The United States Forest Service is a bit like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, whose main laugh line is "I don't get no respect."
Environmentalists think it does the bidding of the logging, mining, and ranching industries. Those who make their living from national forests say the agency too often capitulates to "preservationists" more interested in obscure plant and animal species than in hard-working rural folks. Budget hawks say it wastes hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and its policies are continually under pressure by lawmakers.
The latest round came last Thursday when a coalition of environmental groups and businesses filed suit in federal court in Vermont. They want to halt logging on all federal land until the Forest Service compares the economic benefits of a standing forest versus a pile of logs or wood chips.
Perhaps all this political tussle is not surprising, given that the Forest Service, a $3 billion, 30,000-employee organization, controls 192 million acres - with all the wealth and emotional ties to nature that represents. But these days, the agency is under unusual pressure.
Conservative members of Congress charge that the agency is conducting an illegal lobbying campaign to advance its policies, one some lawmakers think is too "green" in its approach to timber cutting and cattle grazing.
On the basis of 1,500 pages of Forest Service documents, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski, both of Alaska, have asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate. "The records ... demonstrate that the Forest Service used career employees and taxpayer dollars to create a propaganda campaign designed to sway public opinion in a manner expressly pro- hibited," the two Republicans said in a letter to the GAO. As chairmen of the House Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Young and Murkowski have considerable clout.
Earlier this year, Mr. Young demanded information on employees involved in decisions regarding grazing rights on national forests in the Southwest - including membership in, contributions to, or contacts with environmental groups that had sued to restrict cattle ranching on environmentally sensitive land.
Environmentalists and commentators called it a McCarthyesque threat. When Eleanor Towns, head of the Forest Service's Southwest regional office, replied that First Amendment privacy rights forbid such probing, Young dropped the issue. But he had made his point.
From the opposite quarter, meanwhile, conservation groups in Oregon and Washington State recently filed suit to stop the Forest Service from swapping land with corporate owners. Such deals are meant to consolidate "checkerboard" holdings that date back to 19th-century railroad land grants while making commercially valuable timberland available to loggers and mill owners.
The US Department of Agriculture (the Forest Service's parent agency) is investigating the land-exchange program, which critics say does not include enough environmental protection.
Environmentalists and fiscal watchdog groups also criticize the Forest Service for, in effect, subsidizing the timber industry through the below-cost sale of rights to log billions of board-feet of timber. The GAO recently reported that from 1995 to 1997 the federal government lost just over $1 billion.
Industry defenders say managing national forests for timber production as well as wildlife and recreation supplies the nation with wood and paper products while providing thousands of jobs for rural communities. But that argument does not mollify critics, who point to environmental degradation.
"All too often, these logging-based revenues have come at the expense of damaging clearcuts, eroded soils, degraded water quality, and impaired fish and wildlife habitat," says Rep. George Miller of California, senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee.
Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck concedes that the agency must adjust to an era in which public values demand a different approach - one that emphasizes "watershed health and integrity" over commodity production.
Even though the timber program has decreased by 70 percent in less than 10 years, timber production still drives the priorities and the reward system, and that needs to change, Dr. Dombeck told a meeting of foresters in September.
'What we leave behind'
Dombeck, a biologist who has been on the job for less than two years, says his goal is "to focus less on what we take from the land and more on what we leave behind ... less on the volume of wood fiber removed and more on the quality of the water, the diversity of the species, the productive capacity of the land itself."
Dombeck has ordered a moratorium on the building of logging roads in national forests, and he has expressed doubts about the wisdom of clearcutting - which shocked the agency's self-described "timber beasts," who have prided themselves on "getting out the cut."