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Who Survives? USFS or NPS


I’d like to combine two of the recent posts in this space by Chris Carlson and offer up a provocative wager to our readers.

To set the stage: Chris opined, and I agree, that we’d likely see a push to overturn the Winters Doctrine pertaining to Native American water rights if we begin to see chronic water shortages in the western U.S. In fact he offered to wager on his prediction. Given our treatment of native peoples I won’t take his wager. I’m not sure about the water rights of other federal reservations, either.

Then, in another post, he suggested why former Gov and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus had reservations about turning over much of Alaska to the National Park Service. Chris argues that NPS lands in Alaska have become playgrounds for the rich, while at the same time drawing our attention to a rather heavy handed NPS response to someone who had apparently violated regulations on one of the Alaska units of the park system.  Fear of over-use led Andrus and others to support the National Recreation Area concept in the Sawtooths, Hells Canyon and the White Clouds. Andrus also crossed swords with the late Paul Fritz who I came to know well, but who could be zealot for NPS management of the Sawtooths. The Sawtooths clearly are not a playground for the rich, but, ironically there is a small town a little way down the road that certainly has that reputation.

So here’s the wager: which bureau has a better chance to survive the next one hundred years: the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service? (Disclaimer: I was seasonal ranger for NPS at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at Wahweap and Lees Ferry).

The NPS may be best seen as the keeper of much of our iconic nature and history. However, a recent book by Paul Berkowitz titled The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post reveals a darker side of the bureau I came to admire.

On the other hand, I also came to admire and work with many people from USFS during my time in Idaho, even getting to spend a few days in the woods with the Idaho’s forest supervisors, as Governor Andrus often did. But if one follows the dust up over that agency’s attempt to redo its planning regulations (again) it suggest tough times for that bureau as well.

I think NPS has a better chance to survive because its mission is clearer. I think USFS has a very good chance to survive if we can come up with a clear vision of what America’s forests are for.

If we look at all the ideas, proposals and think pieces that have floated around, hardly anyone except Milton Friedman has argued for the abolishment of national parks, but plenty of folks have argued for transferring forest lands to the states.

The sometimes irascible law professor George Coggins, of the definitive Coggins Wilkinson, Leshy and Fischman’s Federal Public Land and Resources Law fame, once suggested, at a conference we spoke at, that NPS be merged with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service be merged with the Bureau of Land Management. A woman in the audience rose and announced that she was offended because of the grand tradition of her agency….I think it was either NPS or USFS but I can’t remember for certain. Coggins’ response: “Well madam, be offended”.

So what will it be? Who will survive, why should they and what will it take? And who is offended?