A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two

By Paul W. Hirt | Go to book overview
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Country News quoted a logger from the Northwest that same year saying, "We knew for years and years that it wouldn't last. In 1979, we were talking, 'Hey, there's only a few more years left of old growth.' You knew eventually the well would run dry."45 The well ran dry so suddenly and unexpectedly because the illusions promulgated by the conspiracy of optimism masked real conditions. Political and organizational pressures to maximize production led to fantastically optimistic technical assumptions and to a subsequent "overshoot" of capabilities. As Tim Foss, a timber sale planner for the Wenatchee National Forest in Washington and a reform advocate, bluntly stated in 1993: "Timber harvest levels nearly everywhere were based on overly optimistic FORPLAN models [forest planning computer models]. Field personnel knew all along they were ridiculous. And it's finally catching up with the agency."46

The decline in timber production is not confined to the Northwest either. National forest supervisors all over the country began announcing in the late 1980s that their timber harvest targets established during the Reagan era were "unrealistic even with full funding," and that timber sales would have to be reduced significantly in coming years.47 On virtually all the national forests of the Northern Rockies, for example (an area where the spotted owl is not an issue), logging peaked in the late 1960s, then declined until the mid-Reagan years, when it went up temporarily, and then dropped like a rock in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite all the rhetoric about commitment to sustained yield, the boom and bust pattern was repeated (see figs. 1 and 2). Many timber-based communities are going bottom-up as a result, with a great deal of suffering and social dislocation attendant.48


Conclusion

Great promise has led to great disappointment in the management of the national forests. Why? The Forest Service too often substituted theory for wisdom and expediency for courage; politicians in command of the agency's resources called for responsible management but then failed to enable the agency to act responsibly; Americans demanded illusions of abundance in order to avoid accepting limits to production and consumption. But now the bill has come due. The "Great Barbecue" is over. We can no longer borrow from the future or ignore the repercussions of our actions. Since World War Two, economic interests with the aid of the government have

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