The U.S. Forest Service during the past half century lost much of its ability to explain what it’s doing, or what it intends to do, in simple words and pithy phrases.
Which of course hardly makes the agency unique among departments of the federal government, that legendary purveyor of documents sometimes measured in pounds rather than in pages.
I came across a yearly report from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest a while back that seems to me curiously quaint and innocent.
Even if the paper weren’t going yellow with age, and even if the year — 1962 — weren’t printed on its cover, you’d recognize after a few pages that this is the product of a vastly different era.
In that distant age, when few Americans could find Vietnam on a map, and writing “beatles” would drag down your spelling grade, the Forest Service needed just five words to explain its purpose.
That still covers things nicely, so far as I can tell.
Yet this admirable brevity was as surely doomed as the eight-track tape and psychedelic rock.
The syntactic unraveling had progressed quite a ways even by 1990. I chose that year mainly because it’s when the Wallowa-Whitman published its most recent forest plan, which is a sort of guide for how the 2.4 million acres will be managed.
In 1990, “recreation” had bloated into “Recreation Opportunity Spectrum,” a gain of two words and 19 letters but with no obvious increase in information.
If anything, the three-word version is apt to confuse rather than enlighten a reader.
“Wood,” which was understood in 1962 to mean mainly commercial timber but also firewood, had morphed by 1990 into such clumsy, impenetrable constructions as “maximum implementable levels of timber harvest under a nondeclining flow schedule.”
Now I’ll concede that the Forest Service’s task is considerably more complicated today (and in 1990) than in 1962.
In 1962 the National Environmental Policy Act was seven years in the future. That law requires the Forest Service, and other federal agencies, to study the possible environmental effects of everything from big timber sales to replacing little bridges, and then to publish the findings. The resulting tomes can run to hernia-inducing heft.
1962 also predates the Wilderness Act (1964), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the National Forest Management Act (1976) and doubtless much other legislation that has prompted the Forest Service to become such a prodigious producer of words.
And given that federal laws are the antithesis of lucid communication, it’s hardly surprising that the predilection for larding reports with jargon has infected the Forest Service.
Still and all, the Wallowa-Whitman’s 1962 report proves that federal employees can give an accounting of what they’ve been up to for the past year and to do so employing terms and statistics that any competent reader can grasp at a glance.
This makes for interesting reading, too, particularly as a comparison with current conditions.
The greatest disparity, as you’d probably guess, is in the amount of logging.
In 1962 the Wallowa-Whitman sold 178 million board-feet of timber, and loggers cut 117.5 million board-feet. Another 246.8 million board-feet had been sold and was awaiting the chain saws.
By the standards of the past 20 years, those figures seem almost mythical in their immensity.
Since 1991, the Wallowa-Whitman’s top year for selling timber was 1992, when the total was 79 million board-feet. The second-highest was 54 million board-feet, and in most years during that period the forest sold less than 40 million board-feet.
I think it’s beyond dispute that the 1962 figures, which actually accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s, could not have been sustained until now. The Wallowa-Whitman had cut much of the mature ponderosa pines that made those big volumes possible.
Yet it seems to me that the drastic decline in logging that started in 1991 was more precipitous than can be justified solely by the federal mandates that the Wallowa-Whitman protect salmon, steelhead and other species.
It’s as if the forest, confronted by an aggressive environmental movement flush with the success of the spotted owl protection in westside forests, was afflicted with a malaise.
But it’s a single photograph in the 1962 report, not the several accompanying charts of logging statistics, that strikes me as the most striking difference, in attitude if not actual result, between then and now.
That photo shows a logger putting the back cut in a old growth ponderosa, probably 30 inches or better in girth.
They don’t cut pines like that on the Wallowa-Whitman these days, or at least not often. And the forest certainly doesn’t boast of the practice in photographs.
The other section of the 1962 that I read with particular interest has to do with roads.
During that year, timber buyers built 130 miles of roads on the Wallowa-Whitman, and the Forest Service constructed five miles.
Forest engineers also surveyed 170 miles of new roads, and designed 94 miles.
These days, as is obvious to anyone who has so much as a passing interest in the Wallowa-Whitman, the main issue is which roads ought to be closed to motor vehicles. The notion of building new ones, aside from an occasional short temporary road needed to haul logs, is at best an afterthought.
The 1962 report also rebuts the idea, which seems to me to be relatively common, that the Wallowa-Whitman’s network of roads is nearly as old as the Forest Service (founded in 1905) itself, that in the main we ply the same roads our forebears did five or six generations ago.
In fact, hundreds of miles of roads have been built during the past 50 years, a necessary part of the sustained logging during the first half of that period.
Roads, of course, as an integral part of one of those five words that constituted the Forest Service’s motto in 1962: “recreation.”
As the report from that year shows, Wallowa-Whitman users had reason to be optimistic about their ability in coming years to get around the forest in a rig.
This is what some people mean when they talk about “the good old days.”
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.