Bowles: Do you trust the Forest Service to do the right thing?
In 1995, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore faced a major problem. Pew Research surveys revealed that only about 21% of Americans trusted their government to do the right thing.
The Clinton White House created the vice president’s Task Force on Reinventing Government (also known as National Performance Review) and tasked it with improving government agency responsiveness to the public. By the end of Clinton’s two terms, public trust polls had risen to 38%.
As a career federal senior executive, I served as a team leader at National Performance Review for 14 months. One job was to conduct focus groups of randomly selected career federal senior executives from Washington, D.C., and around the country to understand whether they accepted any level of responsibility for the public’s dismal faith in government.
Most didn’t. Many claimed that Congress or the current administration were responsible. These were the highest-ranking career officials who ran virtually every aspect of the United States government, contending they had no influence whether Americans trusted their government. They were wrong. Many federal agencies at the time (and still today) were providing their services poorly.
Things have gotten worse. Four recent national polls reveal only 17% to 27% of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In 2019, two-thirds of Americans thought the government was not doing enough to protect wildlife. If you believe the distrust is solely due to Congress or the White House, think about the U.S. Forest Service in Eagle County.
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Consider Berlaimont Estates, a large private property inholding on the north side of Interstate 70 across from Edwards. The land surrounding Berlaimont is part of the White River National Forest. This area is a major migration route for mule deer (second largest corridor in Colorado) and winter range for elk herds.
Elk and mule deer are disappearing from our valley. In the past 10 years, the elk population has diminished by half on the south side of I-70 and slightly less on the north side. The developers are asking the Forest Service to grant access to pave and realign an existing dirt road across Forest Service lands, which would effectively ruin the area for some of the valley’s few remaining herds of deer and elk.
Recently, the Forest Service completed a draft environmental impact statement which concluded there was an adverse impact, but the Forest Service would grant approval anyway for a paved road that included mitigation measures.
The Forest Service requested the public’s comments regarding Berlaimont. Of the nearly 1,000 comments received, virtually all said “no” to permitting a paved road on Forest Service land. Environmental groups oppose the decision as well.
Two widely known, respected, recently retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials, Bill Andree and Bill Heicher (who shared responsibility for wildlife management in Eagle County for a combined 68 total years), had letters printed in the Vail Daily that stated the Forest Service decision damages our remaining wildlife and that, as history has shown, the Forest Service mitigation measures will not work. Both noted there have been many previous local Forest Service decisions that failed to protect wildlife or its habitat in Eagle County.
A history of poor decisions detrimental to wildlife and contrary to local sentiment suggests the local Forest Service has lost touch. The Forest Service’s website says its mission is to: “… Sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”
The U.S. government owns 78% of the land in Eagle County, most of it held by the Forest Service. Considering the considerable loss of wildlife in this county, would you credit the Forest Service with good stewardship? When the public, environmental organizations and wildlife experts all agree that something shouldn’t happen, how is it that the agency we rely upon does the opposite? Do you believe the Forest Service lives up to its mission?
If I asked Scott Fitzwilliams, the forest supervisor in charge of the White River National Forest the same question — “Do you or your offices bear any responsibility for the dismal confidence level Americans have in their government?” — do you think he would blame the White House and Congress, or would he point to his own organization’s past and pending decisions in Eagle county?
So, here’s the question: “Do you trust the Forest Service to do the right thing?”
Norman Bowles is a former federal senior executive who started the space launch regulatory program the Federal Aviation Administration uses to license commercial launches such as SpaceX, Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. He has worked in the White House, and, later ran the FAA’s Logistics Center in support of the air traffic control system.