Bush retains Clinton-Gore legacy at USFS

Published August 1, 2002

Another public land squabble is shaping up in “Bush Country” with the announcement that U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Pacific Northwest Regional Forester Harv Forsgren is being transferred from Portland to take the reins of USFS’s Southwest Region.

Forsgren is to replace Eleanor Townes, a Clinton administration appointee who retired in February after a rather stormy tenure.

In anticipation of Townes’ departure, Southwestern resource producer groups and politicians, including New Mexico Lieutenant Governor Walter Bradley, the New Mexico Cattle Growers, the Arizona-New Mexico Coalition of Counties, and the New Mexico Public Lands Council, joined in a search for a candidate to fill the vacancy.

After a series of meetings late last year, those organizations wrote letters of recommendation to the Forest Service on behalf of John C. Bedell, who currently supervises the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

According to Coalition of Counties Director Howard Hutchinson, Bedell was chosen as a long-time Southwesterner “familiar with the Southwest, with a forestry and grazing background.”

Forsgren lacks forestry background

Instead, the Bush administration picked Forsgren, who New Mexico stockgrower Bob Jones told the Albuquerque Journal is a “controversial reject of the Clinton-Gore era.”

A fishery biologist with a Masters degree from Humboldt State, Forsgren was named Pacific Northwest Regional Forester in 1999 by then-USFS Chief Mike Dombeck, a Clinton appointee (and fishery biologist) who resigned soon after Bush took office.

When Dombeck appointed Forsgren, many were concerned with Forsgren’s lack of forestry background, but gave him the benefit of the doubt. Frank Gladics, president of the Portland-based Independent Forest Products Association, cautioned resource people not to “castigate the guy because he is a biologist.”

However, Forsgren may deserve the reception that awaits him in the Southwest. When the Clinton roadless initiative controversy reached its peak, Forsgren defended Dombeck’s implementation order in a November 2000 Eugene Register-Guard opinion-editorial, declaring he was “proud of the roadless proposal and our commitment to the public process.”

Upon hearing Forsgren’s comments, Montana Logging Association Executive Director Keith Olson dryly noted, “I would defer to and agree with the judge in Idaho that the plaintiffs who filed suit against the roadless initiative were in fact shut out of the public process.”

Bedell a better Bush policy match

Under Forsgren, the Pacific Northwest Region has continued to underperform, cutting only a tenth of the harvest target levels specified in the Northwest Forest Plan—a Clinton administration plan the Bush administration is now trying to revise. Forsgren supported the plan at the time Dombeck promoted him.

Finally, there is the recent conclusion of a Forest Service investigation into the deaths of four firefighters in the Thirty-Mile Fire on the Okanogan National Forest in north central Washington last summer. Eleven Forest Service employees were disciplined for violations of basic firefighting safety procedures.

In addition, and in response to concerns the firefighters died because water drops by slurry bombers were delayed by uncertainty over endangered species, the Forest Service recently issued new guidance placing human safety first and foremost—guidance that was lacking under Forsgren.

Officially, pro-regulatory Southwestern environmental groups neither support nor oppose Forsgren, but they vehemently oppose Bedell. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) Director Keiran Suckling labels Bedell “the most stubborn, most aggressive, least communicative” forest supervisor in the region. CBD staffer Brian Seegee says “Bedell and his supporters want to bulldoze” environmentalists. Clearly, a Bedell appointment would further raise the hackles of an already-energized $750 million-a-year Green lobby.

However, Forsgren’s posting has been an enormous letdown for rural Westerners. As Howard Hutchinson explained: “It seems like the Bush administration is pandering to all the people who voted against ’em—and will always vote against ’em. So, what’s the point?”

The point, which President Bush ought to know, is to dance with the person that brought you.

Dave Skinner is a staff writer for the Paragon Foundation News Service.