I was the supervisor of Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest in 1996 when a huge landslide caused by shoddy road construction sent tons of mud and debris into a critical salmon stream. I felt terrible — and personally responsible. In the rush to build logging roads along treacherously steep hillsides, we mismanaged forests for decades and pushed salmon and spotted owls to the brink of extinction.
When I came to Washington, D.C., to become deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service a few years later, that Oregon landslide — and countless other road-building mistakes — motivated me to rewrite national forest policy. I was a chief architect of two landmark rules to reform logging and road-building in our national forests.
But I learned another important lesson: The Forest Service shouldn’t operate in a vacuum. The public should have its say, and we can’t cut it out of its rightful role just because that would be quick, easy or politically expedient.
This is why I’m so deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s latest attempt to roll back some of the most important rules protecting our national forests via the National Environmental Policy Act. That law has fostered government transparency and accountability for our environment and public health for 50 years. But a new Forest Service proposal would eliminate opportunities for citizen involvement and environmental review on more than 90% of all Forest Service projects.
I recall feeling miffed when, as a young Forest Service employee in the 1970s, NEPA required me to document why we did things such as cut down trees. Over time, I came to learn that many concerned citizens knew a lot more than I did. They also owned the public land where I worked on their behalf.
Federal agencies that authorize logging, mining and drilling on public land should aspire to accountability, transparency, trustworthiness and scientific rigor. So when the Forest Service claims that sweeping changes to its NEPA rules will “increase efficiency,” I measure its proposal against those bedrock principles.
During my 34-year career with the Forest Service, I authored several rule changes. But with this one, I see smoke and mirrors.
Buried deep within 16 pages of legalese are some nasty surprises: a nearly unlimited license to commercially log nearly seven square miles — about 3,000 football fields — or build five miles of logging roads at a time without involving the public or disclosing environmental consequences.
This proposed rule will stifle citizen participation, foster deepened opposition and increase litigation.
The Forest Service’s road-building system is still flawed, and forest road impacts are long-lasting and often severe. So it’s irresponsible to propose constructing hundreds more miles of national forest roads without public input or environmental review of the potential consequences.
We didn’t expect that Oregon road to fail, but it did. I don’t care how laudable your intentions are, the idea of logging seven square miles at a time while keeping the public in the dark is reckless.
Forest Service officials say the agency no longer has the resources to do its job because increased wildfire costs are busting the budget. The rule change, they wrongly claim, will increase efficiency. Their argument boils down to this: “Because we’ve heard from the public and documented our projects for years, we no longer need to do any of that. Trust us. We’re experienced.”
The Forest Service wants us to believe that it will OK logging, mining, road-building and other projects on public lands, but that nothing bad will happen. But, unfortunately, the agency doesn’t have the track record to make that claim.
If the near extinction of the spotted owl caused by liquidating the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests taught us anything, it’s that when the public objects to your work, cutting it out of the process is a fool’s bargain. The Forest Service seems to have forgotten this.
President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue are hellbent on increasing logging in our national forests, and they’re squeezing the Forest Service hard. But the agency shouldn’t take it out on the people it is sworn to serve.
The Forest Service should be broadening opportunities for public input and collaboration, not shutting them down. It should hold firm to the light of transparency and accountability, not opt for making decisions in the dark.
Jim Furnish is a consulting forester in Iowa, following a 34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, including serving as the agency’s deputy chief from 1999 to 2002. The views expressed here are solely his own.