More millions, for what?

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board February 24, 2014 08:53 am

We understand why U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., during his town hall meeting in Baker City last week, touted the $15 million he helped secure for the BLM’s sage grouse management plan.

The BLM’s goal — to avoid having the grouse listed as a threatened or endangered species — is one we share.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does decide next year to list the sage grouse, livestock grazing on public land — a mainstay of Baker County’s economy — could be severely curtailed, with the attendant local effects.

Yet when we pondered Merkley’s words we recognized that there was more to the senator’s statement than typical political posturing. And some of it is not worthy of boasting about.

First, we’re not convinced that the federal government needed to spend an extra $15 million to figure out how to protect sage grouse habitat. Writing management plans, after all, is part of the BLM’s bailiwick; indeed, like most government agencies it produces a prodigious amount of paperwork every year regardless of budgets.

We’re more troubled, though, that the BLM received $15 million to write a plan of Tolstoyian length, yet neither it nor other land-managing agencies such as the Forest Service seems capable of doing more than a token amount of on-the-ground work that actually improves the health and productivity of public land.

We’d much prefer to hear Merkley or another member of Oregon’s congressional delegation bragging about $15 million that, for instance, was spent to selectively log thousands of acres of overcrowded forest. That would produce results both more tangible, and more valuable, than a 2-inch thick document — logs for mills and a reduced risk of wildfire, to name two prominent examples.

We concede that the situation isn’t so simple.

Congress could give the BLM or Forest Service $15 million — for that matter, $150 million — and there would be no guarantee that the land, or the public, would get anything for its investment except many more hefty management plans.

Coincidentally, just a couple weeks ago the feds did announce that money would be available for forest work along the east side of the Elkhorn Mountains.

The amounts are modest compared with the outlay for the BLM’s sage grouse work — $1.7 million for private landowners and $1 million for the Forest Service.

And the money is for precommercial thinning, which reduces the fire risk and can help remaining trees grow faster, but doesn’t produce valuable products except possibly firewood.

Still and all, we predict that the $2.7 million will have a more noteworthy effect on the land than the $15 million Merkley bragged about.

The private property owners in particular are sure to put their share of the dollars to uses more worthwhile than writing a management plan that could be rendered moot by the edict of yet another federal agency.