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Two-Faced Forest Policy

August 11, 2004

There are several good reasons to protect 40,000 acres of New Mexico's Carson National Forest from gas exploration. For one, the alpine meadow was donated to the national forest 22 years ago -- by an oil company -- for wildlife habitat and recreation. The gift was intended to benefit the public and the environment, not to help out another energy company. The land lies next to a Boy Scout camp where for 65 years youths from across the nation have backpacked, ridden horses and worked on conservation projects.

The U.S. Forest Service has determined that gas exploration could pollute water in the pristine countryside, as well as harm wildlife and recreation. Foresters consulted with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is generally friendly to oil, gas and timber interests. The consensus: Reject the request of natural gas producer El Paso Corp. to drill in the meadow.

Then, as Times staff writer Julie Cart reported Monday, came the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining -- a title that tells the story. It nagged forestry officials to reconsider. Suddenly, the Forest Service came out with a report more favorable to the El Paso proposal, a first step in opening the forest to gas exploration.

Once again, the Bush administration ignored the best science of its own experts, as it did in withholding a report on high mercury levels in women, rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change and banning over-the-counter sales of the so-called morning-after pill. Once again, in the New Mexico forest, a political agenda blurred environmental science and the proper workings of federal agencies. It also overrode the objections of a governor, the communities around the land and the Boy Scouts.

Hold it. Weren't Bush officials the ones making pronouncements a couple of weeks ago about giving states and communities a bigger role in deciding what gets built in their national forests? In that case, the administration was unveiling a rule that would make it easier to build roads through the forests. Under the new process, governors and communities would have a major say in opening areas to development.

The real message seems to be that state and local governments have an important voice on national forests, but only when they're saying, "Drill! Pave! Log!" Governors in other Western states who are trying to preserve wild land from gas and oil leases might as well lack larynxes, at the rate they're heard.

In truth, though local opinions matter, final decisions on forest matters should be made by national foresters, based on science and public benefit. The national forests belong to all the people in this country, not to a state or town. Some resource development in these forests is appropriate, but it ought to be based on the best use of the land, not on the gas company guy having the right ties to the White House.

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