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Capitol Comment

    Capitol Comment 260 - Politics at Play in the National Forests

    11/10/1999

    On October 13, 1999, President Clinton issued a sweeping directive that, once again, demonstrated the great power the executive branch holds over America’s public lands. The directive instructs the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to propose a rule blocking road building, logging, mining, and virtually all other human activity on 40 million acres of Forest Service land.

    The real beneficiary of President Clinton’s directive seems to be his vice president and intended successor. Congress, which can only impact the directive through new legislation, must not allow the environmental equivalent of Clinton-care to be unleashed upon our national forests.

    There are several troubling issues surrounding the Clinton directive. First, the directive will shift logging overseas to countries with less than admirable records for environmental stewardship. Second, it would permanently place land in the clutches of the Forest Service, one of the most inefficient and unaccountable bureaucracies in the federal government, while denying Americans the use of natural resources. Finally, the timing of the directive suggests that it is just another example of political calculations — rather than science — driving environmental policy.

    Sending Logging Overseas. President Clinton claimed that the new directive "should have almost no effect on timber supply."1 This may be correct — so long as increased imports make up part of the timber supply. Given that the average acre of timberland in the national forests produces approximately 39 board feet of timber per year, the president’s proposal could result in an additional 1.5 billion board feet per year coming from overseas instead of being harvested within America’s forests.2 This is more than all the timber sold by the Forest Service in Washington, Oregon, and California combined in 1998.3

    This raises two troubling issues. First, American timber workers already have been devastated by endangered species listings and other regulations. Government should not make it even more difficult for these individuals to earn their livelihood. Second, many timber producing countries overseas, such as Indonesia, have less than admirable records of environmental stewardship. Selective, responsible, and sustainable timber harvesting in the United States will be replaced by rampant, unsupervised clear-cutting overseas.

    An Unaccountable Agency. Regardless of what is done on the land, permanently entrusting 40 million acres to the Forest Service makes little sense. The USFS is one of the most inefficient and unaccountable bureaucracies in the federal government. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO): "Inefficiency and waste throughout USDA’s Forest Service operations and organization have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars ... The agency’s financial statements are generally unreliable, and significant assets and expenditures cannot be accurately accounted for."4

    Although the Clinton directive does not make these lands official "wilderness areas" under the Wilderness Act of 1964, the directive will have virtually the same effect. This means that the American people will have no opportunity to benefit from the natural resources that could be drawn from these areas. In addition, it is likely that numerous recreational activities will be prohibited on these lands in accordance with the Wilderness Act, which states: "there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such [wilderness] area."5 Even without the new directive, such restrictions already apply to 104 million acres within the 50 states — nearly 5 percent of America’s total land mass.6

    Politics at Play. The timing behind the directive should raise some questions as well. The proposed rule is set to be issued next spring. Depending on the exact date of issue, it could fall right in the heart of presidential primary season when states such as California, New York, and Florida will be voting. President Clinton’s directive would greatly assist Al Gore in rallying environmentalists — a critical block of Democratic voters.

    The final rule is expected be issued late in 2000, which could be just before a series of presidential debates, presumably featuring Vice President Gore as the Democratic nominee. The Clinton administration seems eager to give the Gore campaign any help it can, and delivering up a appetizing sound bite about "saving" the national forests just in time for debates would fit the bill nicely.

    Who Benefits? Overall, President Clinton’s directive has little to recommend it. It would shift logging overseas, permanently deliver 40 million acres of land into the clutches of an unaccountable and inefficient bureaucracy, and deny Americans the use of natural resources. The real beneficiary of President Clinton’s directive seems to be his vice president and intended successor. Congress, which can only impact the directive through new legislation, must not allow the environmental equivalent of Clinton-care to be unleashed upon our national forests.

    1Environment News Service Web site, 10/13/99.

    2Figure derived from: "Forest Resources of the United States, 1992," USFS; "Forest Service: Distribution of Timber Sales Receipts—Fiscal Years 1995 Through 1997," GAO, 11/12/98.

    3Timber Harvested on the National Forests, U.S. Forest Service Web site, 10/29/99.

    4"Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of Agriculture," GAO, January 1999.

    5Wilderness Act of 1964, P.L 88-577, 78 Stat. 890; 16 U.S.C. 1 1 21 (note), 1 1 31-1136.

    6"Major Federal Land Management Agencies: Management of Our Nation’s Lands and Resources," Betsy A. Cody, Congressional Research Service, 5/15/95.