The Tragedy of the Common Forest
Why the Pacific Northwest forest conflictby Kelly Andersson
is a "no technical solution"
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."  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 ) 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
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
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 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."  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
1. J. B. Wiesner and H. F. York, Scientific American, Vol. 211 No. 4
2. Garrett Hardin, Science, Vol. 162 (Dec. 1968).
3. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Mentor, New York,
Back to The Forest Page