Cynthia Oi Under the Sun

Cynthia Oi

Can’t see the forest
for the dollar signs

SHOCK waves from disclosures about U.S. intelligence, or lack thereof, enveloping the 9/11 commission hearings coupled with the sobering scores of combat deaths in Iraq have sucked all the air out of news cycles lately.

It's no wonder little attention was given a story by the Associated Press out of Reno last week. Compared to a rare presidential news conference and increasingly scary headlines from Baghdad and Fallujah, the report was hardly a blockbuster. But it was another example of the credibility gap that stretches across seemingly every agency in the Bush administration.

Arguing that substantial logging in the Sierra Nevada mountains is needed to avert wildfires, the Forest Service spent $90,000 to hire a public relations company to produce brochures to make its case. That's not a whole pile of money when the war is gulping down at least $4 billion a month.

No, the money wasn't the issue. It was the smokescreen.

See, the brochure displayed a series of photos from "forests of the past" in which trees were widely spaced, then moving toward the present, showing dense forests with underbrush.

Only the photo depicting the "healthy" stand supposedly less likely to produce devastating fires had been taken just after the forest had been logged.

A sharp-eyed fellow from a conservation group thought the photo was familiar and found that it had been used before by the logging industry. With magnification, tree stumps and slash piles could be seen in the background. The pictures weren't even taken in the Sierra Nevada, but in the Bitterroot forests hundreds of miles away in Montana.

The Forest Service said it did not mean to deceive, that the photos don't have captions that identify them as the Sierra Nevada, ignoring the fact that the brochure was entirely focused on the region where it proposes to double logging through 11.5 million acres of forest land.

The misleading photos can be discounted as a simple error in judgment. Not so the administration's exclusion of potential monetary benefits in a report on the economics of protecting the threatened bull trout and its habitats in the Pacific Northwest.

The report disclosed that preserving the fish would cost up to $300 million over 10 years and interfere with hydropower, logging and highway construction. But cut from the report were 55 pages that pointed to the economic advantages, such as revenue from recreation, lower costs for drinking water and irrigation for farmers.

Officials said that information was removed because it had been gathered through methods that did not conform to prescribed standards. How to explain then that similar information collected through similar methods is not discounted when it supports an administration goal, such as the touted $113 billion in benefits that supposedly would come from Bush's Clear Skies Act proposal.

It's no secret that the president has an aversion to protecting nature when those he considers his domestic allies object. Thwarted by Congress and challenges from conservation and environmental groups, the administration instead attempts to dismantle protections by end-runs around regulations.

A year ago, it declared an end to surveys of more than 200 million acres of land being considered for wilderness designation, effectively abandoning them to mining, drilling and logging. The surveys were to determine which of these regions, including sequoia forests in California, the Vermillion Basin in Colorado and the last contiguous piece of Chihuahuan Desert grassland, should be preserved.

The president seems to agree with gas and oil developers and mining companies that lands have no value if they cannot extract from them something to sell. It seems that his administration's interest in the environment is limited to chopping cedar bush and pulling bass from a ranch pond in Crawford.

Tomorrow is Earth Day and the president will be in Maine to make a speech about his environmental record. I'm guessing it will be short.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at:


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