By Margaret Gorski, Stevensville
Is the glass half empty or half full?
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited Missoula on June 12 to announce a “new vision” of increasing productivity from our National Forests. It will surely evoke howls from environmentalists and overly optimistic cheers from industry. Is this directive good or bad? Well, it depends on what you want from your National Forest.
During my long career in public land management, I worked under six Presidents and as many or more Agriculture Secretaries. Every administration leaves a legacy by issuing Directives or Executive Orders to highlight their political views or to please their voters. I frequently felt whipsawed, especially if he was from a different party, as I carried out my new bosses’ orders while trying to follow through on the commitments I had made to the public under the prior administration’s priorities.
Cynics will say that Secretary Perdue’s visit is election year politics, merely a photo-op to elect Representative Gianforte as Governor and re-elect Senator Daines for another term. Others will describe it as an effort to circumvent environmental regulations, create jobs by increasing logging, mining, grazing, and bring in more revenue for local governments. This view shows the glass as half empty.
I prefer to see the glass as half full. If the Forest Service spent less time and money on environmental documentation, there would be more time and money available for the programs that are currently underfunded. We could reduce the risk of life and property loss by wildfires through a regular program of cross boundary prescribed burning and more fuels reduction projects. More seasonal jobs and businesses could be added to our economic mix in the valley by permitting more commercial recreation services. Wildlife habitat improvement projects could be designed to increase big game herds and help fill our freezers. And the Forest Service could do a better job of providing recreationists safe drinking water, clean toilets, and maintained roads and trails.
So when you the read the directive that tells the Forest Service to increase productivity and customer service, that is great news! However, we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Since this directive doesn’t come with more funding, something will have to give, but what? “Washington DC” is telling us it is up to us to figure it out.
This is exactly what is happening on the Bitterroot National Forest. I am a member, along with numerous other valley residents, of one of the two active Ravalli County Citizens’ “Collaboratives”. We are each a diverse group of volunteers who donate our time listening to each other and providing input to the Forest Service. We seek solutions and advise the Forest Service experts to try new ways to do work and to make environmental analysis documentation more efficient and effective. Instead of spending countless hours and money making environmental documents bombproof to litigation why not dedicate that time and money listening, reaching compromise, and building trust between the collaboratives, the Forest Service, and the public. Local Forest officials could then be able to design projects that meet our collective wants while complying with our environmental laws.
This shouldn’t be asking too much. Working together would go a long way to breaking down the gridlock in getting things done and reduce the polarization that exists between environmental groups and commodity interests. It has the potential to not only restore confidence in the Forest Service, but also help free up funds to implement historically underfunded programs while achieving some of the efficiencies and cost savings that we would all like to see.