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Analysis paralysis - Is it Fact or Fiction?

By Gary Milner, Ravalli Republic

July 7, 2004

"Analysis paralysis" is a phrase heard often. There are claims of people locked out of the forest and environmental groups abusing the appeals process. It's hard to know where the truth is. The Bitterroot National Forest has seen controversy and seemed like a good place to begin to understand how appeals have affected commercial timber sales. Using the Freedom of Information Act, I requested the names of all timber sales between 1985 and 2002, the names of the sales that were appealed, who appealed them, the outcome of those appeals and how many commercial timber sales went to court. After receiving the information, I went to the Forest Supervisor's office. I sought clarification because I didn't want to misrepresent any data. On the third visit, a Forest Service employee sat with me and eliminated projects that were not timber sales.

The list was as accurate as possible. This employee was thoughtful and helpful. Included were all sales that could be used for commercial gain. Sales that could be appealed and those that could not were included. Regardless of the size of the sale it was included. I was interested in seeing how many projects actually had people working in the forest for commercial profit. According to Forest Service data, there were 534 timber sales from 1985 to 2002. The number is higher; perhaps around 560, because some projects that had three to five different sales, were only listed once in the data. As it was not possible to know the exact number, I counted it as one sale. So, 534 is a conservative number. Of those sales, 29 were appealed. That means five percent of all timber sales on the Bitterroot National Forest were appealed between 1985 and 2002. Conversely, it means that 95 percent of all commercial timber sales went through without any appeal in a 17-year period. Of the 29 timber sales that were appealed, three were reversed. Reversed means the Forest Service lost and the people who appealed the sals won. Twenty-one of the 29 sales were affirmed. This means the Forest Service won and sales happened on the ground. The outcomes of the remaining five appealed sales were not in the data. After speaking to Forest Service officials I learned that those five sales were also logged. That means that 90 percent of even appealed sales from 1985 to 2002 were logged.

The above paragraphs are derived from Forest Service data. Anyone with an agenda could manipulate the data. If you want to say 70 percent of timber sales are appealed, you simply choose a certain sale category, limit your search to a certain time frame and analyze data suited to your needs. If you wish to say zero percent of timber sales are appealed, you choose certain sale categories, limit your search to a specific time period and you acquire results matching your agenda. I chose to analyze all sales. I wanted to see if people were in the woods working. I tried to eliminate all biases. After looking at the data, I would conclude that the appeals process in no way is significantly slowing projects. Having 95 percent of all sales go through in a 17-year period without being appealed doesn't suggest analysis paralysis. Having 90 percent of even appealed sales eventually logged does not indicate projects are being shut down. These results are consistent with an Aug. 31, 2001, General Accounting Office report entitled "Appeals and Litigation of Fuel Reduction Projects." The GAO exists to support the Congress in meeting its Constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the American people. It is an unbiased office that makes sure our tax dollars are spent wisely. The report outlined that over 99 percent of fuel reduction projects for fiscal year 2001 went through without appeal. None were litigated. The report is GAO-01-1114R. It's easy to find on the GAO Web site.

Another fact became clear. The Forest Service doesn't have a unified system for keeping track of data regarding timber sales, appeals, or their outcomes. Methods of collecting data vary greatly from forest to forest. The Forest Service employees I spoke with admitted this and agreed the system could be better. I'm in favor of some logging on federal lands. I've had post and pole permits, bought logs from local log home businesses, and had logs milled locally. Timber related jobs are important and I want those to continue. I'm thankful for the value added products they produce. There is, however, a lot of rhetoric about analysis paralysis and misinformation about how environmental safeguards influence resource extraction. Some of the rhetoric has been used to promote a specific agenda. A small percentage of projects are stopped. However, it's a very small percent. I'm glad in the United States we have checks and balances like the appeals process designed as safeguards. These help prevent mistakes that can linger for decades or centuries. Input from all Americans is the cornerstone of those checks and balances. I'm thankful to live in a country where we can participate in the democratic process. Not participating is the greatest threat to democracy. I believe the effects of appeals has been greatly exaggerated. Having 95 percent of all commercial timber sales go through without any appeal sounds reasonable.

Factors other than the appeals process are a play. The appeals process affects only a small number of sales. If we get past the generalizations and look at the data, it's clear the vast majority of projects happen on the ground. When we look at the facts, I believe analysis paralysis is more fiction than fact.