There are two approaches to changing management of national forests: from the grassroots level and from the top down.
We recommend a blend of the two. Initiatives at the grassroots level can draw attention to inequities and misrepresentations of fact by our adversaries. But the top-down approach to reform is the only way to legally change the management of national forests.
The Clinton administration, abetted by environmental groups, chose the latter method with great effectiveness. We saw the results.
Of course, the environmentalists claimed a grassroots support base. They boasted about the number of comments they managed to generate at rulemaking forums, such as the controversial process of trying to create defacto wilderness out of roadless areas. But the so-called "grassroots" environmental uprising really consisted of a deluge of form letters from groups' headquarters and national manipulation of public opinion through deceptive advertising campaigns. There never was a groundswell of support in towns and counties for the roadless measure or any of the other Clinton initiatives - especially in areas where the restrictions threatened jobs and quality of life.
Remember, environmentalists enjoyed a front-row seat in the Clinton White House. They received preferential treatment when plotting environmental policy (now that the shoe is on the other foot, they are screaming about energy companies receiving preferential treatment in the development of energy policy).
So forgot the claim that environmentalists ever rode the wave of a grassroots revival trying to limit multiple use on public lands. These groups' strength at the local level would have amounted to nothing without the Clinton-Gore team's poll-driven decision to push from the top down for increased restriction on public lands.
However, the environmentalists were on to something when they chose their strategy. They knew that grassroots protests could draw attention to their issues, but ultimately that the real change had to happen from the top. Federal forests are the jurisdiction of the federal government. That's the place to start for making changes - either good or bad - in the way these forests are managed.
In Grant County, a genuine grassroots push for land management changes has persisted in recent years. We have witnessed passage (often, against advice of community leaders and local opinion makers) of numerous ballot measures seeking more local control over federal forests. No national group has coordinated these efforts. Citizens at the local level have made their voices heard by their own consent.
Sadly, however, the grassroots-level push for control of national forests has not been coordinated with a national effort. Part of this limitation stems from the fact that Grant County does not have as much clout as environmental groups. We do not have a national stage upon which to air our grievances. But another part of this limitation stems from our own unwillingness to lobby and press federal leaders for change. Many of us suffer from a false sense of power. There's an impression among some that county supremacy can trump federal authority.
Sorry, folks, but the grassroots level does not run the courts or make the policy in Washington, D.C. Local protests and ballot votes can draw attention to our issues. But the top-down approach to reform ultimately must occur to institute actual changes.
We can look at New Mexico for an example. Here's a place where grassroots activism created a lot of noise but where a top-down component for actual reform is still pending.
The Albuquerque Journal on Nov. 8 reported: "A group of state lawmakers is asking the U.S. government to take responsibility for the health of New Mexico's fire-prone federal forests or acknowledge its liability for lost lives and property if it doesn't do so.
"'We want to remind them that, indeed it is their fault and we want to hold them responsible for it,' said Rep. Brian Moore, R-Clayton, about the federal government's role in allowing forest overgrowth to go unchecked.
"More than 100 state legislators and county commissioners representing 16 counties signed a petition that was sent Nov. 1 to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
"The petition asks her to transfer limited jurisdiction to local governments to remedy fire hazards in the state's federal forests if the U.S. Forest Service won't fix the problem itself."
Here comes the kicker:
"Such a move has been called constitutionally questionable, because neither the state nor local county governments have jurisdiction to act on federal lands. Environmental groups have also said they are prepared to challenge any local or state action to thin federal forests. ...
"The petition is a second step toward making the state's concerns known to the federal government. Last year state lawmakers passed a measure, known as Senate Bill 1, that declared a state of emergency in certain national forests to allow logging of overgrowth and dead wood.
"No counties or local governments have attempted to thin under the law. Richard Zierlein, an Otero county commissioner, said any county that might attempt to thin federal forests under Senate Bill 1 would likely face an immediate court challenge."
That's right. In fact, court challenges might just be the tip of the iceberg. Citizens, whether in New Mexico or Eastern Oregon, could lose their logging equipment and end up in jail if they try to log on national forests without federal authorization.
Let's heed New Mexico's example. Sure, grassroots activism is appropriate to draw attention to our problems. But the top-down change of laws and regulations must occur as well, unless citizens are willing to break the law. So far, only the extreme environmental groups appear to prefer the tactics of lawlessness. We should avoid those tactics.