Government gone bad 

Ignoring the public on public land

The next time you hear someone lament that citizens are growing more apathetic about getting involved in government decision-making, you might want to point to the actions of the Bitterroot National Forest managers as a helluva good reason why. Recent revelations of the blatant and arrogant disregard for what citizens have to say about the future of their own national forest lands is not the first time, and will certainly not be the last, that a government agency has gone bad—but it’s a shocker, nonetheless.

As reported this week, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Native Forest Network show the Bitterroot National Forest spent $162,000 preparing for the Middle East Fork hazardous fuels reduction project. Given the unbelievably reckless spending proclivities of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress that have erased the surplus and left us with mounting trillions in national debt, this piddling amount of money is certainly not that big of a deal, except for one thing: the forest managers spent it to mark the cut for their “preferred alternative” while the public comment period on the proposal was still open. In other words, the agency had already made its decision and was moving ahead to implement it with total disregard for whatever the public might say.

Everyone who has ever had contact with state or federal agencies knows that their personnel—especially those charged with stewarding the fish, wildlife and natural resources on public lands—consider themselves “trained professionals.” Those of us in the public, who just happen to own these resources, are relegated to a lesser category of uninformed amateurs who either support them as “friends” or oppose them and are dubbed “troublemakers.” Given this rather dismal regard for the public, it is not uncommon for agencies to disparage public opinion in favor of the decisions made by their “professional managers.”

Despite all the blather about government agencies “serving their customers,” the charade breaks down under even minimal scrutiny. For one thing, if we’re the customers, perhaps someone could tell us where else we can “shop” if we don’t like the “service” we’re getting from, say, the Forest Service. Obviously, there are no other choices—we get whatever kind of service we get from these agencies and if it doesn’t suit us, that’s just too dang bad. They know it and we know it, and that’s why so many people are turned off in their attempts to interact with government these days.

In the case of the Bitterroot National Forest managers, however, it wasn’t just the occasional crank they ignored, but some 10,000 comments from those who responded to the Middle East Fork proposal. The information obtained by the Native Forest Network shows that 98 percent of those comments opposed the Forest Service’s “preferred alternative.” Just to do the math quickly, that means only 200 comments supported the proposal, and a whopping 9,800 opposed it.

Now anyone rendering service to a customer might take pause at numbers like those and perhaps, just for a second, reconsider. But not the Bitterroot Forest managers. According to Dixie Dies, Forest Service spokeswoman: “Most all of the comments we got on this are form letters, so we take that into account.” Obviously, since they initiated their preferred alternative prior to the close of the comment period, whatever account the Forest Service took of the 10,000 comments surely wasn’t much.

Which raises the question: What’s wrong with form letters? In today’s world, people are busy raising families, going to work, taking care of homes and businesses and, quite frankly, have little time to pore through long and terminally boring government documents. Quite naturally, if someone writes a cogent letter that articulates the position one holds, why not send it off? After all, if an individual has taken the time to put his or her name on a letter and submit it to a government agency during a public comment period, shouldn’t that be good enough for the Forest Service? Or has someone on high told the Forest Service it no longer has to heed overwhelming public opinion—say, 98 percent opposition—if it’s expressed in a form letter?

It would be great to be able to say this was just an aberration, an error, a screw-up by a small number of people who irresponsibly ignored the public. But it’s not. We saw the same thing during the comments on the roadless rule, where the public overwhelmingly supported protection for roadless areas and opposed new roads. Or how about the plan to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone? Again, public support for the ban was overwhelming—and ignored.

Instead, we get some lame excuse about form letters, public opinion is tossed out with yesterday’s garbage, and the agencies scramble, as in the case of Yellowstone or salmon restoration in the Columbia River, to do another expensive study so they can have yet another comment period to hopefully produce the results they—or their political masters—desire.

It is tragic that these sorts of incidents are being repeated more and more frequently these days. But then again, considering that former timber lobbyist Mark Rey is calling the shots on forest policy for the Bush administration, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the agency would ignore public opinion to accelerate a logging project.

In the long run, citizens lose faith in their government when government ignores its citizens. First comes apathy, which is now rampant, then comes rebellion—which can take a thousand forms.

There’s only one solution when government goes bad—and that’s accountability. On this project, heads should roll for wasting taxpayers’ money and ignoring overwhelming public opinion. But with a corrupt administration that takes no responsibility for errors and sees accountability as a restraint, not a requirement, don’t hold your breath.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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