied.   National forest management at times has come to be closer to the setting of policy for abortion than to deciding how to maximize the economic output of the forests.  Environmental groups often profess that their aim is to shift the values of American society.   There can be no expectation of national consensus on such value-laden areas of public controversy.


A Burning Issue argues on both practical and theoretical grounds that the only solution will be to radically decentralize the management of the national forests.  Some limited lands of particularly great  national interest may be retained in the federal land system.  Other lands of mainly state and local recreational interest should be transferred to state governments.  The states can then resolve the further questions of the proper management regime for these lands – whether they should be retained as state lands, transferred to local governments, or privatized outright.  Some existing lands of the national forest system that are primarily valuable for timber harvesting or other commercial purposes should be privatized.  In this day and age, there are no grounds remaining for arguing that public enterprises are likely to do better than private enterprises in achieving a commercial purpose.


During the twentieth century the dominant theme in American governance was the growth of federal powers as part of the development of the welfare and regulatory state.  The intellectual rationales were provided by the theories of the progressive era, including the aspiration to the comprehensive scientific management of American society.  By the end of the twentieth century, many people realized that these developments had gone too far.  It was neither possible nor desirable to manage American society by scientific methods.  The failures of the Forest Service are matched by other agencies at the federal level. 


Yet, the gridlock that presents effective day-to-day management has also prevented the taking of effective steps to devise a new and superior framework.  As a new century begins, it is necessary to embark on the process of reworking the basic institutions of American governance.  This book concludes that abolishing the Forest Service would be a good start.