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The Birth of a Controversy: 1945—1977
While the spotted owl controversy matured as a major public policy dispute in the mid- 1980s, its origins lie in the context of the styles and objectives of forestry and forest policy as they developed in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the change in values and national politics in the 1970s. Just as our individual behavior is guided and constrained by the genes of our ancestors, public policy choices are influenced and often defined by historical trends. In the spotted owl case, battles in the courts and the Congress in the 1980s and early 1990s reflected in part decisionmaking styles and patterns of behavior that had been established many years before. These traditional behaviors included:
An overwhelming adherence to timber production as the primary organizational objective of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in western Oregon and Washington;
A tendency to view resources other than timber, such as wildlife or recreation, as either secondary or adjuncts of the timber management program;
A proclivity to try to find solutions to difficult choices through elaborate technical analyses and planning processes whether they were warranted or not; and
The development of a FS organizational image and style as a tightly controlled, "Can Do" agency that ironically made change in direction more difficult.
For the Forest Service, many of these styles were set down as fundamental operating principles by Gifford Pinchot, its creator and first Chief at the turn of the century, but they were expanded upon and locked into public policy in the period following the second World War. While the basic reason for establishing the national forest system was to ensure future timber supplies, not a lot of timber was cut on national forest land before the 1940s. The national forests were by and large sleepy backwaters under little pressure to produce timber because there was an ample supply coming from private lands. Indeed, the Forest Service was under pressure to keep national forest timber off the market so as not to undercut the prices private companies could get for their timber. Less than 2 billion boardfeet (bbf) of timber was cut per year on all national forests before 1940, even though total domestic softwood lumber production exceeded 30 bbf annually in the 1920s.
After the second World War, rapidly rising demand for new homes coupled with declining supplies of timber from private lands led to pressures to open up the vast timber storehouses that the national forests represented, and the Forest Service responded. From the 1940s through the mid 1960s, timber sold from the national forests rose from about 2 bbf annually to approximately 12 bbf. The boom generated revenues for the federal treasury and helped to build state and local economies because a portion of timber receipts is paid to states and localities to support public services such as roads and schools.
The post-War timber boom signified a rebirth for the Forest Service, an agency that had largely served a custodial function in the previous half century. Agency budgets and staff increased, and a strong national constituency emerged to lobby for agency programs, at least as long as they centered on an active timber sale program. Local, state, and federal politicians increasingly recognized the political value of public timber, since it supported local jobs and schools, and helped to satisfy the American dream of lumber-hungry, single family suburban homes. They developed relationships with the forest products industry and the Forest Service, which reinforced the economic forces in support of an enhanced timber program.
For the Forest Service, these trends tended to exalt timber from its position as king to that of a deity. The organization's leadership was increasingly timber-oriented, its measure of success became how well a line officer could "get the cut out," and its new recruits were primarily foresters or forest engineers trained in programs that tended toward more specialization with less understanding of the broader social objectives that the public lands serve and that founding father Gifford Pinchot sought. An enhanced emphasis on timber production was rational and productive for the Forest Service no matter what model of bureaucratic behavior you subscribe to—the agency as budget-maximizer, turf-maximizer, or political power-seeker. For the Forest Service in the 1950s and 1960s, the objectives converged, making timber management the overriding organizational guiding light.
On the surface at least, the Forest Service remained committed to the hazy concept of multiple use as developed by Pinchot at the turn of the century, but it tended to promote other resource objectives as adjuncts of the timber management program. Multiple use came to mean maximum production of resource outputs over the long term: through government's increased use of various forms of cost—benefit analysis, maximum production generally came to mean maximum numbers of things, particularly dollars and user-days.
Agency objectives for wildlife resources on public lands at this time were defined almost exclusively as producing adequate numbers of game animals, activities that fortuitously were consistent with the enhanced focus on cutting timber and measuring agency benefits by counting user-days. For example, to grow a lot of deer, wildlife managers sought to create openings in the forest that would provide browse. Openings provided via timber cutting hence also generated a lot of huntable animals, and the foresters and wildlife managers marched hand in hand in facilitating the multiple uses of the national forests, uses for which there were both markets and political support.
