Forest Service Needs A Jolt

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Reading obtuse forest service reports can be fun.

Well, not fun, exactly. But revealing.

So we were reading the opaque, but vital, Recreation Facility Analysis for the Tonto National Forest, when we gained new insight into the bureaucratic mentality.

Unaccountably, it put us in mind of a famous experiment involving helpless dogs, sadistic scientists and electric shocks. The scientists in question were studying depression by locking dogs in cages and delivering a painful electric shock. Some of the long-suffering mutts could yelp and retreat to a different part of the cage. But some got shocked, no matter what they did. Eventually, the dogs with no hope learned to just lie there and take it. In fact, even when the researchers swung open the door of the cage -- they just lay there -- helpless.

The scientists -- who probably should have been shocked repeatedly themselves -- instead wrote a frequently cited paper on learned helplessness, which explains all manner of human maladies.

And perhaps the mind set of the U.S. Forest Service.

Consider the five-year recreation plan for the three-million-acre Tonto National Forest. To wit: The six million people who flock to (and through) the Tonto National Forest each year make it by most measures the most-visited forest in the nation. Moreover, visitation continues to rise by 5 or 6 percent per year, thanks to the weedlike growth of the Phoenix area. Poor, gridlocked Phoenicians rush out of town every weekend, often to the reservoirs along the Salt and Verde rivers -- or up here to the usually-full campgrounds along the Rim in the Payson Ranger District.

Good news for the Forest Service, right? Lots of demand and steady growth selling the very thing the public wants to buy.

Well, not really.

The report concludes that the Tonto National Forest has fallen at least $2.6 million behind in maintaining roughly 100 recreation sites scattered across 3 million acres -- mostly along the reservoirs.

And even though the Tonto National Forest collects $2 million in fees annually at the 50 fee-generating sites -- that's only half what it takes to run the facilities, not counting general overhead for the whole system.

So what would a reasonably run business do with a projected five-year, 30-percent increase in business when existing facilities are falling apart for lack of maintenance? Obviously, a business would protect its investment and take advantage of the growth.

So what does the forest service propose?

Oh, gee. Maybe in the next five years we can reduce the deferred maintenance total from $2.6 million to $1.6 million. Maybe. Please, Mr. Congress. Pretty please. No pressure. Just saying. We'll be so happy if you just make our hole a little less deep. No need for new facilities to serve the public. Nada. Zip. Zilch. No new campgrounds, picnic tables, boat ramps, nature walks, scenic overlooks. Nothing.

Mind you, we've already got so many people herded into a few developed campgrounds that the landscape's getting hammered and filled up by Friday.

But we won't be bothering Congress with new facilities -- or even raising fees on existing facilities so they can pay their own way and underwrite new facilities that will serve the public and protect the resource.

The poor forest service: They've been laying on the floor of the electrified cage for years -- enduring jolts from bureaucrats, congressmen, environmentalists, loggers, ranchers, off-roaders, miners and random nut jobs. Now, they can't even imagine an actual recreation plan. They just lie there on sparking floor, staring dolefully at the cage door as it swings partway open.

To be fair, the whole exercise is something of a bureaucratic shuffle. The forest service complained to Congress that all its facilities were crumbling for lack of upkeep so Congress said, well, you have to quantify the crumble before we can give you any cash. So at one level, this whole exercise is just a way for the Forest Service to put a number to its deterioration -- in hopes Congress will disburse a few more anti-crumble crumbs.

In the meantime, the plan also has documented the complete failure of the forest service administration to proactively respond to the needs of the public.

The Tonto National Forest has posted the plan on its Web site, although it takes a determined reader to understand the full implications of the plan's complete lack of action. Through Jan. 15, recreation planner Dave Killebrew will be waiting for e-mail comments at dkillebrew@fs.fed.us.

So perhaps people will flock to the Web site, read the report, rise up in indignation and insist that the forest service both protect the land and serve the public.

Yeah, well, maybe.

Or maybe we'll just lie on the electrified floor of our own apathy, staring mournfully through the open door of the political process.

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