Congress and the Federal Land Agencies

The 104th Congress is taking a revolutionary look at public land agencies, including the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management. (Links to the bills listed below take you to the Library of Congress' ftp site. Click "back" on your browser to get back here.) Of these, only the parks bill has any chance of passage in 1995. But together these and other bills provide an indication of Congress' willingness to dramatically change the public land bureaucracies that have been built up over nearly a century.

The most detailed scrutiny of a public agency has been made by the National Forests Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who chairs the committee, has held a dozen different oversight hearings examining selected aspects of the Forest Service and national forest management. Craig has been assisted by Mark Rey, who previously was a leading lobbyist for the timber industry.

To environmentalists, this all smacks of a dire conspiricy. States have a reputation for being more commodity oriented than federal agencies, and environmentalists fear that state agencies are under the control of timber and other industrial interests. It is very scary to see former industry lobbyists work hand-in-hand with Republican members of Congress who don't exactly have a clean environmental reputation.

To some degree, environmental fears are overblown. Take H.R. 260, the parks review commission bill. This bill was introduced into the last, Democratically controlled Congress by Democrats with strong environmental reputations, including Bruce Vento and George Miller. It passed both houses with hardly any opposition, but didn't make it through conference committee for lack of time.

It was reintroduced into this Congress with bipartisan cosponsors. Members of Congress know that, as documented elsewhere in Electronic Drummer, the Park Service has become a major repository of pork, which isn't doing the parks any good. Many Park Service officials agree that the best way to protect major parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite would be to cut out some of the more expensive, but less important, sites such as Eugene O'Neill's house and Keeweenaw Historic Park. The parks review commission was supposed to do this in the same way as the base closures commission helped Congress close obsolete military bases without individual members having to take the blame.

Suddenly, however, environmentalists opposed the bill as a part of the "Republican conspiricy" to sell or give away the public lands. This makes good rhetoric, but doesn't reflect reality. Ironically, environmental groups are using what little political muscle they have left fighting a bill that could actually do some good for the environment.

Senator Craig's hearings also have a lot of merit. The hearings have identified a number of genuine problems with the Forest Service, including an extremely expensive and largely useless planning process. To solve these problems, Craig and Rey seem willing to consider any of a number of reforms of the agency. (We'll find out for sure when the subcommittee publishes its report, probably in December.)

Given that Republicans seem to be in Washington to stay, the best thing that environmentalsts can do is work with them. This means giving up polarizing rhetoric and instead sitting down with people in timber, ranching, and other interest groups. If we have an enemy, it is not the other interest groups, nor is it the agencies, nor even Congress. The real enemy is an institutional system that encourages us to fight with one another instead of working together.

Karl Hess, a range ecologist who has written articles for Different Drummer, has developed a statement of principles on public range issues. He is getting environmentalists, ranchers, and conservatives to all sign on to this statement.

Following Hess' lead, the Thoreau Institute board of directors has written a statement of forest principles. We are asking environmental, industry, and other interest group leaders to endorse this statement.

Both sets of principles are based on the idea that political solutions tend to have winners and losers, but solutions based on user fees and incentives can make everyone winners. If all goes well, we may be able to take proposals to Congress that meets environmental and industry goals at the same time.

Here are some other documents related to these issues:

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