January 24, 2005

Cascadian Forest Service

The US National Forest system turns 100 this year, as today's San Francisco Chronicle reports. (The precise centenial birthday is either February 1 or March 3, depending on your intepretation of events.) The article focuses on policy changes in the Forest Service, which today faces a welter of pressures related to logging, forest fires, off-road vehicle use, grazing, watershed degradation, and invasive species.

National forest issues are critical to Cascadia. In fact, roughly half of the US portions of Cascadia are in national forest. That makes the Forest Service easily the largest land manager in the US Northwest. It also means that the long-term ecological prospects for Cascadia hinge, in large measure, on Forest Service policy.

By the same token, Cascadia is a vital component of the national forest system. Cascadia encompasses 45 percent of all national forest lands. Oregon, Washington, and Idaho collectively boast one-quarter of the nation's total (and Idaho alone has about 1 acre in 9 of all Forest Service land).

A caveat: The figures above are this morning's back of the envelope calculations. They're roughly right, but they're rough.

UPDATE: I made a numerical gaff earlier. Approximately 40 percent of the US Northwest is under Forest Service ownership, not half.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 19, 2005

Judging Cascadia

Tomorrow President Bush begins his second term, during which he will almost certainly appoint at least one new justice to the Supreme Court, which has enjoyed the longest period of stability since the 1820s. And by coincidence today marks precisely a quarter-century since the death of Cascadia’s sole Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas. Not only was Douglas the longest serving justice in the court’s history, he was also perhaps the most environmentally concerned.

Douglas’ boyhood adventures in the Cascade Mountains blossomed into a lifelong love affair with the outdoors that he later described as having “a spiritual significance.” He counted among his friends, not only lawyers and politicos, but also ranchers, trappers, foresters, guides, and conservationists. Douglas wrote extensively about the landscapes and characters of Cascadia, leaving behind a roster of books with titles like Of Men and Mountains and A Wilderness Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately, Douglas’ non-judicial writing sometimes lapses into self-indulgence--a little like listening to an old hand spin yarns around the campfire. But luckily for newcomers to Douglas’ corpus, James M. O’Fallon, a professor of law at Oregon  State University, has recently compiled a good selection of Douglas’ writing in a new volume, aptly titled Nature’s Justice: Writings of William O. Douglas. It’s a great place to start. Or for a short biography, try this one at Historylink.org.

Douglas was a curious sort of activist judge--he was both an activist and a judge. On several occasions, he left his black robes hanging in the closet while he led headline-grabbing hikes to preserve important natural areas, like the Olympic Peninsula’s coastal wilderness or the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The publicity he generated resulted in both areas winning greater protection under the national park system. He was also instrumental in the passage of the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964 and in numerous other conservation victories.

Not surprisingly, Douglas had his share of critics who maintained that his off-the-clock activism eroded his credibility and impartiality. (And the criticism continues today; a bruising biography was published in 2003.) He was also variously accused of communism, philandering, alcoholism, telling tall tales, and even sloppy writing. Some of the charges were well off the mark--he was an outspoken critic of communism.

Despite the ire he aroused, Douglas left behind a proud judicial legacy of staunch environmental protection, safeguards for individual rights, and social justice. Unforunately, many of today’s men and women in black are not as green as Douglas was. In fact, many environmental legal groups worry that a Bush-configured high court will have troubling implications for land, air, water, and species’ protection.

If Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist steps down--a near certainty owing to his age, 80, and thyroid cancer--President Bush will replace not only a Justice; he will get to name a new Chief Justice to boot. Justices John Paul Stevens, 84 years old, and Sandra Day O’Connor, are also rumored to be considering retirement. Even a single replacement on the Court will make a big difference, because these days the justices are often narrowly split on controversial issues.

In Cascadia, the Supreme Court may play an especially big role. Much of the region will continue to be defined by often-litigated environmental issues such as resource extraction, public lands use, growth management, air and water quality, and species recovery. Specifically, the new Supreme Court will have a hand in re-interpreting the alphabet soup of environmental legislation--ESA, NEPA, CWA, CAA, CERCLA--that Douglas prepared the way for. And through the details of constitutional interpretation, the Supreme Court can alter the way lower courts consider standing, takings, property rights, Congressional authority, and states’ rights. Each of these issues can restrict environmental protection in significant ways.

If the contentious political arena wears you out this week, it’s worthwhile to recall a justice who was informed not only by case law and precedent, but by our enduring connection to nature. “We look to the heavens for help and uplift,” he wrote in My Wilderness: Pacific West, “but it is to the earth we are chained; it is from the earth that we must find our sustenance.”

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (0)