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Can the Bureaucratic Knot Be Untangled?

Several well-written articles recently have called for Oregon to once again capitalize on our amazing renewable natural resources. Oregon State Senator David Nelson wrote in an Oregonian editorial, “This state has every natural advantage over its neighboring competitors, and a pioneering and ingenious people who know how to work hard and capitalize on opportunity.” But the likelihood of Oregon ever being able to once again use our natural resources as an economic competitive advantage is dependent on our ability to untangle the bureaucratic and legal knots present at every level of government. This will have to be done before we lose our remaining infrastructure and practical experience necessary to once again make them an economic stalwart in our state. With such a matted mess, how and where do we begin?

The snarl of bureaucratic strings is the result of 50 years of methodical actions by environmentalists to tie up any opportunities to create an economic foundation based on renewable resources. Year after year we have watched as new environmental regulations have been implemented at both the federal and the state levels. These strings have been knitted into a paralyzing process that essentially makes it impossible to craft management decisions affecting our public lands. This inevitably forces critical management decisions to be made by the judicial system which can look only at the individual legal knot that has been challenged, not at the impact to renewable resources as a whole. It is this purposely created bureaucratic knot that is strangling our resources and our rural communities.

With more than 60% of Oregon’s forestland owned by the federal government, the first step to unraveling this knot must be to prevent more land from being acquired by federal government agencies, including so-called “gifts.” If federal agencies wish to exchange or acquire additional lands, they should be required to identify equal acreage within Oregon to be liquidated. Consolidation of federal lands should only be allowed to move forward if the counties involved agree to the land exchange. Gifts of land to the federal government also should be handled in much the same manner. The first step to accomplishing this would be for the Oregon legislature to amend ORS 272.040 and ORS 272.050, so that forestland acquired by the federal government must receive both state and county government approval.

Focus must be placed on what seems to be the never-ending federal planning conundrum. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management now appear to have more staff dedicated to forest planning than they have active foresters. This cultural shift from active forest management to paper pushing is disheartening when you observe the dismal condition many of our federal forests are in. There was slight optimism within the forest industry and rural communities before the New Federal Planning rule was released in February 2011, but the new rule as proposed simply replaces one top-heavy bureaucratic process with another of equal complexity. A streamlined system must be put into place so that active management can restore forest health and fire resiliency of our federal forests before we reach the point of no return. This cannot be achieved with passive management and a few scattered thinning projects. Robust active forest management plans can create the healthy forest ecosystem we all envision.

Our federal forests cannot afford to be caught in regulatory and bureaucratic purgatory any longer. The legal and political wrangling with forest plans―like the on again, off again Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR)―move us no closer to accomplishing either side’s objectives. Solutions lie within a combination of all the sciences: environmental, political and social. And most importantly, deference must be given to our state and local communities to develop plans that can truly begin to untangle the bureaucratic mess the federal government has made of our federal forests.

In 1929 Herbert Hoover said: “Our western states have long since passed from their swaddling clothes and are today more competent to manage much more of these affairs than is the Federal Government. Moreover, we must seek every opportunity to retard the expansion of Federal bureaucracy and to place our communities in control of their own destinies….The Federal Government is incapable of adequate administration of matters which require so large a matter of local understanding.”

If only the federal government had heeded that message when it was delivered, perhaps our federal forests would be in better shape today. It was good advice then and is good advice now. We must demand the opportunity to control our federal forests locally, before the massive bureaucratic knot can never be untangled.

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