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

By Paul W. Hirt | Go to book overview

material price of $1 per cubic yard, the revenue would have been five times the value of the wood products which were hauled over the road."52 The lost opportunity costs of that eroded topsoil to future forest growth and the added costs related to stream sedimentation further increase the disparity in this economic equation.

Despite the obvious social and ecological centrality of watersheds, the most neglected of all national forest management programs then (and now) is soil and water protection. The 1949 Report of the Chief cautiously yet optimistically asserted that problems of erosion, flood control, and sedimentation were "receiving careful consideration in the administration of the national forests." But that is about all they received. Production of commodities inevitably took priority over protection of watersheds, as national forest development accelerated in this postwar period of prosperity. As ranchers forced delays in grazing reductions and loggers penetrated virgin forests, the need for a strong watershed protection program grew acute. While Congress put $4 million into timber sales administration in 1949 and $10 million into logging roads, watershed management received only $47.411 -- the smallest appropriation in the entire budget, less than two- tenths of 1 percent of the national forest protection and management budget. For FY 1950 and 1951 the funding level remained unchanged. For a value that transcended "all other values," soil and water protection seemed to be remarkably unimportant to federal budget architects.


Conclusion

Watershed management symbolized the larger plight of the national forests in this postwar period of rapidly accelerated production. Intensive management of the resources for a high sustained output of commodities required a federal investment balanced between resource extraction and resource rehabilitation. Agency leaders had a reasonably accurate idea of what a balanced investment entailed, and they regularly informed the administration and Congress of their opinions on the matter. Nevertheless, resource extraction activities advanced at a much more rapid pace than resource protection and rehabilitation, even after the (Korean) "war emergency" excuses had fallen away.

Congress's original intent was for the national forest system to be secured from unsustainable economic exploitation and dedicated to serving

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