BLM, USFS partnership with environmentalists raises questions

Apr 20, 2012

To ranchers who graze on public lands, there is no novelty to the idea that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) often farm out jobs to contractors. Saddled with staggering amounts of data collection, research, and bureaucratic paper pushing, agencies have made a common practice of contracting with outsiders to supplement their own stretched workforce. It should therefore come as no surprise that for a number of years, both BLM and USFS have been contracting with the same research firm to provide agency planners with tools for estimating the socioeconomic impact of federal land management policies. What has proven to be surprising, at least to the livestock grazing industry, is that the firm in question is Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, MT, a known and vocal advocate of creating monuments and wilderness on multiple-use lands.

Most ranchers had never heard of Headwaters Economics until this past November when Ray Rasker, the group’s executive director, spearheaded the signing and circulation of a letter endorsed by 100 economists and other academics calling on President Obama to create more monuments, wilderness and parks in the name of economic growth.

“We urge you to create jobs and support businesses by investing in our public lands infrastructure and establishing new protected areas such as parks, wilderness, and monuments,” the letter concluded.

The letter won cheers from conservation groups, but drew criticism from western congressmen like Rob Bishop, R-UT, who maintained that restrictive land designations often lose more value than they create by foreclosing on natural resource use.

But now, grazing industry leaders are concerned upon realizing that since at least 2005, Rasker’s former employer, Sonoran Institute (where Rasker was senior economist), and later, Headwaters Economics (where Rasker is executive director), provided BLM and USFS with tools and training for conducting socioeconomic analyses, a key component of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process that is required for almost all agency actions and planning.

The full extent of Rasker’s economic consulting for the agencies is not known. However, in testimony last September before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, Rasker explained that Headwater’s advisory role involved “ongoing research and work for the federal government, including the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service.”

The news is not likely to delight natural resource users. Ranchers often feel that the socioeconomic component of NEPA gives them some leverage against federal land managers who may not appreciate the value of keeping land in multiple use. But while rural ranching communities often argue that creating national monuments will bring economic hardship to the region, Headwaters has consistently argued just the opposite: that restrictive designations like monuments actually coincide with economic prosperity.

Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, said that the agencies’ close relationship with Headwaters was largely inappropriate.

“The [Public Lands Council] is very concerned about the situation, being that we’ve seen from Headwaters in the past lobbying activity on the side of advancing preservation and monument designation on what we believe is spurious economic analysis,” said Van Liew. Van Liew added that some of Headwaters research findings have been “directly discounted” by studies from accredited universities.

“For the agencies to retain a company that obviously has an agenda … is concerning to us, and we would hope that they would reconsider their relationship with Headwaters” and instead use local economists from land grant universities, Van Liew added.

The grazing industry’s underlying worry is clear: could Headwaters be swaying BLM and USFS towards proposing more monument designations and wilderness by disseminating their policy views through the training and tools they provide?

To be fair, the partnership between Headwaters and the federal agencies has yielded some real benefits. For example, the Excelbased “economic profiling system” (EPS) tool provided for free on the internet by Headwaters Economics gives BLM and USFS planners (as well as the general public) access to a wide array of government-generated economic statistics, providing economic snapshots and trends of any county, region or state.

Ryan Yonk, professor of political science at Southern Utah University (SUU) and fellow at the Center for Public Lands and Rural Economies (at SUU and Utah State University), indicated that the EPS tool was useful and that all the data represented were correct.

Holly Fretwell, research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center agreed with the tool’s utility. “As long as it is just using general data that is available out there and the user is interpreting that data, it looks like a pretty neat tool,” Fretwell said. “I would think of using it for my own projects,” she added.

But the question that will nag natural resource users isn’t the fact that Headwaters provides the EPS tool itself, which could prove quite useful, but rather how those numbers are to be interpreted and used by agency. Which leads to the less clear role Rasker has played for a number of years, both with Sonoran Institute and as director of Headwaters: providing analytical support and running economic training workshops for federal agencies.

According to Chris Mehl, policy director for Headwaters, the group has recently run training sessions for federal staff, which not only cover how to use the EPS tool, but to a lesser extent, to instruct on how to interpret results. “We’ve also taught some of the Forest and the BLM folks how to train, and they now train staff directly themselves in this system,” Mehl added. Although Mehl emphasized that training focused primarily on using the EPS tool to its fullest capacity, the concern is that training in data collection could easily evolve into training in data analysis.

But the problem is that there is no general agreement on what the data mean. In his congressional testimony last year, Rasker indicated that the EPS tool was “instrumental” to his finding that in a study of 17 national monuments across the West, the economies of the adjacent communities grew following the monument’s designation. Not everybody agrees. “That seems unlikely given my own work,” asserts Yonk. “We’ve done a fair amount working out of the Center [for Public Lands and Rural Development] where we find notoriously mixed results in those effects. Often times, we find a negative effect [of monuments], particularly in places that are resource dependent, and most often no effect in other places.”

“We’ve never been able to corroborate Headwater’s findings,” Yonk added.

Fretwell was also skeptical about Rasker’s findings.

“Generally speaking, they’re going out there and looking at the value that would come if we set [land] aside without considering the costs that go along with it,” explained Fretwell. “In that sense, the bias would be more towards … preservation because we’re not looking at the benefits lost from use of timber and mining and some of those other commodities.”

There is also the issue of what other services Rasker may have provided to BLM and USFS over the years. According to Rasker’s congressional testimony, EPS is merely “one of the research products we developed for the BLM and Forest Service,” leaving those in natural resource industries to speculate about the extent of his influence.

One thing that is known is that during Rasker’s tenure at Sonoran Institute as senior economist, Sonoran Institute provided BLM with training workshops for agency personnel and community leaders to “explore regional economic conditions, trends, and opportunities relevant to the BLM planning process,” according to BLM literature. Interestingly, one currently available BLM socioeconomic training course manual is peppered with papers from the Wilderness Society (another former employer of Rasker’s) the Sierra Club, and even The New Yorker magazine, with no apparent counterbalance of a multiple-use perspective.

Although Headwaters Economics has explicitly advertised itself as providing “nonpartisan research,” there is little question that the group promotes a clear policy agenda. The New York Times last year described Headwaters as having a “a tilt toward preservation.” Fretwell agreed. “I definitely think they are biased toward preservation,” she said.

To be sure, as an independent think tank, Headwaters is clearly at liberty to promote policy positions. But their special consulting role to BLM and USFS is destined to raise some eyebrows and cause heartburn among natural resource users.

Many may argue that, practically speaking, it might never be possible to find a purely disinterested economist to aid BLM and USFS. However, Fretwell points out that it is certainly possible for the federal agencies to represent a balance of viewpoints in what is clearly a very contentious field.

“Let’s find somebody else that has the other bias to make sure that we get a full understanding of what’s going on,” Fretwell suggests.

“…Maybe they should [also] hire some other group that’s more of a user-type group to get their opinions.”

Yonk concurred. “[Headwaters has] a particular vision of what policy is supposed to be,” Yonk observed. “That’s fine. But if it’s the sole source of where BLM goes, then I would think [BLM] ought to carefully consider whether or not they are getting the full spectrum of results from that single source.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent