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Originally published Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Forest plans that do nothing

Inevitably, many citizens' groups are going to protest the U.S. Forest Service's recent decision to not write draft and final environmental...

Special to The Times

Inevitably, many citizens' groups are going to protest the U.S. Forest Service's recent decision to not write draft and final environmental impact statements for its revisions of national forest plans. But the truth is that the forest planning process is a failure, and the best thing we can do is let it die a natural death.

In the 1980s, the Forest Service spent well over $1 billion trying to write plans for each of the 120 or so national forests. The plans took so long to write that by the time they were done, they were obsolete.

Some forests rewrote their draft plans as many as three different times in response to new events, such as a forest fire or the listing of the spotted owl as a threatened species. But before they were finished, something else would happen that would render the new plan useless.

When forest managers finally got the plans, they quickly discovered they were worthless and pretty much ignored them. National forest management in the 1990s bore little resemblance to what the plans had said.

Of course, environmental groups challenged some of the plans in court. After spending all this time and money, the Forest Service made the curious argument that the plans actually made no decisions, and so there was nothing to challenge. The Supreme Court agreed, and so we spent $1 billion and 10 years doing nothing.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell Congress that the process was a failure. So, Congress did not change the law requiring that forest plans be revised every 10 to 15 years. Now the Forest Service has sensibly said, since the plans make no decisions, let's not waste more years and dollars writing environmental-impact statements for the revisions of those non-decisions.

Many citizens' groups object to this because they want to use the lengthy and intricate environmental-impact-statement process to rally their troops and badger the Forest Service with procedural requirements. This might result in bigger budgets for those citizens' groups, but it will not improve forest management.

Those who want better forest management realize that it makes more sense to spend scarce taxpayer dollars actually managing the forests, not writing plans that are obsolete before they are finished.

This does not mean I have a lot of faith that the Forest Service will do a good job. The most important lesson I learned from forest planning was that Congress has inadvertently given the Forest Service incentives to lose money on environmentally destructive activities, such as clear-cutting and road construction.

But that problem won't be fixed by wasting everyone's time with plans that make no decisions and are obsolete before they are done.

Forest planning is a waste of everyone's time. Let the forest planning process wither away. Then we can go on to debate the real issues involved in public land management.

Randal O'Toole is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute, a nonprofit based in Bandon, Ore., that seeks to protect the environment without regulation and bureaucracy. He is author of "Reforming the Forest Service." E-mail him at rot@ti.org

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