GAO Forest-Thinning Study Sparks New Controversy

Published July 1, 2003

Supporters of President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative have a new study to cite as proof reforms are needed in the federal government’s forest management effort. Opponents of the President’s plan disagree, saying the study proves current procedures are working.

The study, released by the General Accounting Office (GAO) on May 15, found most federal forest-thinning proposals subject to third-party comment were appealed by environmental activists.

59 Percent Appealed

The GAO examined 762 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposals to thin forests and prevent fires during the past two years. According to the study, slightly more than half the proposals were not subject to third-party appeal. Of those proposals subject to appeal, third parties challenged 59 percent.

Appeals were filed most often by anti-logging groups, including the Sierra Club, Alliance for Wild Rockies, and Forest Conservation Council. According to the GAO, 84 interest groups filed more than 400 appeals of Forest Service proposals. The appeals delayed efforts to treat 900,000 acres of forests and cost the federal government millions of dollars to address.

Forest Service officials estimate they spend nearly half their time, and $250 million each year, preparing for the appeals and procedural challenges launched by activists.

“The report demonstrates that the appeals needlessly delay federal efforts to prevent wildfires, and if the process is not streamlined, millions of acres will be lost this summer,” said Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico).

“The American people will no longer tolerate management by wildfire,” Domenici added.

“This finding is nothing short of appalling, especially when you think of the catastrophic losses suffered in last year’s horrific fire season alone,” said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-California).

“These were not only losses of forest, endangered species, and wildlife habitat, they were losses of human life and family property,” Pombo said.

Timber Sales Declining

Sean Cosgrove, a national forest policy specialist with the Sierra Club, defended the appeals. “We see these [forest management proposals] as outright commercial timber sales the Forest Service wants to call ‘fuel-reduction’ projects,” said Cosgrove. Any attempts to restrict the appeals process would be “a ridiculous abuse of public trust,” he claimed.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth disputed that the Forest Service programs are designed to maximize timber sales. Speaking at an April 22 Earth Day event in San Francisco, Bosworth reported that timber cutting in the U.S. has fallen roughly 84 percent during the past two decades, from 12 billion board feet to just 2 billion board feet per year. Bosworth called anti-logging arguments a “bogus debate” and a “diversion” designed to divert attention away from the true issues.

Inaction Causing Wildfires

Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nevada) put the GAO study in the context of a forest-thinning bill sponsored by Colorado Republican Scott McInnis and passed by the House on May 20. According to Gibbons, the GAO findings should provide sufficient evidence for the Senate to similarly pass the bill, “although watching millions of acres of our precious forests turned into charcoal last year should have been evidence enough.”

“Communities such as Flagstaff, Arizona, and Klamath Falls, Oregon, no longer can afford to have sound forest management plans stifled by extremists and their frivolous challenges until fire season arrives and it’s too late to help,” said Charli Coon, an energy and environment analyst with The Heritage Foundation.

Adding support to the GAO study, Arizona’s East Valley Tribune reported on April 29 its findings from an examination of 10 years of court records and Forest Service documents.

“Almost every major forest-thinning project in Arizona has been blocked by a near-constant chain of lawsuits brought by environmental groups,” the newspaper noted. Catastrophic wildfires, such as last year’s Rodeo-Chediski fire, have devastated forests while USFS thinning projects have languished in court because of activist group challenges.

“You’ve created a situation where there is unlimited opportunity to challenge things successfully, at least to the extent that you can delay it for two, three, or four years,” Pat Jackson, an appeals and litigation officer for the Forest Service, told the Tribune.

“We can remove some of the trees and lower the risk of catastrophic fire, or we can do nothing and we can watch them burn,” said Forest Service Chief Bosworth.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The 43-page GAO study, Information on Forest Service Decisions Involving Fuels Reduction Activities, is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #12344.