Chief says Forest Service suffers from ‘analysis paralysis’

Published February 1, 2002

The Forest Service is in gridlock due to “analysis paralysis,” says Chief Dale Bosworth, who wants to solve the problem by streamlining the agency’s decision-making process through new regulations.

Bosworth testified on December 4 before the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health of the House Committee on Resources, in a hearing on “Gridlock on the National Forests.”

In his introduction to the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Scott McInnis referred to “conflicting laws and regulations” that “create a vicious cycle of confusion and conflict on the ground.” Bosworth, however, said he did not think the laws and regulations were in conflict as much as simply not workable. They have resulted in “difficult, costly, confusing, and seemingly endless processes” needed to make decisions.

As an example, Bosworth described a fire in Montana that burned state lands and national forests in 2000. The state has already salvaged 22 million board feet of fire-killed and damaged trees. The Forest Service, however, has yet to salvage a single tree because the environmental impact statement process takes so long.

Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas took a broader and harsher view at the same hearing. The forest planning process, he said, is “seriously flawed in terms of both technical capability of achievement and budgets required for execution.” Forest planning was supposed to “engender public trust and bring about consensus,” but instead it “produced polarization and increased questioning of the agency’s motivations.”

Thomas admitted forest plans take longer to write and cost more than originally estimated. By the time they are done, he said, they are obsolete because “new information came to bear faster than the process could absorb it.” As a result, no forest plan has been executed as planned.

While the Clinton administration tried to revise the planning rules, Thomas believes those revised rules were also unworkable.

Yet, Thomas sadly observed, most national forests are now in the midst of a new round of planning. He described this as “insanity,” which he defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result.”

New processes needed

Thomas suggested three alternatives. First, he proposed, Congress could set up a new Public Land Law Review Commission to examine and recommend changes to the laws under which the Forest Service operates. Second, the administration could review and amend the regulations governing national forest managers. Or, third, national forests could do their planning by emphasizing collaboration.

Bosworth firmly came down on the side of Thomas’ second option. The current Forest Services chief said he has no faith Congress could ever significantly revise the laws, and he isn’t sure that’s needed. New regulations, he hopes, are all the Forest Service needs to get back into business. He has created a task force within the agency to examine regulations and hoped it would present recommendations before the end of the year.

But as former Chief Thomas pointed out, a “conflict industry” has grown up that wants to keep the existing rules firmly in place. Environmentalists would strongly resist, for example, any proposal to eliminate the agency’s appeals process.

“Fierce in battle, many of the eco-warriors have been unable to come to grips with the consequences of victory and are now reduced to wandering about the old battlefields bayoneting the wounded,” observed Thomas.

“Their counterparts in the resource extraction community, likewise, cannot come to terms with defeat and hold ‘ghost dances’ to bring back the good old days when they were undisputed Kings of the West.”

Thomas urges the environmentalists, as victors, to develop a “Marshall Plan,” recognizing “that the best means of maintaining their gains is by fostering a new spirit of cooperation” through collaborative planning. That means “fostering ‘local’ or regional solutions to suit local or regional conditions.” Thomas doesn’t mean only local people should be involved in those solutions, just that one size does not fit all and so each solution should respond to local conditions.

Bosworth expressed fear that Thomas’ collaborative planning proposal would result in “analysis paralysis about analysis paralysis.” He just wants to get things done.

Missing the point

The fundamental problem–which neither Bosworth nor Ward seems to recognize–is that the current budgeting process gives national forest managers incentives to make the wrong decisions. Thomas observed “the public could not be persuaded that even-aged timber management (i.e., clear-cutting) was an acceptable broad-scale practice” and fretted that people “questioned the agency’s motivations.”

But outside the Forest Service, many now agree that the Knutson-Vandenberg Act (which allows forest managers to keep timber receipts for reforestation) rewarded clearcutting more than other forms of cutting, and thus biased the agency to favor a cutting technique the Forest Service itself had once opposed.

In the late 1940s, most national forest managers proclaimed they were proud to use only selection cutting. By the early 1970s, nearly every national forest relied almost exclusively on clearcutting–much to the consternation of recreationists, biologists, and even, in some places, the timber industry.

Environmentalists used the cumbersome environmental impact statement and forest planning process to offset the budgeting bias in favor of clearcutting. Because Bosworth’s plan to streamline those processes fails to correct the original problem, environmentalists are sure to oppose such streamlining.

Former Chief Thomas says, “When I examine each law in isolation, there is not one with which I would disagree.” But in totality they “add up to a disaster as significant land management actions on the federal estate grind to a halt.”

What Thomas seems to miss is that he agrees with the purpose of the laws, but not their implementing mechanisms. Simply eliminating those mechanisms, as some propose to do, will likely do little to help the laws achieve their purposes.

Thomas’ suggestion of a Public Land Law Review Commission probably will not work: There is simply too much disagreement on what mechanisms can achieve the purposes nearly everyone agrees make sense–protection of biological diversity, maintenance of forest and ecosystem health, and production of those outputs compatible with (or even necessary for) the other goals.

Experimenting with pilot programs

That is why the idea of pilot programs makes a lot of sense.

Pilots such as those proposed by the Forest Options Group ( would test alternative governance and budgeting systems. The Department of the Interior is considering the use of pilot programs on its lands. The Forest Service should do the same.

When asked about pilots by New Mexico Representative Tom Udall, Bosworth said, “experimenting with different approaches makes a lot of sense. But even if we have some pilot projects we still need to move forward on gridlock” by revising some of the agency’s regulations.

Bosworth worries that an emphasis on pilots will leave non-pilot forests still in gridlock. But he is willing to try pilots if they can be done at the same time as some rules are revised for all forests.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is a senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of the recent book, The Vanishing Automobile and other Urban Myths.

For more information . . .

The agenda, a briefing paper, and testimony delivered at the December 4, 2001 “Gridlock on the National Forests” hearing are available on the Internet at