Political changes felt at forest level in Summit County
December 14, 2008
In Summit County, where almost 80 percent of the land is national forest, any national political changes that affect Forest Service policy could eventually be felt in the day-today management of lands on the Dillon Ranger District.
Nominally, the Forest Service is a civil-service agency, charged with developing and implementing sustainable, long-term multiple-use plans for publicly owned natural resources.
But in reality, changing political winds in Washington, D.C. eventually do rustle the leaves on trees in the local forest, said Jim Furnish, deputy chief of the agency under former President Clinton.
The changes start at the top, with the selection of a Forest Service chief.
Traditionally that has been a civil-service job, supposedly immune from political agendas. But that changed under Clinton, who appointed Mike Dombeck, a fisheries biologist from the Bureau of Land Management to head the Forest Service.
That trend continued with Bush, who “hand-picked” both Dale Bosworth and Gail Kimball outside the traditional line of succession.
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Now, all eyes are on Obama to see if he’ll choose a career agency employee or bring in an outsider, said Furnish.
Down the line, the effects could be felt at the regional, and even the forest, level. Furnish said.
Regional foresters serve at the leisure of the chief.
“Mike (Dombeck) was interested in leadership succession, in getting certain types of people in those positions. In an environmental-leaning administration, you’ll probably see people with more of an environmental pedigree in those positions,” Furnish said.
Eventually, the effects could even be felt at the Forest Supervisor level, according to Furnish.
“We placed dozens of supervisors,” he said, explaining that, even though supervisors are definitely in a non-political role, their appointments do cross the chief’s desk.
If competing rules proposed by the last two administrations to protect roadless areas continues to be subject to court fights, Furnish expects there could be some new legislation by the Democratic-held Congress to resolve the question once and for all.
Furnish said he doesn’t expect to see any changes with regard to ski-area management and recreation. The agency’s approach in those areas has been fairly consistent spanning the Clinton and Bush eras, he said.
Furnish expects the agency to crack down on off-road motorized use under Obama.
“The new administration will be more tuned into environmental voices than commercial forces,” he said.
As a result, management of off-road use could become a priority for the agency.
“Forests that are in the midst of a planning process may be asked to take a closer look at restrictions. There are many people in the environmental community who feel that the off-highway vehicle interests were given too much grace by Bush.”
Furnish said he sees the change in administrations as a chance for the Forest Service to recapture its mantle as an advocate for conservation and resource protection.
“I think the agency has been accused of being too exploitive of natural resources than conservation oriented,” he said.
That would take the agency back to its roots. Historically, the country’s natural resources were being exploited, even “raped,” until the agency was established as firewall against those practices in the early 1900s, Furnish said.
Exploitation of natural resources ” especially timber ” intensified again in the post-WWII boom and lasted through the 1970s, when stricter environmental laws slowed the pace of timber production.
“Then, the wheels came off in the ’80s and ’90s,” Furnish said.
For the past 15 years or so, the Forest Service has seen turbulent times, as it struggled to define itself. The public expectation is that the agency should be the primary steward of natural resources on those federal lands.
“If not the Forest Service, then who?” Furnish said.
This is the second of a two-part series examining how the inauguration of Barack Obama next month could signal a dramatic change in the federal management of the national forests.
Sunday: Conservationists hope the Obama administration adds environmental
protections for national forests after back-and-forth battles between the two
previous administrations have been stalemated in court.
Today: The political moves made at the top of the
Forest Service in Washington likely will trickle down to the local forests and could result in new policies