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To the U.S. Forest Service: Sustaining everything sustains nothing

“Sustainable” is the environmental buzzword of the decade. The word is typically coupled with environmental resources regarding their maintenance, stewardship and long-term use. But what does it really mean?

Perhaps in an effort to sustain itself and ensure its own longevity, the U.S. Forest Service published a new land management planning rule in the Federal Register on April 9. This rule aims to sustain just about anything and everything. The agency avows that the rule will expedite forest planning by guiding personnel in revising national forest plans as required under the National Forest Management Act of 1976.

As if it will abbreviate the planning process, the new rule emphasizes sustainability. Each new or revised national forest plan is to provide a sustainable flow of benefits and services. The plan must demonstrate how to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the forests and their resources. It must also ensure the social sustainability of communities and provide for sustainable recreation.

Sustainable what? Recreation? What types of recreation are to be sustained and how do you do that? Are specific recreation uses to be continued in certain locales forever? Are those specific uses to be for hiking, biking or off-road vehicle travel? Can recreation be sustained as visitation increases? Is recreation mutually exclusive of sustaining watershed quality and biodiversity? Which use should be sustained first? If more than one resource is to be sustained or one resource is to be sustained in more than one way, it is necessary to prioritize. Who decides what has precedence?

In the beginning, the Forest Service was to sustain timber for societal use. Timber sustainability meaning managing the forest so that annual harvest for timber production is replaced by tree growth in an everlasting cycle. A review of Forest Service history and timber production shows that the agency has not been good at sustaining timber. Sounds easy enough; why is it so hard?

To help plan for sustainability, the agency defers to the best available science. The original Forest Service mandate, “to furnish a continuous supply of timber,” could be addressed in two ways. In the short run, timber sustainability requires growth to equal harvest. In the early agency years almost all timber in the West consisted of old, slow-growing trees. Short-run sustainable timber management meant little timber production. To enhance timber productivity for societal use, trees had to be cut and replanted to increase growth. So the long-term outlook for sustainable timber management meant temporary harvest greater than growth followed by intensified forest management. Both planning schemes are ultimately sustainable for timber and were supported by the science of the day, but were in direct conflict with each other.

Science cannot determine which is better or preferred. Science can demonstrate how different activities are likely to affect the landscape. Therefore, science can support conflicting preferences. In the end, the prioritization of national forest resource use is politically determined.

Though the language in the new Forest Service rule is contemporary and addresses current issues, the complexity of defining and managing for sustainability on the public landscape remains. Ignoring the multitude of other uses, it is still impossible to plan for sustainable recreation. First, it must be defined. Second, as long as the agency is required to satisfy a multiplicity of public desires with no mechanism to prioritize the different uses, management of the federal estate will remain a political game.

Holly Fretwell is a PERC research fellow and adjunct instructor of economics at Montana State University. She is the author of “Who Is Minding the Federal Estate? Political Management of America’s Public Lands.”

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