Clean | Green | Sustainable

Happy 40th Anniversary Bolle Report!

Posted by Matthew Koehler on November 18, 2010

Today, November 18th, marks the 40th anniversary of the Bolle Report being entered into the Congressional Record?

Some of you might be saying, “The Bolle What?” – and I guess you might not be alone. So here’s a quick summary.

Following World War II, the housing and building boom dramatically increased demand for timber. Up until that time, the US Forest Service (USFS) was largely what historians have come to call a “custodial” agency. Sure, between the USFS’s founding in 1905 until the mid-1940s, the agency was cutting some trees and building some roads in America’s National Forests. However, the USFS didn’t fully get into the business of road building and timber production until the post-WWII era.

And boy did they ever get into it! For example, the USFS would become the largest road building agency in the world, bulldozing and jamming more than 440,000 miles of roads onto our National Forests. In the pre-1970s era, with no real environmental laws or regulations, roads were often built right through streams or riparian areas, or built one of top of another right up the sides of mountains.

The decades of the 50s and 60s also saw the USFS greatly ramp up it’s logging levels. In order to keep up with demand (and respond to Congressional pressure) the USFS increasingly looked to large-scale clearcutting to “get the cut out.”

The Bitterroot National Forest took this one step further: clearcuts followed by building terraces on entire hillsides. Forest Service policy expert, Dr. Martin Nie of the University of Montana, has this account:

“Responding to increased demand, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) began to more aggressively harvest timber after World War Two. This national change in management philosophy, from so-called custodian to timber production agency, was very apparent on the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF)…. Here, the USFS used clearcutting and terracing silvicultural techniques to meet its timber production goals. Several citizens of the Bitterroot Valley, however, disliked this degree of intensive forest management and charged that it was environmentally and aesthetically harmful. Among other complaints, citizens objected to the practice or intensity of clearcutting and/or terracing, stream siltation and watershed impacts, excessive road building, the level of timber harvesting, real estate effects, and the inadequate attention given to other multiple uses.”

One of those citizens was longtime Bitterroot Valley resident Guy M. Brandborg, who just happened to be the Supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest from 1935 to 1955. Historian Frederick H. Swanson, who is currently putting the finishing touches on a book about Brandborg, last year published an excellent essay titled A Radical in the Ranks: G.M. Brandborg and the Bitterroot National Forest.

“[Brandborg] wrote mountains of correspondence to politicians, reporters, agency heads, and fellow activists, urging them to return the Forest Service to the principles he had followed while supervisor. Brandborg accompanied reporters such as Gladwin Hill of the New York Times, James Risser of the Des Moines Register, and James Nathan Miller of the Reader’s Digest on a circuit of Bitterroot clearcuts, contrasting the agency’s high-impact approach with the much more limited selective cutting he had once employed…. Brandy’s flannel-shirt-and-suspenders appearance did not hurt his credibility with reporters. As a professed “sourdough forester,” he lacked the scientific training of most contemporary Forest Service timber staffers, yet he drew on years of field experience to inform his views. He could be abrasive toward those he disagreed with, using his newspaper commentaries to castigate politicians, bureaucrats, and industry leaders whom he believed were selling out the public’s forests. Yet he acutely understood how to bring pressure on those in power, and beginning in 1968 he organized a calculated and persistent campaign that resulted in significant changes in forestry practices throughout the Forest Service.”

Dr. Nie picks up the story:

“Montana Senator Lee Metcalf, from the Bitterroot Valley himself, responded to widespread constituent complaints about forest management, especially about clearcutting and the dominant role of timber production in USFS policy, by requesting an independent study of the problem by Dean Arnold Bolle of the University of Montana’s School of Forestry. Bolle appointed a select group of faculty members from the University of Montana to investigate, and this group went further in its critique of forest management on the Bitterroot and beyond.

The Committee began its report with the startling statement that “[m]ultiple use management, in fact, does not exist as the governing principle on the Bitterroot National Forest.” It viewed the controversy as substantial and legitimate, with local and national implications. The Committee’s approach was to contrast the actions of the USFS with the written policies and laws governing forest management. From there, the “Bolle Report,” as it became known, criticized the Bitterroot’s “overriding concern for sawtimber production” from an environmental, economic, organizational, and democratic standpoint. Other multiple uses and resource values were not given enough serious consideration according to the Report: “In a federal agency which measures success primarily by the quantity of timber produced weekly, monthly and annually, the staff of the [BNF] finds itself unable to change its course, to give anything but token recognition to related values, or to involve most of the local public in any way but as antagonists.” The subculture of forestry, it seemed to the Committee, was out of step with shifting American values and goals. Though professional dogma was partly to blame, the Bolle Report also found that “[t]he heavy timber orientation is built in by legislative action and control, by executive direction and by budgetary restriction.” The Report also focused on the economic irrationality of clearcutting and terracing on the Bitterroot, and the serious lack of democratic participation in forest management.

Together with a parallel case on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, the Bitterroot controversy helps explain the significant changes that were made to U.S. forest policy in the 1970s, including new guidelines on clearcutting in the National Forests, and passage of the National Forest Management Act in 1976. Though its significance continues to be debated, the latter at least partly addressed some of the issues in the Bitterroot conflict, like by placing limits on clearcutting, and giving the public a more meaningful role to play in forest management and planning.”

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