Maybe the old saw that “a man’s word is his bond” is obsolete in today’s politics. I grew up in a time and place where a handshake is a contract, and a deal is a deal. But it just doesn’t seem to be true for lots of interest groups today, as we see all too often in the odd world of environmental policy. Many people have become reluctant to make agreements with their opponents, because they fear the “settled” agreement won’t stay “settled” past the ink-drying stage.
Witness last week’s lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, demanding the agency re-open the already-settled decision about “critical habitat” for the Canada Lynx. The agency studied the matter for more than a decade, sought and received input from thousands of interest groups, businesses, stakeholders, state and local governments, and interested individuals across the country. Very few species have been studied more closely over a longer time than the lynx. In the end, based on the best available science, the agency designated 39,000 square miles in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming as protected habitat. The population of lynx we introduced in Colorado provided much of the scientific evidence that the Southern Rockies are not critical to the animals’ survival. But that did not provide some extremists with the tools they sought for regulating human activity on public lands, so this week a group called the “Center for Native Ecosystems” filed suit to force the government to reconsider adding Colorado and New Mexico to the designated habitat, with no scientific basis whatsoever. Only time will tell whether the courts will defer to sound science and cool heads, but anyone can predict the millions taxpayers will spend on legal fees before it is settled – again. There are hundreds of examples like it every year.
At LeaderBridge we deal frequently with companies frustrated by such seemingly endless processes involving endangered species. The Endangered Species Act is the biggest tool in the toolbox for those who seek to stop business activity, and many business leaders wonder if there is ever an endgame. We show them ways to mitigate the impacts of their projects, negotiate the regulatory minefields, and even more important, ways to actually recover species so they can be removed from the endangered list, thereby removing the tool for stopping things.
We can’t force people to stick to agreements once made; we can’t force others to act with civility or keep their word. But there are plenty of ways to deal with the world as it is and ensure the right outcome.
This week in Denver, I attended an annual gathering of timber industry leaders and U.S. Forest Service officials, all talking about ways to restore our national forests that are dying, falling down and burning up – a disaster Ken Salazar aptly called the “Katrina of the West.” Unfortunately, not much progress has been made in the years since environmental zealots stopped almost all logging, chanting slogans like “save the old growth.” In the past ten years bark beetles have marched across millions of acres of forests from northern New Mexico to British Columbia, leaving a trail of destruction that would make Sherman blush. My home state of Colorado now has over 2 million acres of dead trees.
Once these trees die, and even if they burn in today’s all-too-common catastrophic wildfires, they still have commercial value for several years if managers move quickly enough to get them harvested before they rot. Today, however, even that normally valuable wood is worthless because the recession has all but stopped home construction, tanking the price of lumber to all-time lows and devastating a timber industry already on its last gasp. Weakened from years of no available timber – caused by environmental appeals, lawsuits, and regulatory delay – the few sawmills left in public lands states (Colorado has only two of commercial size) are on the verge of collapse. It is appalling that the process is now so complicated that managers cannot even get approval for the sale and removal of dead trees. Are we now officially protecting dead landscapes?
Just as all hope seemed lost, though, the new Obama Administration suddenly pumped over $1 Billion into the Forest Service to save and create new jobs through projects badly needed to restore the health of the national forests. Relief for both dying forests and dying timber companies? Sadly, the first third of that money has been absorbed by the agency for in-house projects, and given out in grants for projects that have nothing to do with either jobs or healthy forests – including a grant for a Girl Scout camp, and funding for outdoor youth programs. Worthy perhaps, but they have nothing to do with forest restoration, and they do not create or save jobs in the industry with which the government must partner to manage our forests. Some funds were targeted for clearing dangerous dead trees from roadsides, campgrounds and power lines – but the money went to out of state contractors while local loggers are going out of business.
The good news is that two-thirds of the money has not yet been spent. That means there is still time for the Forest Service to save hundreds of good jobs by merging economic recovery with the desperate need to clear dead trees and restore healthy forests. There may yet be a success story in the making. But if they don’t get this right, our leaders will have saved nothing but hundreds of miles of dead trees.