By Ken Ward Jr.
West Virginia activists think they might have found a better way to handle the state's forests: Get more public input, consider forest uses other than logging and, above all, talk a lot more about it.
Ironically, the possible model emerged from a lawsuit filed to stop the largest timber sale in the history of the Monongahela National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service proposed to cut 16 million board feet of century-old, national forest trees on the east side of Gauley Mountain north of Marlinton.
Six individuals and two environmental groups filed a federal court lawsuit to stop the logging. They said the Forest Service did not fully consider the effects the cut would have on Elk River tributaries, wildlife and forest biodiversity.
The Forest Service, as required by law, heard public comments on the logging proposal before it was approved.
Cindy Schiffer, the district forest ranger in charge of the project, met with citizens and hiked through the proposed timbering areas with some of them.
But the Forest Service's efforts at listening to citizens only kicked into high gear once the lawsuit was filed, according to those involved.
Eventually, the two sides agreed to a settlement which reduced the amount of timber to be cut by 21 percent.
The settlement eliminated proposed helicopter logging that would have been closest to private homes and near areas where an endangered species of bat lives. It includes requirements for no-cut zones of up to 300 feet along streams. And it requires an extensive timber monitoring program that will allow citizens to be involved in checking on the cutting's effects on the environment.
"We feel we've accomplished our objectives in this suit," said Bill Turner, a Lewisburg lawyer who represented the citizens who sued. "We wanted to reduce the volume of the cut and protect the streams and sensitive wildlife."
Perhaps more important, environmentalists who sued over the logging said they learned that the Forest Service can, when it wants to, listen to citizens.
"They went many extra miles and really listened," said Beth Little, a Sierra Club activist who lives near Hillsboro.
"The Forest Service made you feel important and involved," Little said.
Steve Hollenhorst, who teaches land use policy at the West Virginia University forestry school, contrasted the Gauley Mountain settlement with the battle over logging at Kumbrabow State Forest.
At Kumbrabow, Hollenhorst said, the Forestry Division ignored citizen concerns that logging would ruin the forest for hiking, camping and fishing.
Forestry Division Director Bill Maxey, Hollenhorst said, creates conflict by insisting he and his staff know best how to manage forests and don't need public input.
Maxey, who worked for the timber industry before joining the Forestry Division, is an outspoken critic of allowing only professional foresters - those trained in how to grow trees as a crop - make decisions about forest management.
In an article in the August issue of the Society of American Foresters newsletter, Maxey criticized the U.S. Forest Service for replacing foresters in agency management positions with landscape architects, botanists, archaeologists and engineers.
"Foresters need advice and assistance from other natural resource managers," Maxey wrote. "However, foresters should provide the leadership in this area, in consultation and collaboration with (not under the direction of) professionals from other disciplines."
In the December SAF newsletter, outgoing Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas responded to Maxey's criticism.
"I hate to see SAF involved in some sort of struggle about purity of who is an appropriate member of SAF and who is an appropriate chief of the Forest Service," said Thomas, a graduate of the West Virginia University forestry school.
"For example, I read a recent editorial ... where Bill Maxey asked why should we let wildlife people and other disciplines in SAF while we're not allowed in their organizations?
"This is not a time for backing off into little subspecialities and building shells around ourselves," Thomas said. "We're looking for the best natural resources and conservation leaders in the world.
"They are not going to be concentrated in wildlife, forestry, ecology, or anywhere else," Thomas said. "We need to be more inclusive and less exclusive. Exclusion is definitely not going to solve anything."
Hollenhorst said, "Note the stark contrast between this broad, inclusive, participatory, and outward view of forestry presented by Dr. Thomas and the narrow view of Bill Maxey in which only "experts" indoctrinated into his view of forestry have a say.
"While I believe Maxey is genuine and well intended, his command and control view of forestry is increasingly out of touch with both public and professional sentiment about what constitutes good forestry," Hollenhorst said.
"This 'Forestmeister' view in which decision authority is vested in an elite of government, academic and industry experts is simply unacceptable today," Hollenhorst said.
"The public want more democratic processes," he said. "They want to participate. They want opportunities to get involved in government policy.
"As a case in point, note the way the Monongahela National Forest dealt with the Gauley timber sale," he said. "While they might be faulted for not seeking enough input prior to the draft plan, after controversy arose, they got out of their offices, met with citizens and adjacent landowners, really listened to their concerns, and incorporated those concerns into the final plan.
"Good forestry involves meaningful public involvement, identification of a broad spectrum of alternative actions and assessment of the environmental and social benefits of each alternative," Hollenhorst said. "We've yet to consider such for public land in West Virginia."
"That might be a way we can get this kind of input way up front in the process," she said. "We might not be able to do that on every occasion. Our differences in philosophy may be so deep that we can't on every issue."
Patrick C. McGinley, a WVU law professor who represented citizens who sued over the Gauley Mountain timbering, said state and federal agencies need to pay attention to citizens - without the citizens having to sue them.
"While the negotiations directed at settling the lawsuit were productive, with both sides recognizing the concerns of the other, these types of productive conversations ought to come during the planning process," McGinley said.
"They should not be limited to those occasions where citizens are forced to file a lawsuit to get the Forest Service's attention and respect," McGinley said.
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