At the heart of the debate over federal land transfers to states and the idea of setting up trusts on public lands is the idea of turning a valuable and renewable resource to dollars. That resource is wood.
The premise is that the federal government is hamstrung by environmental appeals, litigation and red tape from doing anything on national forests except watch fires burn. Idaho lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter want to take the management away from the 2,500 Forest Service employees in Idaho and hand it over to the state Department of Lands.
The Forest Service and its allies in the timber industry, environmental groups, local governments and recreation groups point to the progress being made both on cutting timber and restoring the land and waters through collaborative programs around the state. These programs are dependent on direct federal funding as well as a creative tool called stewardship contracting.
Stewardship contracting began in the 1990s as a way to take the proceeds from timber-cutting and direct it locally to restoration and forest health projects.
Jim Riley, a forester, consultant and lobbyist from Coeur d'Alene, is a strong supporter of putting the state in charge of cutting timber on federal lands.
But he's also one of the people who created stewardship contracting. Without it, the collaborative programs that have brought loggers and environmentalists together may fail.
"It's integral to every collaborative we're involved in," Riley said.
Authorization for stewardship contracting ends this year. Its future is very much in doubt. Yet you haven't seen any resolutions from the Idaho Legislature on this program. The Legislature isn't declaring a disaster for stewardship as it is for trail maintenance in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
For a generation, the U.S. Forest Service had a remarkable tool for sustaining its programs without asking Congress for too much money: the Knutson-Vandenberg Trust Fund. Congress established the fund in the early 1950s to allow the Forest Service to take receipts from timber sales and place them into the fund so it could spend the money on reforestation and watershed-improvement projects.
The K-V Fund served its needs well, and the programs it supported were expanded in 1976. But free-market economists, such as Oregon's Randal O'Toole, showed that because managers got more money for most of their programs by cutting more timber, they were pushing to do more logging even when it increased damage to watersheds and wildlife habitat. In many forests, including those in much of Idaho, the timber value was not high enough to pay for the programs and the roads needed to access the timber.
Eventually it all came to a head, and timber harvests dropped by 90 percent.
The K-V Fund is still there, but like other funds it has been emptied by the Forest Service to pay for fire management.
Traditional timber sales are rising again on the national forests as trust builds between the former adversaries in the timber wars.
Stewardship contracting fits the needs of the collaborative groups better than traditional timber sales. It also allows the agency flexibility to do contracts for up to a decade, which gives timber companies and loggers the supply certainty they need to attract financing for mills and equipment.
One of the stumbling blocks to contracting's future is that the Congressional Budget Office "scores" stewardship contracting as costing the government and adding to the deficit. The CBO doesn't account for improvements to the resources that the contracts do, Riley said.
This program isn't sexy. It doesn't get much attention. It doesn't help anyone's political-ideological cause. But it works and has backing from people on both sides - the kind of government success story that should be getting more support and attention.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484