Federal land management agencies are often vehemently criticized by conservationists for their orientation favoring commodity production. Two recent management decisions by the Dixie National Forest (the North Slope Timber Sale and oil and gas leasing) epitomize the reasons this forest has long exasperated conservationists.
In late spring, the Dixie announced it would prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) for oil and gas leasing on the forest.On the face of it, such programmatic review is eminently supportable because it gives the agency the opportunity to consider cumulative impacts of numerous, otherwise, individual actions.
But, in the context of other management responsibilities for the forest, the decision to proceed with this EIS is ill-advised decisionmaking.
Why? The answer is twofold, involving economics and sound natural resource management. According to Dixie Forest personnel, the Dixie is planning to begin a comprehensive rewrite of the existing forest management plan.
The current plan, released in 1985, is recognizably outdated because of major changes in demands on the forest. Recreational use, for example, has far exceeded planning expectations, while timber demand is far lower than projected as a result of mill closures and cutbacks.
Recognizing the inadequacies in the current plan, the Dixie has wisely decided to revise the comprehensive forest plan beginning in 1994. A decision to proceed with an expensive programmatic EIS for oil and gas just one year prior to beginning a comprehensive plan revision represents a gross misallocation of scarce federal dollars.
This is especially true for the Dixie, where forest managers point to budgetary constraints as the reason why ongoing monitoring has been so abysmal.
But Dixie Forest officials answer, "We've had interest expressed by potential lessees." Let's keep it in context, however. The Dixie has received fewer than eight letters of interest in oil and gas leasing within the forest.
As a result of interest expressed by just a handful of individuals, the Dixie will force its comprehensive planning direction to conform to the decisions made in the premature oil and gas EIS.
Based on our experience with the Dixie timber program, it is not surprising that the forest is posturing itself to have management decisions driven by commodity interests.
Despite the fact that the majority of public interest is, overwhelmingly, in favor of protecting outstanding recreational opportunities, the Dixie has often set itself up as an advocate for commodity interests.
With timber out of vogue in the Dixie, and in light of the administration's plan to shut down timber programs on below-cost national forests (of which the Dixie is one), the Dixie is still turning a blind eye towards its majority users.
The Dixie will allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars from its purportedly meager budget to allow the interest of just a few individuals to be the driving force behind management decisions that will be made over the next 12 years.
The second area of recent contention is the forest's timber program. Recently, the Dixie offered a timber sale, which is purportedly geared toward the small mill operations in Wayne County.
Conservationists generally support the concept of smaller mills rather than the mega-mills that are being phased out of Escalante and Panguitch. The smaller mills, with their less voracious timber appetites, are more compatible with the meager quantities of marketable timber that can be extracted from southern Utah's high plateaus in an environmentally sound manner.
Playing its traditional role as facilitator of unnecessary conflict, the Dixie has offered this sale on the North Slope of Boulder Mountain, south of Teasdale.
The sale would require construction of five miles of new roads into a spectacularly scenic and biologically rich roadless area.
Although conservationists attempted to steer the Dixie away from this North Slope area in our comments on the draft EIS, we were ignored.
Alternatively, the Dixie could have identified a previously roaded area for the sale in order to protect the roadless area of which there are few remaining on the Dixie. Instead, the Dixie decided to create a battle-field.
Clearly, federal agencies are often responsible for creating unnecessary conflicts in land management issues. The Dixie Forest, with its oil and gas leasing and North Slope decisions, has been and continues to be a lightning rod for needless frustrations engendered by short-sighted decisionmaking.