Forest Service caught submitting false visitor numbers

Published March 1, 2002

At the same time the lynx and grizzly bear scandals were being uncovered, the U.S. Forest Service was forced to admit still another instance of providing false information.

The Forest Service is charged with keeping track of the number of annual visitors to national forests. When the number of visitors is large, the Forest Service and environmental activist groups cite this as evidence the federal government should take more land from the private domain to add to national forests. The argument goes that high visitor numbers indicate a public approval and public demand for far-reaching preservation programs.

High visitor numbers are also offered as a justification for large increases in the Forest Service’s annual budget.

The Forest Service was recently forced to admit it has drastically misled Congress and the general public about the number of visitors to national forests. The Forest Service reported 920 million visitors in the year 2000, while the actual number was, at most, 209 million.

The Forest Service argues that, in a dyslexic-like mishap, the numbers must have been inadvertently shuffled. However, observers questioned how the Forest Service–which had access to the true numbers all along–would not have noticed such a huge discrepancy in its numbers before submitting them to Congress.

“More likely,” noted Sean Paige of Insight magazine, “the USFS purposefully padded the figure to advance an agenda that under former chief Mike Dombeck meant a sharp shift away from its traditional multiple-use mandate and toward extreme preservationism. … That agenda could best be advanced if it appeared that Americans were flocking to national forests in unprecedented numbers.”

“The previous administration used the large forest-visitor numbers as the justification for a dramatic shift in the management emphasis on the national forests,” explained the American Forest Resource Council in a recent newsletter. “It was the same flawed data and projections that were used to justify dramatic reductions in timber-management programs and to claim that recreation jobs would replace forest-product jobs in our rural communities. Though timber cutting was sharply reduced under Dombeck, and other multiple uses were similarly curtailed, the promised recreation boom never materialized in forest-bordering communities.”

In light of the recently uncovered lynx and grizzly bear scandals, in addition to evidence of false or skewed data being deliberately collected regarding other studies, the Forest Service’s explanation that its false visitation numbers were submitted by mistake does not convince many Western observers.

“The feeling in the Clinton administration was that you could play fast and loose with the facts if you were doing good and important things, especially when you saw the president lying about minor and inconsequential things,” summarized William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. “I’m sure they thought, ‘Hey, we’re saving the wolf and the lynx and endangered species, so the facts be damned.'”