The Bush Administration’s plan to put greater control of National Forests into the hands of local forest rangers is provoking cries of outrage from the environmental movement and Democrats, as reported by many publications just before Christmas. I share the discontent but, unlike many of my mainstream environmental associates, I am attracted to one rather un-green reordering of public-lands governance. Just not this one.One quarter of the Pacific Northwest — or Cascadia — is U.S. government property, and most of that is National Forest, which makes the question of how National Forests are managed a huge issue for the future of Cascadia (and other parts of the U.S. as well). The expected right-left tug of war is between development and conservation of these lands. And the form that tug of war takes is often a battle between local and national control. National Forests belong to all Americans, argues the environmental movement and the left, so they should be managed in accordance with the wishes of all Americans. National Forests are the homes of struggling rural communities, and those communities deserve a special role in managing the lands, argues the right.
I favor the conservation goals of the left and the environmental movement, in part for the conservation itself and in part because conservation is the key to true economic vitality. But I’m increasingly convinced that a greater degree of regional and local control has profound long-term benefits. In particular, it’s never seemed a wise long-term strategy to me to depend on the political influence of outsiders (or, for that matter, courts) to achieve conservation objectives. In the long run, Cascadia and other regions in the U.S. need to practice good stewardship because they choose to do so. At present, for example, forest protection often prevails in the Northwest because large concentrations of Democrats in places such as California and New York impose it on us.
Of course, embracing localism is an enormous gamble for an environmental movement that does well in the media in metropolitan areas and in court but not too well in rural towns. It’s a strategy that may lead to some painful losses in the short term. So it’s not one to undertake lightly. But it’s something for conservationists to debate and experiment with far more than most seem willing to do.
The starting point of that debate ought to be the passionate and well-argued book by Daniel Kemmis, This Sovereign Land. Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana, and a fairly liberal Democrat, argues that only giving the American West greater responsibility for its own land — through joint management at the watershed level by consensus-based community councils, in his prescription — will induce the kind of responsible management that the West needs. Bicker with the particulars, please! But don’t deny that it’s a powerful idea, the kind of idea that could ultimately transform our place and our politics.
British Columbia has much more experience with this approach than the Northwest states. The provincial (and not the federal) government controls most of the land in the province. Beginning in the early 1990s, a series of regional decision-making panels assembled by the Commission on Resources and the Environment crafted land-use plans for huge swaths of forest. The panels’ history was full of problems and disappointments, but it was also a mammoth achievement: community-based long-term planning for the public’s lands.
A variety of smaller, independent watershed planning councils in the Northwest states also deserve attention. I profiled one called the Henry’s Fork Coalition in Idaho in my 1996 book This Place on Earth.
The record of such place-based attempts at governance is something the Bush administration and its environmental critics would both benefit from studying.
P.S.- For another Gristmill view on the benefits of “going local,” go here.