Let States Manage the National Forests

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

The United States Forest Service is a lightning rod for both fiscal conservatives and liberal environmentalists. Fiscal conservatives decry its money-losing programs. Environmentalists claim that its programs cause environmental harm. Both groups are correct, but years pass with no changes made to the failed policies.

Logging is the most criticized of the USFS's money-losing efforts - but it is not the biggest money loser. That distinction goes to recreation. Hikers, birders and campers pay even less of their own way than loggers. In 1997, while the USFS timber program lost $88 million, its recreation program lost more than $162 million.

In contrast, state and county forests typically make money. For instance, from 1988 - 1992, while state forests in Montana made $13.3 million, Montana's 10 national forests lost $42 million. State forests yielded an average of $2.16 for every dollar spent; federal forests lost between $.09 and $.73 for every dollar spent.

The figures are similar for county forests in Minnesota. From 1990-1993 the Superior National Forest lost $15.83 for every thousand board feet of timber logged, while St. Louis County forest lands in the same region made $8.44 on every thousand board feet of timber harvested.

The environment benefits from state management as well. In both Montana and Minnesota state foresters did a better job of protecting watersheds and waterways from environmental harm than did federal forest managers.

  • In Montana 99 percent of the watersheds in state forests were protected from all impacts from logging, compared to 92 percent of watersheds on federal forests.
  • In Minnesota county lands had a 90 percent compliance rate with best management practices for protecting water quality, compared to 87 percent for national forests.

State forests also have better annual growth rates than federal forests. In the Southwest-central region of Montana the state forests averaged 67 percent of their productive potential, while the Gallatin National Forest, where more trees are dying than growing, had a negative growth rate.

The better water quality and superior timber growth improves biodiversity as well.

With these facts in mind Congress could implement a demonstration project, allowing states that have demonstrated both superior economic and environmental performance with their forests to manage the national forests within their borders. Congress could give fixed but declining block grants to participating states to help them manage the forests during the transition period.

Each state that undertook such control would have to be allowed to run the program a sufficient number of years to counteract environmental damage caused under federal management. At the end of the time period, any state that showed both improved economic and environmental performance would be granted those forests outright and federal payments would end. Federal forests that did not improve could revert to federal management and new management experiments could be tried.

State and county foresters facing the prospect of additional revenues would have the incentive to improve the performance on their forests in order to win authority to manage federal lands. And USFS managers, faced with a loss of revenues, would have the incentive to improve performance to maintain control of what national forests remain.

Several states have shown that the public can have the best of both worlds, forests that make a profit and that promote environmental quality. Armed with this knowledge, Congress could allow states to manage the federal forests within their borders. Wildlife and U.S. taxpayers would owe these farsighted legislators a debt of gratitude.

This Op Ed ran in the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Kentucky Lexington Herald, January 11, 1999. Also in the Washington Times, January 25, 1999.