I recently retired from the USDA Forest Service after 38 years of federal service. My final job with the US Forest Service was forest supervisor of the Dixie National Forest in beautiful southwestern Utah.
Many Utahns I have met over the last few years are rightly concerned about the health of their forested lands. Seventy-five or more years of fire exclusion, prolonged and ongoing drought conditions, and epidemic insect infestation have taken a toll in many parts of Utah, including on the Dixie National Forest. The Dixie and other national forests in Utah, in cooperation with Utah's State forester, continue to try to do what they can to reverse, slow or mitigate these trends.
During my three years on the Dixie, we managed to get a lot of good vegetation management work done, but we could have accomplished a lot more were it not for the unnecessarily high level, and excruciatingly slow involvement by the federal courts in resource management decision making process.
During my first week on the job in Cedar City in 2003, I was briefed on the status of a decision made a few months earlier by my predecessor to remove some trees on the Griffin Top portion of the Aquarius Plateau northwest of Escalante, designed to slow or stop a (at the time) new insect infestation. The proposal, known as the Griffin Springs Vegetation Management project had been challenged in district court by the Ecology Center and Aquarius Escalante Foundation just prior to my arrival on the forest.
Two years later, in March 2005, the district court in Salt Lake City ruled in favor of the US Forest Service and found that the issues raised by the plaintiffs were not valid. The decision was immediately appealed by the environmental groups.
On my last day of work, June 30, 2006, we received word that the US Forest Service has lost the subsequent appeal in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. That is three years from start to finish-and what was the result?
Meanwhile, the insect infestation has increased and is now nearing epidemic proportions. Should my successor decide to pursue a new project in the same area, the project will need to cover a lot more acreage and focus primarily on salvaging the vast number of dead Englemann spruce trees that we lost since the original decision was made in 2002. A new project must also now attempt to minimize the resulting and significantly increased risk of catastrophic wildfire on Griffin Top.
It took three years for the federal court system to decide that the US Forest Service had failed to specifically state that it had used the "best available science" in making the decision. The court did not find that the US Forest Service had failed to use the best available science-only that my predecessor had inadvertently failed to specifically mention it in the decision document. In doing so, the court basically took the easy way out and did not rule on the several disingenuous and trumped-up issues raised by the plaintiffs-issues, as I said, that were soundly rejected out of hand by the district court in Utah.
As I stated earlier, the Griffin Springs decision was not mine, so I have no personal axe to grind over its demise. However, it was not pleasant for me as the forest supervisor to put a well-conceived and needed project on hold for three years while the courts plodded at a snail's pace toward what proved to be a non-decision on a bunch of non-issues. At the same time, the resource conditions on the ground rapidly deteriorated almost beyond redemption and local forest products dependent businesses were deprived of an opportunity to help us make a positive contribution toward solving a very real forest health problem on Griffin Top.
Some of you may have read the plaintiffs' triumphant advertisement about the decision, masquerading as a news story in the Salt Lake Tribune (Ruling Squashes Logging Plan, July 3). Very little that reporter Christy Karras wrote was accurate, except the fact that the decision had been overturned by the appeals court. The story reads very much like it had been written for Karras' use in the usual self-serving, manipulative and fictional style often used by many environmental groups. I especially take exception to the statement that, "Dixie National Forest officials were not available for comment (on a Sunday)..." Believe me, I would have had much to say, but nobody tried to call me-and I was home all that day (since I did not regularly work on Sunday).
The Tribune article was correct in one way-the environmentalists did win this one. Unfortunately, the health of the forest and the majority of the folks who live in Utah and/or use the Dixie National Forest lost in a big way. Environmental groups always win when the courts take three years to render a decision and delay the implementation of needed work on the ground-even if, as most often occurs, the court ultimately affirms the US Forest Service decision.
The courts compound the problem by granting status to file environmental lawsuits to anyone who lives and breaths. The groups certainly do not have to care about the place in question or have a basic understanding of forest management practices. The courts also allow, even encourage, environmental groups to shop for judges who have personal views favorable to their cause.
The deck at that point becomes stacked against good resource management, especially when these lawsuits reach the appeals courts, as this case readily illustrates.
Adding insult to injury, we taxpayers will probably have to pay the Ecology Center's and Aquarius Escalante Foundation's court costs. We lose again-we then will become the equivalent of a dues paying member of these groups, whether we like it or not.
Congress has seen fit with its passage of the Equal Access to Justice Act to compel the federal government to compensate environmental groups for their (probably inflated) court costs when the case is decided in their favor (and of course they are not required to pay the governments court costs when they lose). This is good business for the environmental groups-it saves them from having to recruit new members or raise money in order to file the next lawsuit and stop the next project.
I have retired back to my home in Idaho (where such things are not much different), but my suggestion to that majority of Utahns reading this who care about the health of the forested lands in your beautiful state is to get mad and get involved.