From charter schools to charter forests

forestRobert Nelson, environmental policy professor at the University of Maryland

Wildfires destroyed an estimated 6,500 square miles of U.S. forest lands in 2013, an area larger than the state of Connecticut. One reason fires blaze through so much land is poor wildfire management from the U.S. Forest Service. But instead of continuing to try to tweak the ossified bureaucracy, we should borrow an idea from public-education reformers: Create “charter forests,” like charter schools.

Washington has known about the mismanagement of the Forest Service—whose 35,000 employees are responsible for approximately 10% of land in the U.S.—for years. In 1998, for example, the Government Accountability Office reported that “catastrophic wildfires threaten resources and communities” throughout the West. Much of the problem, it concluded, was the fact that “the Forest Service’s decision making process is broken.” Fifteen years later, it still is.

The Forest Service understands that it has serious problems. In a 2002 report, the agency lamented that it was operating “within a statutory, regulatory, and administrative framework that has kept the agency from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health.” The total forest acres burned in 11 western states set new records successively in 1988, 1996, 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2012.

In part, a philosophical shift is to blame for these terrible records. During the 1990s, the Forest Service’s old philosophy of “multiple use management” of forests was succeeded by a new outlook of “ecosystem management.” This placed ecological goals above more utilitarian considerations, resulting in a radical curtailing of timber harvesting, forest thinning and other more aggressive actions that would have helped to address the continuing fire problem.

Desperate for improvement, in 2009 Congress enacted the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or Flame, which required the secretaries of agriculture and interior to develop a “National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.” Typical of the glacial pace of federal bureaucracy, the report is still not final, more than three years after its statutory deadline.

What’s needed is a new management model for the national forests, the type public-education reformers have been experimenting with for more than two decades. Charter schools are one of the few reform initiatives supported by both parties. That’s because charter schools work: Recent research at Harvard, MIT and Princeton has confirmed that well-run charter schools are achieving remarkable success compared with traditional public schools in improving the educational achievements of disadvantaged students in inner cities.

The secret is autonomy. Freed from the bureaucratic straitjacket of teachers unions, charter-school leaders can hire and fire teachers more freely. They can also enforce standards for teachers and students that might spark protests and union grievances at a traditional public school. Charter schools take more risks, but they are held accountable for the results.

This is the model that the U.S. Forest Service needs. Certain federal forest lands, while still “owned” by the federal government, would be managed independently as charter forests. A decentralized charter forest would operate under the control of a local board of directors, which might include local government officials, economists, environmentalists, and recreational and commercial users of forest resources.

Like a charter school, which receives public support according to the number of students enrolled, a charter forest would receive federal funds to support its operations as determined by some appropriate formula based on criteria such as the size of the forest area, the ways in which it is used, and past federal spending.

The charter-forest managers, like a charter-school principal, would have freedom to hire and fire employees, bypassing cumbersome federal civil-service procedures.

The charter forest also would be exempt from current requirements for public land-use planning and the writing of environmental impact statements. These requirements long ago ceased to perform their ostensible function of improving public land decision making. They have instead become open invitations for litigation—effectively transferring much of the management control over national forests to litigants and federal judges.

Charter forests would operate under federal oversight, including broad land-use goals and performance standards relating to the maintenance of environmental quality. But they would have the flexibility to develop and implement innovative solutions to the severe problems of forest fire, spreading disease and other threats today to national forests, especially in the West.

In a 2013 survey, two million federal workers were asked about the quality of leadership, the level of morale, and other management conditions in their agencies. The responses ranked the Forest Service as worse than 260 out of 300 similar federal agencies.

Given this—and the long record of past failure—aren’t charter forests worth a try?

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