Testimony of Janet N. Abramovitz

Senior Researcher, Worldwatch Institute

before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Forests and Public Land Management Subcommittee Oversight Hearing on Alternatives to Federal Forest Management and Ownership

November 2, 1995

My name is Janet Abramovitz and I am a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a private policy research organization. I have over 10 years of experience in natural resources management. Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this important discussion.

A. Introduction

In his introductory statement last week the Chairman enumerated several serious problems with the existing system of governing public forest reserves identified during these hearings. These problems include: conflicting and excessive regulation, high costs, unnecessary bureaucracy, deterioration of public confidence, and a progressive loss of connection between mission and on-the-ground results.

To this list I would add what may be the most serious problem -- deterioration of our country's natural resource base.

The rate at which our biological wealth is being used and lost is clearly unsustainable. There is irrefutable evidence that resources once thought of as renewable -- (soil, surface and groundwater, timber, fish and other species) -- are being used at non-renewable rates. We are mis-spending and mis-allocating our natural resource capital rather than living off its interest. This "biological deficit" is even less sustainable than our current financial deficit.

Public confidence in federal management may be deteriorating. Citizens are increasingly aware and concerned that they (and their children) are footing the bill for the extraction of the nation's resources at subsidized rates for the benefit of a few well-financed special interests.

B. Alternatives to existing federal lands management

The panelists at this hearing have been asked to consider the feasibility and advisability of transferring federal lands to state and local governments or private interests.

I would like to raise a few points that illustrate some of the problems and inequities that could be created by such transfer arrangements:

  1. Some of the best remaining lands are under federal management. For example, while nearly 90 percent of our old-growth forests in the Northwest have been lost, much of what remains is on federal land. Also on federal lands are headwaters of salmon streams that support commercial fisheries and related industries far from those headwaters. These are just two of the innumerable examples. As population increases, and more demands are placed on our resources, federal lands will become increasingly valuable in the future.

  2. Federal lands are held and managed in trust for the benefit of all citizens of the United States. Not just for this generation, and not just for the state in which the land is located.

    As we are all aware, federal lands are unevenly distributed across the country. Thus, a large transfer of these national assets means that substantial state-by-state inequities in the distribution of benefits will result.

    Consider: how would residents of states with few federal lands be compensated? Would they receive a payment from residents of states that get a windfall?

    States would likely select the most valuable federal lands in their borders for transfer (e.g., those with the best timber, grazing, and mineral resources). The value of the remaining federal portfolio would be significantly diminished. Again, states with few federal lands would loose substantial benefits, and pay the costs of managing the "leftover" lands.

  3. What about the state trust lands model discussed in testimony last week? Drs. Fairfax and Souder raised many interesting prospects and problems in their analysis of state trust lands:

C. Future directions for federal lands management

I would make five general recommendations:
  1. Manage for multiple uses -- and expand that definition. Many goods and services provided by lands do not fit easily into standard economic calculations but return substantial benefits. These services include controlling floods, purifying water, recharging aquifers, restoring soil fertility, providing open spaces, supporting recreation, and nurturing fisheries. One thing that we have learned is that when we impair the ability of natural systems to provide goods and services, we must either do without or try to substitute -- usually less effectively and at much higher cost.

  2. Practice sound financial management. Eliminate subsidies that cheat the taxpayer, drive down the prices that state and private landowners can charge for similar resources, and foster mismanagement and degradation of our natural capital.

  3. Good information and scientifically sound data must be collected and used. Ignoring scientifically-sound (and taxpayer-funded) studies; picking and choosing which variables to collect and analyze (and which to ignore) in order to support a predetermined political or economic outcome flies in the face of good science, good judgement, and good democracy.

  4. Develop and implement flexible decision making and adaptive management, in collaboration with states, local communities, other federal entities. (The collaborative management model discussed by Dr. Babcock is one promising approach). Management and decision making must be open, transparent and participatory. Test, monitor and evaluate creative arrangements, pilot projects, etc. If something doesn't work, figure out why, try again or something else. Don't assume, a priori, that one solution will fit all circumstances.

  5. Management must be on a scale and time frame that allows human use and natural processes. Decisions must benefit current and future generations. We need to recognize that we must live within financial and biological limits.

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