Commentary

The Fight Over the Roadless Rule

The Bush administration set-off a political firestorm on July 12 when it announced that the Clinton administration’s rule blocking road construction on 60 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands will soon go up in smoke. The Bush administration plans to replace it with a regime that essentially allows a state’s governor, in consultation with the U.S. Forest Service, to decide how much logging will occur on federal forest lands in that state. While environmentalists predictably went berserk and conservatives naturally applauded the re-embrace of states rights, both camps are increasingly lost in the intellectual woods.

For their part, the environmental lobby is brazenly rewriting history by suggesting that the National Forests are primarily there to save trees from the woodsman’s axe. As environmentalist icon Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in a speech for Teddy Roosevelt in 1901, “Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend on them.” In short, the National Forests were created not to dance in but to cut in (the reason, by the way, that the Forest Service is an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and not the U.S. Department of the Interior). Public ownership was embraced because, back then, politicians were convinced that scientific management of the forests by federal rangers could maximize timber yields over the long run.

Environmentalists are also on shaky ground when they decry the environmental damage done by logging in the West. America’s appetite for furniture, hardwood floors, houses, etc., isn’t going to go away just because the trees won’t be coming from California or Alaska. Logging will simply shift from the American West to forestlands abroad. While it’s perfectly alright to be more concerned about environmental quality in the United States than in, say, Indonesia, we’re not sure environmentalists fully appreciate the tradeoff they’re embracing.

Republicans embracing this new rule are not much better. Administration defenders, for instance, often cite the need for more harvesting on federal lands in order to keep timber prices from spiraling out of control. But again, we can just as easily get the timber from abroad as from here at home. In fact, during the Clinton administration, timber prices fell through the floor even while a chunk of land the size of the state of Oregon was put off-limits to the timber industry for the very first time.

Another oft-heard Republican argument is that much of the land in question is undoubtedly more valuable as a wood-producing zone than for recreational or conservationist uses. But how do they know that? The only way to ascertain whether a scarce resource is better used for this rather than for that is to consider prices and consumer willingness to pay for those alternative uses of the resource. Because public land is kept out of the marketplace, prices don’t exist and consumer preferences are never put to the test. Accordingly, there’s no way to test the assertion.

Leaving those decisions primarily to the nation’s governors rather than to federal bureaucrats does not make intelligent decision-making any easier. All it does is transfer the venue of the fight over extraction versus conservation to about 12 western state capitals. Accordingly, we can’t help but suspect that the real policy objective behind this new rule is to transfer such fights to political playing fields where environmentalists are typically weaker and industry is politically stronger.

None of this, then, is really about how to most efficiently use federal lands. Environmentalists primarily care about protecting as much land from development as is humanly possible. Republicans primarily care about ensuring that rural westerners — primarily Republicans — have jobs, particularly jobs in the timber industry.

It’s time to find our way out of these dark woods. Wanting to protect forests from the axe is fine. Wanting the general public to subsidize your preferences is not. Wanting a job in the timber industry is likewise fine. Wanting the general public to deny others the right to their preferences in order to secure that job is not.

The original mission of the National Forests is no longer operative and the original justification for the National Forest Service is no longer defensible. Maintaining such huge volumes of federal land in such political enclaves guarantees that forests will be managed by political rather than economic or ecological criteria. Caring about the health of our nations forests — both as an ecological preserve and as an economically valuable resource — demand reconsideration of public ownership.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. Peter Van Doren is editor of Regulation magazine.