Can Environmentalists Think? — the sequel

Can Environmentalists Think?
By: Jim Petersen, Founder and Executive Director,
The Evergreen Foundation

Last July 9, Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens, posed the question headlined above: Can environmentalists think?

His column concerned environmentalist reaction to a July 6 train derailment and fire at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, about 20 miles north of the Maine border. Forty-seven lives were lost and more than half the small community’s downtown business district was destroyed in the explosion and fire that followed the derailment of multiple tank cars carrying North Dakota crude oil destined for an Irving Oil Company refinery at St. Johns, New Brunswick.

Stephens feigned surprise that environmentalists weren’t howling about the derailment, which spilled some 26,000 gallons of crude oil into the Chaudiere River, a tributary of the mighty St. Lawrence. He correctly guessed they wouldn’t say much because saying much of anything would have exposed the hypocrisy of their flat out opposition to the construction of new oil pipelines, a much safer way to transport oil than by rail. Stephens thus asks, “Can environmentalists think?”

It’s a worthy question, not because environmentalists can’t think – some are solid thinkers – but because their well-rehearsed answer to society’s most vexing environmental challenges is always the same: “Stop doing that.” Stop cutting trees, stop drilling for oil, stop building pipelines, stop mining, stop farming; stop commercial fishing; stop building dams; stop this; stop that; stop whatever it is you are doing.

There isn’t any thinking – or problem solving – going on here. The issue is control. The objective is to limit access to the nation’s natural resources. The goal is to control growth and prosperity by choosing who gets to grow and who will prosper. Loggers, ranchers, miners, farmers, oil field workers, commercial fishermen and lumbermen – those who feed, clothe, shelter and fuel the nation – need not apply.

Many observers seriously underestimate environmentalists. I don’t. Make no mistake. This is an industry. Annual sales in the form of memberships sold, government grants and legal fees collected from taxpayers top $1 billion. There are some environmental groups that do good work: the Nature Conservancy and the so-called “hook and gun” outfits that work to increase and improve fish and wildlife habitat. But some of the biggest names – Earth Justice, the old Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund; the Wilderness Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project, and WildEarth Guardians- are serial litigators whose main goal is to “Stop everything.”

Why are these groups using the courts to stop activity they oppose – which is pretty much everything? Because they can; and they can because Congress handed them the power to litigate at taxpayer expense. The Justice Department does not even keep statistics on monies taxpayers have paid to settle nuisance lawsuits filed by these groups, but it runs into the billions of dollars.

I want to ask a completely different question than the one Brett Stephens asked. It is a question I suspect is much on the minds of thinking environmentalists. The question is, “Are we leaving our forests and rangelands in better shape than they were in when the last generation handed them to us?”

The answer is, “No, not even close.” Depending on which government study you care to quote, somewhere between 60 and 80 million acres of western federal timberland are dead or dying, and there is not a damned thing taxpayers can do about it. And it isn’t because our country lacks the brainpower or the manpower needed to tackle the problem; it is that the regulatory maze Congress requires the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to navigate has become a feeding ground for lawyers.

On any given day, I get at least 100 emails from groups that are up in arms about the decline and fall of our federal forest and rangeland legacies. Their list of grievances is as long as their anger is deep.

Some advocate for the federal government transferring forests and rangelands it owns to states in which the lands are located. It’s hard to find fault with this idea given the unholy mess Congress has created on lands that once formed the economic backbone of hundreds of rural western communities. There is ample well documented evidence that states do a much better job of managing state-owned land than the Forest Service or the BLM are able to do on federal lands.

Others want Congress to put some sideboards on the Equal Access To Justice Act. The intent of the law was to level the playing field that distances ordinary citizens from the government’s bottomless money pit. But the otherwise well-intended law has become the principal means by which environmental groups fund often baseless delaying actions against federal land management agencies. Win or lose, these serial litigators, whose assets frequently top $50 million, can collect their legal fees from taxpayers. Why?

At the other end of this spectrum, you will find groups that don’t care what happens to federal lands in the West as long as the government continues to send them money to compensate for revenues lost when the federal timber sale program was shelved after the government decided in 1990 to add the northern spotted owl to its threatened species list. I think this is a terrible idea because it disconnects the ecological necessity of management from the economic rewards that good management can foster.

Betwixt and between there are groups that believe Democrats, led by George Soros, are hell-bent on handing the United States over to the United Nations – and other groups that suspect lumbermen are engaged in some vast right-wing conspiracy to jumpstart the old federal timber sale program. Neither of these points of view is helpful, but it’s a free country. People will believe whatever they want to believe.

Me? I’m for incremental steps that restore public confidence in forestry – with wood as an economically sustainable byproduct of active, science-based management programs that protect and improve forests. This isn’t rocket science, but it does necessitate clearly written rules and regulations that allow federal agencies to work efficiently and effectively on projects that are large enough to be environmentally and economically beneficial.

The forest rehabilitation projects currently underway in national forests in Arizona and New Mexico come immediately to mind. But why aren’t there similar projects on every national forest in the West? The answer is that most members of Congress represent states where forestry is not the economic force that it is here in the West, so they can easily polish their environmental credentials – always important as their reelection nears – by voting “No” on federal forestry legislation without fear of hurting voters who work in their states. If voters in non-forest states understood the costs they are paying as a result of this shell game, there would be a significant changing of the guard.

I also believe voters need to take a long look at tribal forestry in the West. Tribes do a commendable job of handling a host of environmental, social, cultural and economic challenges without breaking a single federal law. Why can’t the Forest Service and the BLM do the same thing? Because as sovereign nations, tribes don’t have to abide by the same process-related rules that hamstring both the Forest Service and the BLM to the detriment of federal forests and rangelands. It is this Gordian knot of pointless and frequently conflicting regulation that has become a feeding ground for environmental litigators.

I have been very open about my fondness for tribal forestry. We explore its great possibilities in an upcoming issue of Evergreen Magazine – our first print edition since the U.S. housing market collapsed several years ago. We make the case for tribes assuming an expanded role in the management of federal forests along the 3,000-mile border that joins tribal and federal forests.

I hope clean water advocates and recreation interests will pay especially close attention to our report because Indian forestry successfully addresses their quite legitimate concerns about timber harvesting’s impacts on soil and water quality, fish habitat and forest aesthetics.

Indian forestry is a model whose time has come. To their credit, many in Congress seem to agree. Most of the legal groundwork has been laid alongside federal court decisions and treaty laws that date to the 1840s. I can’t think of a single reason why the Forest Service and the BLM should not be encouraged to enter into collaborative management agreements with tribes. Nor can I fathom a reason why thinking environmentalists will not bless this sea change in a 30-year political battle that has pushed federal forests to the brink of ecological collapse. If we do not reverse course now, we will rob future generations of the same vibrant forests we inherited a generation ago.

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