''The Unkindest Cut'' by John Skow from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Vol. , No. , March , 8
"The Unkindest Cut" by John Skow
from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Vol. 68, No. 11, March 14, 1988
(c) 1988 by Time, Inc. Reprinted without permission.
An old-growth bureaucracy, like an old-growth forest, must be
understood as a single, highly complex organism. Nothing else makes sense.
The thing is alive and has motives, or at least tropisms. A governmental
bureaucracy is by no means fully under the control of the people at the top
of its organizational chart. Decisions that allow the organism to survive
and grow are likely to find support, and all others, even if they make
perfect ecomomic or environmental sense to the outside world, will be
The U. S. Forest Service has a large headquarters in Washington, D.
C., and nine regional divisions. It has more than 30,000 employees. Its 156
national forests are run independently through 119 administrative units. A
brilliant and devastating critique of the agency, REFORMING THE FOREST
SERVICE, by a forester and economist named Randal O'Toole, shows how perverse
and senseless policies like those at work in the Tongass are in full leaf in
virtually all national forests.
The agency earns $3 billion a year and spends $4 billion. Its
mismanagement of grazing, mining, water production and timber accounts for
most of the shortfall. Timber management, including a runaway road-building
program, is the biggest money loser. The Forest Service ofter sells leases
to timber tracts that cost more to survey and "preroad" than the agency gets
back for cutting rights. Subterfuges that some would call bureaucratic scams
are common. To get good tracts, buyers must ofter cut virtually worthless
timber, because the agency packages poor stands with good ones. Then,
typically, it invests in reforestation efforts that only undermine the
Why reforest tracts that are not worth cutting? To plant better
trees, says the Forest Service. Maybe, says O'Toole, but also because it is
agency practice to return roughly 10% of reforestation costs to regional
offices and 5% to the Washington headquarters as above-budget "general
administrative funds", which can be poured into new projects. Books are
cooked with timber-price forecasts that routinely turn out to be wildly
optimistic. These are used to justify expansive tree cutting and road
building. Forest supervisors are pressured to set cutting targets that are
economically and environmentally ruinous, and then are promoted on the basis
of how close they come to meeting the targets.
According to O'Toole, the trouble isn't Forest Service collusion with
timber companies, or James Watt-style wilderness trashing, or even the fact
that most of the agency's brass was trained in forestry or engineering, not
recreation or wildlife biology. Rather, the Forest Service bureaucracy is
simply doing what bureaucracies do best, which is get bigger by maximizing
The way Forest Service rules work against common sense can be seen
from a visit to Sandy and Bud Cahill, who own the 63 Ranch, a 2,000-acre dude
ranch set back several miles from the main road on the edge of the Gallatin
National Forest in Livingston, Montana. About 260 guests vacation there
every summer, and taking care of them provides jobs for four Cahills and ten
hired hands. The trouble is, the Forest Service intends to log a tract half
a mile away, on Gallatin forest land, where the Cahills have horse trails.
Logging trucks will rumble past their gateposts, and instead of peace, guests
will find dust and commotion.
In an effort to block the logging, Sandy has testified in Washington,
and fought in court and lost. Logs from the sale--a below-cost sale, of
course--will keep the Brand S Mill, one of two big mills in the Gallatin,
going for no more than three weeks. Even Forest Service staffers agree that
with a dwindling local supply of privately grown logs, both mills cannot
survive. Virtually all economists agree that recreation, not a marginal
timber industry, represents the future for the area near Yellowstone.
Nevertheless, the agency is determined to keep both mills going.
O'Toole figures that subsidizing the 71 mill jobs that the Forest Service
says would be lost if it reduced cutting in the area would cost the agency
$50,000 per job each year. By contrast, the $20,000 in wages that the Cahill
ranch pays out every summer seems almost a joke. It is, however, money
generated, not wasted. But it doesn't contribute to budget maximization, so
the 63 Ranch doesn't stand a chance.