The Greatest Good

The U.S. Forest Service has finalized its latest Forest Plan for the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and Maine, and you can be excused for having missed it. Compared with the public scuffles over wilderness protection, ski area expansion, and timber production that surrounded previous plan updates, this new plan was adopted relatively quietly. Not everyone is completely pleased with the final product, of course, but nearly everyone found something to like in it, and that in itself may be the definition of effective public land management.

If you didn’t know about the new Forest Plan, you may have also missed the U.S. Forest Service’s 100th anniversary last year. Perhaps because of a natural reticence among people who prefer to spend their days in the woods, the Forest Service celebration didn’t make the front page of many newspapers. But the anniversary has been commemorated by an excellent new movie called “The Greatest Good: A Forest Service Centennial Film.”

We take our national forests for granted in this country, out of familiarity more than malice, forgetting how innovative the idea of national forests was 100 years ago and how unusual the concept remains in the world today. This movie helps remedy the situation. What could have been a dry recitation of a century of names and dates is instead a thought-provoking overview of the ideas, philosophies, and controversies that have shaped the way our public forests have been managed over the past 100 years. The two-hour movie feels like a Ken Burns/PBS production, with lots of archival photographs and movie footage interspersed with historians, foresters, and experts who bring the issues alive and underscore their relevance today.

Some of these ideas are probably familiar to readers of this magazine, such as Gifford Pinchot’s initial impulse to protect some of the nation’s forests from the perceived ravages of unfettered private enterprise only to find himself outflanked by John Muir, who called for complete preservation of these lands. The uneasy tension between timber and recreation thus emerges not just as a conundrum of our time but as one that the Forest Service has grappled with almost from the beginning. Also featured prominently is the policy of total fire suppression, the relaxation of which has set the stage for today’s “whole ecosystems management” philosophy of land management.

Though the White Mountain National Forest does not play a starring role in the movie, it certainly has been in the thick of many of these management controversies over the years, in large part because it does not fit the mold of the typical national forest. For one thing, foresters occasionally call it “the asbestos forest” for its ability to resist major conflagration. For another, it’s within a day’s drive of tens of millions of people, which has prompted the Forest Service to emphasize its recreational value, at times, critics argue, at the expense of its timber value.

There’s lots of fun in “The Greatest Good,” with movie footage of the first smoke jumpers leaping from early-model airplanes, gigantic Western softwoods being felled with ribbon-thin crosscut saws, and endless flocks of sheep leaping through counting gates on Forest Service grazing land. Topping it all off is Bob Marshall’s assertion, in the early half of the twentieth century, that the definition of a wilderness area ought to be a place where a pack team could travel for two weeks without ever having to cross a road.

At the heart of the movie is Gifford Pinchot’s belief, no less vexing now than it was a hundred years ago, that the key to conservation is exploitation. Part of the problem is that the common definition of “exploitation” has shifted in the last century, from “make efficient use of” to “take unfair advantage of.” But the movie makes clear that Pinchot firmly believed that, in a democracy, public lands need to pay some sort of dividend to the citizenry in order to enjoy long-term political support. Just what that dividend ought to be – financial, spiritual, or recreational – remains at the heart of the Forest Service’s struggle to manage our public forests effectively.

Besides being fun to watch, “The Greatest Good” is a worthy tribute to all the men and women, both in the U.S. Forest Service and in our state and local agencies, charged with the difficult task of managing public forests in a democracy where the citizenry is in the habit of changing its mind from time to time. Don’t miss it. Look for a copy of the film or book in your local library.


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