May 10, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A former Forest Service chief decried the near top-to-bottom gridlock that has seized Forest Service operations nationwide, calling the existing situation a "national breakdown of process."

Jack Ward Thomas, Forest Service chief from 1993 to 1996 and a founder of the Starkey Experimental Forest, said during an interview Friday that he believes a public land law review committee should convene to write alternatives to existing legislation.

"The laws and acts don't fit together," he said.

"At one time there was a committee, but the last time it met, they threw up their hands and quit. It's time to try that again."

The inflexibility of national forest regulations has created a "conflict industry," Thomas said.

"No matter what's proposed, it creates a fight," he said. "The process is drawn out under appeal and lawsuits to the point where the costs exceed the benefits."

Public officials in Oregon, from Gov. John Kitzhaber to Union County Commissioner John Howard, have criticized the slow pace of consultation for restoration projects. Consultation is required under the regulations governed by the law.

"They still have to obey the law," Thomas said. "They can be sued. All over the country they're trying the various efforts, but they still have to obey the law."

Thomas suggested three primary courses of action to improve national forest operations:

• Change the law.

• Streamline the regulations.

• Support collaborative efforts.

A portion of the law governing forest operation grew from the Endangered Species Act, now more than 30 years old.

"The Endangered Species Act is unchanged," he said. "It's very popular, but it's time for a re-examination."

The problem with the act, in Thomas's opinion, is that it "forces the regulatory agencies to make short-term decisions for preservation. Management agencies need longer term.''

"You can't stop the world."

Thomas said he believes the cumulative effects of short-term decisions to preserve species will "force changes" in the act.

Changes eventually came to the old Forest Service policies that emphasized commercial logging.

"What seemed to work for a long time economically and socially failed ecologically," he said.

The American public is now demanding science-based forestry, but the number of researchers continues to decline, Thomas said, pointing out that within the past 20 years the number has been cut in half.

"As everybody calls for good science in forestry, we're reducing our capacity to research," he said. "The amount of money and people are being consistently cut

back, and researchers are being diverted into management issues. That just makes it worse."

The former chief's concern about a loss of research may be seen in the Bush Administration's proposed budget that does not fund the Starkey Experimental Station. Thomas was in La Grande Thursday to lead the members of the Oregon Society of American Foresters on a tour of the station.

"I hope that was a short-sighted misstep that will be corrected," he said about the proposed budget cut.

Collaboration between local governments and the national forests could be helped by charter forests, a concept promoted by the Bush Administration, but "nobody knows exactly what a charter forest would do," Thomas said. "All you can say about that is, ‘I have an open mind.'"

Thomas believes that budget changes should follow charter forests, if they are developed. Should the Wallowa-Whitman, for example, be designated a charter forest, a budget for the individual forest operation should be prepared.

"Budget is everything," he said. "The charter forests will depend on a directed budget."

The current one-year national forest budgets create difficulties in planning, he said.

"Forestry is a long-term proposition, a 100-year vision, but we must operate on a two-year election cycle and a one-year budget cycle. That doesn't fit together well."

Thomas, instead, suggested a five-year budget cycle for national forests that will "allow the managers to look ahead."

Despite the problems that permeate the Forest Service, Thomas said he is not


"It can turn around in a minute," he said. "I'm not necessarily pessimistic that it won't be turned around."