Proposed remedy for forest fires puts economic interests first

provided by Ohio State University

resident Bush's current call for reducing the restrictions on logging in national forests counters nearly 30 years worth of federal policy, according to an Ohio State University researcher who wrote a new book on government forest issues. Changing such policies could have serious ramifications on environmental protection measures and citizen input on decisions that affect the 191 million acres of US national forests. So says Tomas Koontz, an assistant professor of natural resources at Ohio State.

    Koontz is the author of Federalism in the Forest: National versus State Natural Resource Policy (Georgetown University Press, 2002). In it, he takes a look at the regulatory differences between federal and state forest agencies. He doesn't conclude that one type of governing is better than the other; rather, he says that preference is based on what results people seek.

    “With a few exceptions, state governments are traditionally less interested in environmental protection,” Koontz said. “They want to maximize profits and boost the economy. On the other hand, federal leaders are charged with providing environmental protection for national forests as well as citizen access to policy making.”

    The president has said he wants to ease restrictions on cutting timber in national public forests because of the tremendous amount of fire damage in the western states this summer. But Koontz argues that the president's proposed plan seems to coincide more with the ideologies of state-level forest agencies.

    In his book, Koontz focuses on the management of state and national forests in the Midwest (Ohio and Indiana) and the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington). Koontz interviewed 94 forest officials, ranging from field workers to state forestry department chiefs to national forest supervisors. Interviewees' expertise included areas, such as: timber sales planning and administration; wildlife management; recreation; legislative relations; and environmental protection.

    Koontz also sat in on public meetings, including a series of meetings conducted by federal forest officials on Wayne National Forest in Ohio. As a third measure of agency doctrine, Koontz analyzed responses from a three-part questionnaire completed by 75 state and federal forest agency members. Participants were asked to share their beliefs about specific management issues and how certain factors – such as the desires of the local residents, interest in recreational use and preservation or desire for logging activity – influenced agency policy.

    From this information, Koontz saw a pattern in how different levels of government prioritized activities related to forests. Essentially, he found that states focus on using public forests to generate jobs and income, while federal forest officials focus more on upholding certain standards, such as ensuring citizen participation and environmental protection.

    “State forest policy in the 1990s resembled federal forest policy prior to 1970,” Koontz said. “State officials continue to face relatively few legal restrictions on timber production, and there is almost no allowance for citizen power to appeal decisions.”

    With the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the National Forest Management Act in 1976, national forests gained a good deal of protection from logging interests. Both acts also emphasized preservation and soliciting public participation and input.

    Koontz found that personal perspective played a key role in how people reacted to public forest policies.

    “Most national forest stakeholders live hundreds or thousands of miles from a given national forest,” he said. “Differences in geographic location are linked to different forest use goals; for example, people living closer to a natural resource tend to favor its use for economic development.”

    The main idea behind President Bush's plan is to thin out the underbrush, deadwood and small trees – ingredients that fuel major forest fires – that have accumulated from years of successfully controlled wildfires. But he's also hinted at compensating the logging companies taking on this task with permission to cut economically desirable trees in the same area.

    “President Bush has said that if American taxpayers want to save money, some of those big trees need to be included in the deal,” Koontz said. “The environmentalists counter that these forests need to be protected, and that throwing big money-making trees into the mix just to entice the timber companies isn't the way to go.

    “In 2000, the US Forest Service started doing what Bush is now advocating,” Koontz said. “The service's National Fire Plan calls for thinning overgrown areas in forests near communities, a project that will take about 20 to 30 years to complete. But the president wants the thinning to happen much sooner, and seems to be hinting at trying to change certain environmental regulations that would let that happen.”

    Contact: Tomas Koontz, 614-688-8166;