Demand for all forms of outdoor recreation boomed after the second World War, and the Forest Service was not unaware of this national trend. While forest recreation had been encouraged since the early days of the agency, the Forest Service expanded its efforts in response to a perceived national need, and an accurate sense of a new and potentially large political constituency for forest management oriented toward providing recreation opportunities—a constituency that was being sought aggressively by the Forest Service's old nemesis, the National Park Service. Timber management and outdoor recreation were seen by FS leaders as potentially complementary activities. Access provided through forest roads was seen to benefit outdoor recreationists of all types, particularly in a time when "driving for pleasure" was the top-ranked outdoor recreation activity nationwide, but enhanced access also facilitated an expanded timber sale program. An enhanced forest fire protection program was seen to benefit all of the above resource values.
While a national movement was developing in support of setting aside good-sized chunks of public lands as wilderness areas, and the Forest Service had administratively set aside a small amount of its holdings as primitive areas primarily in response to the interest of a specific district ranger or forest supervisor, wilderness preservation was an odd and uncomfortable notion to agency leadership. Wilderness got in the way of maximizing use, particularly in a time when timber was an increasingly valuable component of national forest lands, and it represented a single purpose set-aside in violation of the principle of multiple use. Further it limited agency discretion and hence violated the leadership's consistent interest in maintaining control. Indeed, the agency opposed the concept of statutory wilderness throughout the 1950s, a concept that eventually became federal law in the Wilderness Act of 1964.
The dank, inaccessible old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest were seen as a valuable short-term wood products storehouse that was simultaneously the antithesis of good long-term forest management. The trees in these forests were generally 300 to 1000 years old, and, classified by the Forest Service as "overmature," they had long passed the point where they were efficiently adding new wood fiber to their biomass. The large amount of dead, dying, or down material in the forest was seen as a perfect entry point for insect infestation or forest fires. The old growth forest was seen largely as a biological desert, providing a home for few significant animals, none of which were in much demand. In addition, the inaccessibility of these forests made them of limited use to forest recreationists.
The agency's goal for the old growth forests was to change all this, by substituting even-aged stands of mostly Douglas fir that would be managed scientifically and efficiently on a sixty-to-eighty-year rotation to maximize the long-term sustainable yield of wood fiber, and along the way produce deer and recreation user-days. The problematic old growth forests were a blank slate on which the ideal multiple use, maximum-sustained-yield forest could be created. But over time, the old trees would have to go to enable agency leaders to realize the dream.
As a concept, the notion of protecting old growth forests also conflicted with the Forest Service's image of itself, as laid out by Pinchot and built on and magnified by subsequent leaders. Fundamentally, the Forest Service is about control. To plan the development trajectory of a huge portfolio of landscapes scattered across the country over the next 50 or 100 or 150 years, you have to believe in your understanding of forest science and your ability to manage the landscape effectively. To control the operations of an organization that is similarly diverse and scattered geographically, it is necessary to institute management mechanisms to ensure compliance with organizational goals. To maintain control over the long-term direction of an agency, you have to buffer it from the ebb and flow of political winds that blow from Washington in two and four year cycles.
To accomplish both biological and organizational management and to protect the agency from the vagaries of local and national politics, the Forest Service developed and implemented a set of operating styles and principles that were well established by the 1960s. Direction was to be set based on scientific and technical analyses that generated "right answers" to the allocation questions implicit in forest management. Policy interventions were of the form of landscape manipulations such that growing trees or wildlife was made similar to an industrial problem where manipulating a set of factors of production would yield an appropriate product. The objective was once again maximum sustained yield where waste was either over- or under-production.
