New caretaker of US forests steps into storm over land use

Peter C. Myers is a Missouri farmer who has yet to face a full-fledged political storm. Mr. Myers is about to get his chance.

As the newest assistant secretary at the federal Agriculture Department, Myers has charge over the United States Forest Service. And the forest service, steward of 191 million acres of national timber and grassland, is under attack.

It is under renewed attack from environmentalists, who think the Forest Service has leaned too far to accommodate the timber industry, and now from the timber industry, which is concerned that the service may cave in to the demands of the environmentalists.

A Forest Service plan to conduct the biggest federal land swap ever in the Lower 48 has jolted ranchers, naturalists, and legislators. The agency hopes to exchange 35 million acres of Forest Service land for property run by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The lands are spread throughout the West.

The Forest Service is now under the magnifying lens of Congress. During the last two weeks, hearings have been held on the forest planning process, under which some 37 percent of Forest Service timber is currently sold at a loss. In Alaska, according to agency data, timber sales are returning 2 cents on the dollar.

One watchdog group testified last week that the sales have cost the government more than $2 billion over the last 10 years.

The Forest Service's troubles stem from a mandate to maintain national forest lands both for the commodities interests and the nature lovers. The charge may seem contradictory. The question of how to strike a balance between the two has fueled debates for years. But Myers, who took office in mid-May, says he has no problems with it.

``I don't see how one overshadows the other,'' he says in an interview at his Agriculture Department office. The walls are decorated with memorabilia from his tenure during the past two years as chief of the department's Soil Conservation Service. In that position he won praise for implementing a successful, cost-conscious soil and water conservation program. Myers himself is shirt-sleeved, and exudes the easy informality of one not given to much self-doubt.

``I feel very strongly that the Lord put the resources on this earth for man to use -- to manage wisely, but to use,'' he says. ``We're charged by law with the multiple use of the national forests, and that includes recreation, that includes wildlife, that includes soil and water -- and,'' he adds a bit apologetically, ``that includes timber.''

Myers took the new job amid somewhat muffled hopes from environmentalists that his tenure would be less stormy than that of his predecessor, John Crowell.

Mr. Crowell, former general counsel for the timber giant Louisiana Pacific, was quickly branded by opponents as pro-development. He later earned the enmity of environmentalists for attempting to double timber harvesting throughout the national forest system, and for announcing that the process by which national forest lands were set aside as wilderness areas was largely complete.

Crowell critics have been somewhat more receptive to Myers. Before his appointment, he made courtesy calls on several environmental and industry groups.

``He was open to information and wanted to hear both sides of the issue,'' recalls Peter Emerson, a resource economist with the Wilderness Society.

But there remains some skepticism about Myers's ability to chart a different course for the national forests.

``I'm hopeful,'' Rep. Les Aucoin, a member of the House subcommittee that oversees national forest management, says of Myers's appointment. ``But the administration that picked John Crowell is the same administration that picked this guy.''

One of Myers's first tests may be the proposed land exchange between the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service is supposed to streamline operations and cut costs. After an estimated $45 million expenditure, the swap should save the two agencies about $35 million annually. ``That's an honest savings,'' Myers says.

The controversy comes in over the issue of management.

The Forest Service has 30,000 people to manage 191 million acres. The land management bureau has 8,000 people to oversee 300 million acres. Also, the two have different charters, different records of environmental and industry management, and in some cases are subject to different laws.

The debate over that proposal is likely to grow more heated as the Forest Service starts to release a 50-year plan for each national forest, part of its congressionally mandated forest-planning process.

Myers is setting up a commission to try to establish an ``objective scale'' with which to measure the value of wildlife against development activities. The scale, he says, would help determine the issue of wilderness classification.

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