The Tragedy of the Common Forest

Why the Pacific Northwest forest conflict
is a "no technical solution" problem

by Kelly Andersson

NOTE: This column, which ran in the Oregon Daily Emerald, won the
1996 Eric W. Allen award for editorial writing.

The Pacific Northwest forest conflict will not be solved by the timber industry or the environmental movement, nor will it be solved by management agencies such as the Forest Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service. The solution will not be proposed by Congress, and it will not be concluded in a court of law. The resolution will not come from the general public. It's entirely possible that there is no solution.

Experts concluded 30 years ago that a nuclear arms race had "no technical solution." [1] Because both sides faced increasing military power and decreasing national security, there could be no winner. Similarly, all "sides" in the forests conflict face increasing demands on decreasing resources, and no one group is likely to give up its dwindling share to benefit the others.

The "tragedy of the commons" is a concept first outlined in 1833 (and later described by Garrett Hardin [2]) which holds that users of a public resource will demand an increasing share of the common good to the detriment and eventual loss of the resource.

The timber industry is motivated not by greed, as the environmentalists declare, but by profit. Faced with a dwindling supply of public timber, the industry is not likely to cut production by forgoing any supply it's able to "win" in court. It's even more unlikely that the environmental groups will cede any of what they see as their share. One of the scientists who helped draft Clinton's Forest Plan was astounded when leading environmentalists criticized it. "If I could have whispered to Andy Kerr three years ago what would be in this plan," he said, "Andy would have thought he'd died and gone to heaven." A management plan that makes environmentalists that happy won't ever be designed, because their motivation includes not only profit but a zealous commitment to their cause of preserving the forests for future generations.

What, you say? Environmentalists motivated by profit? Well, of course they are -- groups from Earth First! to the Audubon Society require funding for publications, staff, attorneys and legal costs, travel and office expenses just like any other group. Beyond that, environmental groups will not cease their protest or lawsuits because they are a conflict industry -- if there were no conflict, they'd have no reason to exist. Conflict and crises generate membership, funding, and continued existence.

The forest issue is a "no technical solution problem" partly because neither group will voluntarily cede any of its share to the other side. Beyond that, consideration of the management functions of the Forest Service and Congress reveals that no solution can be forthcoming from either source.

The Forest Service receives its budget from Congress, and members of Congress decide how it will be spent. The agency's historic focus on timber is best explained by Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas:

"When Congress funds my wildlife budget at half of what I ask for, and research at one quarter what I ask for, but the timber sale program at two-and-a-half times what I ask for, what do you THINK is going to happen?"

Members of Congress are motivated by their financial resources -- after all, if you can't afford a successful re-election campaign, you're no longer in Washington. Major contributors to those who fund the Forest Service are the resource-dependent members of the timber industry.

Forest management plans, no matter how carefully crafted by the Forest Service, are repeatedly sabotaged by both the timber industry and the environmental groups, who manipulate the administrative and judicial systems for their own gain. Each "victory" is really a loss, not only for the other side, but for every shareholder and -- ultimately -- the forests.

And what of the American public? Both sides claim to speak for all the citizens who "own" the national forests, and the American public is increasingly concerned about forest issues. But the public's motivation toward a solution is stalled by the complexity of the issues. The public has no effective means of input into the industry--Congress--agency system, and public understanding is limited by the media's simplification and misrepresentation of the issues.

The solution -- if there is one -- will not come of conscience, responsibility, compromise, or management plan. The solution can come of only mutual coercion born of leadership, and that leadership, should it appear on the horizon, must come from outside the current loop. The motivations of the affected groups dictate that no solution will be proposed by one side nor accepted by the other.

Philosopher A. N. Whitehead wrote that the ". . . essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." [3] The tragedy of the forests in the Pacific Northwest, similarly, lies not in the loss of jobs, economic base, owls, family tradition, community cohesion, salmon, or even biological diversity; the tragedy is the remorseless working of things and the lack of a leader who might avert a tragic destiny.

1. J. B. Wiesner and H. F. York, Scientific American, Vol. 211 No. 4 (1964).

2. Garrett Hardin, Science, Vol. 162 (Dec. 1968).

3. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Mentor, New York, 1948.

Back to The Forest Page