The Great Experiment That Failed? Evaluating the Role of a "Committee of Scientists" as a Tool for Managing and Protecting Our Public Lands

By Pasko, Brian Scott | Environmental Law, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Great Experiment That Failed? Evaluating the Role of a "Committee of Scientists" as a Tool for Managing and Protecting Our Public Lands


Pasko, Brian Scott, Environmental Law


One thing is certain: forestry officials will never again practice their profession without public involvement and support. If they fail to recognize the need for public acceptance of all they do on both public and private lands, they will I continue to wear a black hat, a far cry from a half century ago. (1)

William E. Towell Retired forester and former head of the American Forestry Association

Perhaps part of forestry's fundamental failing of the last three decades has been to remain too enamored of a scientific/rational view of forestry at the expense of a social/political perspective. (2)

Steven E. Daniels Assistant Professor of forest policy at Oregon State University

I. INTRODUCTION

Tall trees, beautiful mountain vistas, cascading waterfalls, wild and elusive fauna, and economic prosperity--all are visions and ideas conjured by the existence of our nation's lands. These public places provide a rugged backdrop for the mythology that shrouds America's colorful history: the western cowboy, hard working forester, and even those who sought their fortune in gold on the frontier. Today, public lands remain important cultural and economic components of this country. (3) They take many forms and are managed by a patchwork of government agencies. (4) These places serve as spiritual sanctuaries, hunting and subsistence grounds, wildlife refuges, grazing and ranching lands, recreational and aesthetic paradises, watershed preservation districts, and mining and timber harvesting headquarters. (5) This wide assortment of uses and the value systems they reflect often come into conflict, and such friction has turned our public lands into political and literal battlegrounds--filled with blood, sweat, and tears. (6)

This discord affects more than the individuals who assert their rights to use and possess public property; it also adversely affects the land reserves. The health of America's public lands declined substantially during the second half of the twentieth century. (7) Today, overgrazing continues to introduce harmful invasive-exotic plants, (8) clear-cutting of old-growth forests threatens endangered animals, (9) single species replantings on harvested areas decrease biodiversity, (10) and ongoing decades of fire suppression create dangerous conditions for both humans and wildlife. (11) Additionally, existing uses of the country's public lands may add to the demise of the global ecosystem; forest fragmentation, caused by extensive road building and cutting, allegedly contributes to what is presently the greatest mass extinction event in our planet's history since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. (12)

The agencies that oversee America's public lands are in the midst of a management crisis. In particular, the United States Forest Service (Forest Service) struggles to appease the demands of a citizenry that increasingly calls for more recreational areas and wildlife habitat preservation, while concurrently trying to carry forth its mission to harvest forest resources. (13) On its face, the Forest Service seems to be losing this battle. During the late 1980s, increased knowledge of the aforementioned ecological conditions and the declining health of the federal government's property shed doubt on the management and expressed purposes of public lands, and paved the way for significant decreases in timber harvests on our national forests. (14) For instance, in 1987 the Forest Service reported a record timber sale of 12.7 billion board feet. (15) Less than a decade later, sales had plummeted to a mere 2.9 billion board feet--largely due to public concern over the preservation of endangered species and their habitats. (16) The current economic, cultural, and ecological crises that these areas face are cause to reconsider current management strategies. (17)

All the same, this is not a new dilemma. For over a century, Congress has wrestled with various methods of managing the public lands. …

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