Forest Service could get new home

Forest Service could get new home

An idea that has been swirling around natural resources circles for decades is making a surprising comeback: Transfer the U.S. Forest Service from the Agriculture Department to the Interior Department.

Support for the idea of removing the beleaguered Forest Service from the Agriculture Department is coming from unexpected sources: House Budget Committee chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, and American Forest Paper Association president W. Henson Moore.

Kasich suggested that the government could save money by consolidating both the Forest Service and the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service with Interior's Bureau of Land Management, its Fish and Wildlife Service and its National Park Service. The savings, Kasich suggests, could be funneled to the national parks. The merger appeared in an early version of Kasich's 1999 budget resolution, but was later dropped at the demand of other lawmakers.

Moore's support for the radical reorganization is even more surprising. His organization represents loggers, who have long enjoyed a cozy relationship with USDA. But in a recent interview with National Journal, Moore argued that the affiliation has a downside. "There is a connotation that the forests are a crop," he said. "The American people reject that notion, and we reject that notion."

Moore's hope is that combining the agencies would force regulators to harmonize the regulations governing the public lands. A former member of Congress who served in the White House during the Bush Administration, Moore also explicitly endorsed placing Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, long the nemesis of western Republicans, in charge of the new behemoth. "You'd have one Secretary--a capable guy, Bruce Babbitt," Moore said.

But the proposal met with resistance from Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, who advocates rewriting the laws governing the Forest Service.

"We should be determining exactly what these agencies ought to be doing first," Craig said. "After we have agreement on a clear mission for these agencies, then we can evaluate whether their current organization effectively serves that mission."

Environmental activists reacted cautiously to Moore's proposal. Michael A. Francis, the director of the Wilderness Society's national forest program, agreed that consolidation would help streamline public land management. But he doubted that Moore was being altruistic.

"I would read this as another ploy to punish the Forest Service for not cutting down more trees," he said.