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The Unkindest Cut


An old-growth bureaucracy, like an old-growth forest, must be understood as a single, highly complex organism. Nothing else makes sense. The thing is alive and has motives, or at least tropisms. A governmental bureaucracy is by no means fully under the control of the people at the top of its organizational chart. Decisions that allow the organism to survive and grow are likely to find support, and all others, even if they make perfect economic or environmental sense to the outside world, will be resisted.

The U.S. Forest Service has a large headquarters in Washington, D.C., and nine regional divisions. It has more than 30,000 employees. Its 156 national forests are run independently through 119 administrative units. A brilliant and devastating critique of the agency, Reforming the Forest Service, by a forester and economist named Randal O'Toole, shows how perverse and senseless policies like those at work in the Tongass are in full leaf in virtually all national forests.

The agency earns $3 billion a year and spends $4 billion. Its mismanagement of grazing, mining, water production and timber accounts for most of the shortfall. Timber management, including a runaway road-building program, is the biggest money loser. The Forest Service often sells leases to timber tracts that cost more to survey and "preroad" than the agency gets back for cutting rights. Subterfuges that some would call bureaucratic scams are common. To get good tracts, buyers must often cut virtually worthless timber, because the agency packages poor stands with good ones. Then, typically, it invests in reforestation efforts that only undermine the forest's ecosystem.

Why reforest tracts that are not worth cutting? To plant better trees, says the Forest Service. Maybe, says O'Toole, but also because it is agency practice to return roughly 10% of reforestation costs to regional offices and 5% to the Washington headquarters as above-budget "general administrative funds," which can be poured into new projects. Books are cooked with timber-price forecasts that routinely turn out to be wildly optimistic. These are used to justify expansive tree cutting and road building. Forest supervisors are pressured to set cutting targets that are economically and environmentally ruinous, and then are promoted on the basis of how close they come to meeting the targets.

According to O'Toole, the trouble isn't Forest Service collusion with timber companies, or James Watt-style wilderness trashing, or even the fact that most of the agency's brass was trained in forestry or engineering, not recreation or wildlife biology. Rather, the Forest Service bureaucracy is simply doing what bureaucracies do best, which is get bigger by maximizing their budgets.

The way Forest Service rules work against common sense can be seen from a visit to Sandy and Bud Cahill, who own the 63 Ranch, a 2,000-acre dude ranch set back several miles from the main road on the edge of the Gallatin National Forest in Livingston, Mont. About 260 guests vacation there every summer, and taking care of them provides jobs for four Cahills and 10 hired hands. The trouble is, the Forest Service intends to log a tract half a mile away, on Gallatin forest land, where the Cahills have horse trails. Logging trucks will rumble past their gateposts, and instead of peace, guests will find dust and commotion.

In an effort to block the logging, Sandy has testified in Washington, and fought in court and lost. Logs from the sale—a below-cost sale, of course—will keep the Brand S Mill, one of two big mills in the Gallatin, going for no more than three weeks. Even Forest Service staffers agree that with a dwindling local supply of privately grown logs, both mills cannot survive. Virtually all economists agree that recreation, not a marginal timber industry, represents the future for the area near Yellowstone.

Nevertheless, the agency is determined to keep both mills going. O'Toole figures that subsidizing the 71 mill jobs that the Forest Service says would be lost if it reduced cutting in the area would cost the agency $50,000 per job each year. By contrast, the $20,000 in wages that the Cahill ranch pays out every summer seems almost a joke. It is, however, money generated, not wasted. But it doesn't contribute to budget maximization, so the 63 Ranch doesn't stand a chance.