When conflicts emerged over direction of the national forests, the Forest Service worked hard to keep the controversies within the framework its leaders had established. By and large that meant that when faced with conflict, agency leaders tended to try to keep resolution within the ostensibly technical choice processes they had established or to create new ones that would yield appropriate answers to questions in debate. Planning processes were created early in the history of the agency both to provide consistent management direction for the long periods of time involved in forest management, and to deal with competing images of the future in a way that was well controlled by the agency.
To maintain control over the organization, the Forest Service evolved a remarkable set of management control devices that subtly but effectively controlled its staff. In his classic study entitled The Forest Ranger, Herb Kaufman identified information, budget, and personnel systems that tended to enhance the compliance of the Forest Service workforce with the overall direction of the organization. By the 1960s, the Forest Service was a fairly militaristic, "Can Do" agency that promoted and rewarded individuals that mirrored the values and objectives of the agency's leadership, and tended to select against individuals who disagreed. While the Forest Service's district rangers and forest supervisors had remarkable amounts of discretion at the forest level, they exercised it primarily within the overall themes defined by the organization. Leaders worked hard at building their employees' identification with the agency, transferring staff members regularly, building on the symbolism of Smokey the Bear, the Forest Service uniform, and the like, and developing an image of the agency as a professional, science-based unit of government that was above the chaos of politics that characterized most other federal land management agencies.
By the 1960s, the combination of organizational styles and behaviors described above had succeeded remarkably well for the Forest Service. It had an expanding budget, a set of supporters in the federal budget process, and an esprit de corps that was the envy of Washington. In addition, the Forest Service's objectives and styles fit well within a government and a society that was heavily oriented toward post-War economic development, and the agency's contributions to local economic development matched a federal administration that was increasingly involved in local-level social programs. Finally, the agency was contributing directly and obviously to the material well-being of the American populace.
Overall, the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were a great time to be in the Forest Service. The agency's mission was growing, clear, and valued by society, and its methods of land management and organizational control were well-tested. While the agency had been challenged occasionally over site-specific controversies, by and large it had won those challenges and was in control of its destiny. There were concerns in the agency that timber and other interests were beginning to ask too much from national forest lands in a way that would preclude good multiple use management, but overall, agency leaders were looking forward to a future that, in their view, would continue with the themes of the near-term past.
The development of these organizational styles and themes predated the development of the spotted owl controversy yet, in many ways, contributed directly to it. The controversy reflects a clash of values and styles as much as anything else. It illustrates a conflict between the 1960s Forest Service and the communities, industries, and politicians that came to depend on national forest resources, and a society in evolution to an expanded set of values in the 1970s and beyond. While the agency tried hard to fit the changing realities of the 1970s and 1980s into its time-tested standard operating procedures, it was trapped by its traditions and clients, and ultimately failed. In doing so, America was bequeathed a conflict of epic proportions—one that was probably inevitable even before the spotted owl winged its way into public view.
The Rise of Environmentalism
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the winning combination of objectives and styles that the nation's public land management agencies had refined in the post-War period began to break down. An increasingly urban and affluent population began to change what they asked of the public lands and the agencies established to administer them. The population of urban areas grew dramatically following the post-War baby boom and continued a migration of individuals from rural to urban areas that had been ongoing for more than one hundred years. By 1960, more than two-thirds of the American population lived in urban areas; by 1970, almost three-quarters of the population was classified as urban. At the same time, post-War affluence gave people the time and money to satisfy their material needs and seek leisure time activities. The development of an extensive national highway system and the automobilization of American culture facilitated an outmigration of city dwellers seeking fun and relaxation in the nation's playing grounds.
Hitching its (station) wagon to an Airstream, the new American family increasingly sought its recreation destiny on the federal public lands, the bulk of which were national forests that had previously been inaccessible. The traditional forest recreationist was an individual from a nearby rural community who hunted or fished on national forest lands. The new recreationist was more likely to be seeking opportunities to camp, hike, watch birds, or drive for pleasure.
Excerpted from The Wisdom of the Spotted Owl by Steven Lewis Yaffee. Copyright © 1994 Steven Lewis Yaffee. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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