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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Forecasting the Future


A View of Public Land Policy…50 Years Ago

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Fifty years ago last Friday – August 27, 1960 – near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, then-Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton wrote to the President to transmit a report entitled Project Twenty-Twelve. The report was an effort by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to look at its programs fifty years into the future – 2012.

Perhaps Eisenhower conjured up his famous quote about plans and planning when Seaton presented the document; a government report by an agency that had only been around officially since 1946 and was struggling to define its identity.

More likely, I suspect, Ike slipped out the back door of the Oval Office, putter in hand, to visit his private putting green and didn’t give the BLM document a second thought. Then again, one likes to think that the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, known to be handy with a fly rod, would have taken at least a passing interest in predictions about the future of America’s natural landscape.

In any event, Project Twenty-Twelve, like so many government reports, found a home on a shelf gathering dust. Still the impressive effort at forecasting what the future might hold did lay the foundation for the relatively young agency. BLM was created by the great Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes who combined Interior’s General Land Office with the department’s Grazing Service.

Given the 50th anniversary of the official release of the report, its worth revisiting what they saw in the land management crystal ball as they tried to envisioned the early 21st Century. Credit for unearthing the old report goes to a group of Idaho BLM retirees who, while sitting around at lunch a while back remembered the effort and the document was recently unearthed in BLM archives in Phoenix.

Credit also to the University of Michigan Library which digitized the report in December 2009 and made the full work available on line.

With thanks to my friend and former Andrus Administration colleague, Andy Brunelle, who has a both fine eye for history and an encyclopedic understanding of public lands issues, for both pointing out the existance of the report and helping form some observations that both look back and forward 50 years. Compared to a modern day Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the 2012 report was mercifully brief. It includes a nice, short section on the history of the public domain lands and recounts how the federal government gave away lands for 150 years before turning away from that policy in the mid-20th Century. The 1976 passage of Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) finally brought the public land disposal era to an end.

The second chapter of the forecast provided a broad look at the future. The United States, according to those looking forward a half century, was projected to double in population to 360 million by 2012. We have actually grown a little more slowly, with the current population standing at about 310 million.

The BLM forecasters said in 1960 that the nation would use more than 30 billion cubic feet of wood annually. We are a little over 20 billion now.

While guessing too high on those measures, the report also included a Bureau of Mines projection that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012 would stand at $2.4 trillion. The GDP stood at about $500 billion in 1959. Today’s GDP is somewhere around $15 trillion, but in inflation-adjusted terms, and when compared to 1959, the 50 year old guess is actually quite close to what was predicted – $2.4 trillion.

Visits to National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands and state parks were projected to grow from 400 million visits in 1960 to 1.7 billion visits by 2010. It is impossible to compare those guesses to current numbers because the way the agencies monitor visits has changed. This much can be said, however. The percentage of population engaged in outdoor recreation has doubled since 1965 and the amount of time people engage in outdoor recreation has also doubled. So with population increasing in that period from 180 million to 310 million, Americans are spending twice as much time engaged in outdoor recreation as they were nearly 50 years ago. No wonder its difficult to find a good campsite. The BLM forecasters also predicted dramatic scientific and technological advances from research and development that would have special impact on BLM programs and operations.

In 1960, the agency forecast widespread application of mechanization and automation in industries dependent on minerals, wood and other raw materials from public lands administered by BLM. This prediction seems spot on since, particularly in the 1980’s, Idaho and other resource states witnessed widespread sawmill modernization that, while making the wood products industry much more productive, also had the unfortunate side effect of the loss of thousands of jobs that were the backbone of many rural communities in the West. The report forecast water treatment of saline and brackish waters for agriculture and domestic use. This prediction is certainly true as it relates to the vast increase over 50 years in sophisticated community waste water treatment, much of it driven by the Clean Water Act. The prediction has proven to be less valid when agriculture polluted run-off is involved. And, the ocean has not become a major water source, but stay tuned.

BLM forecast fifty years ago the development of transportation systems and facilities for rapid movement of large numbers of people from urban areas to and from rural recreation sites. The Interstate Highway System we now take for granted has helped this prediction to be realized, but we also bought into urban sprawl, exurbs and, in recent years, a welcome trend for some to move back into central cities in places like Portland, Salt Lake City and, to some degree, Boise. I’m betting, as the report forecast, that we see more and more “car free” National Parks in the future with visitors arriving by the shuttles that now move people at Zion and Yosemite.

The agency also forecast improved techniques and facilities for protecting public lands and resources from damaged due to fire, insects, diseases, or other hazards.

Certainly fire protection programs have been greatly improved since the authors of the BLM report thought about the future, but Mother Nature has also responded by producing larger, more intense wildfires. This is the “paradox of success” defined at a 2004 Andrus Center for Public Policy conference on the history and future of the Forest Service.

Critics of the BLM have often referred to the agency at the Bureau of Livestock and Mining – much more true in 1960 than today – and the 1960 report does devote a great deal of attention to the condition of grazing lands as well as an assessment of the mineral estate at that time. Much less attention was focused on forest resources or recreation.

Other parts of the forecast provide a program-by-program discussion of current efforts and how over a fifty year time frame BLM programs will continue to work. This section of the report will likely only be of interest to a BLM alum or a wild land ecologist, but it is nonetheless important stuff.

Only one paragraph – one – is devoted to the topic of weed control, where mention is made that “depleted ranges contribute to the spread of noxious and poisonous weeds” and that an ongoing weed control program is anticipated to respond to this problem. “The long-range program provides for substantial weed control activity through 1980,” the report says, “after which time this work will be progressively reduced.”

What has actually happened is that after about 1980 the increasing spread of noxious weeds became much worse and the BLM continues a long, twilight struggle against these unglamourous, but awfully important pests. We now recognize the important work that must occur with invasive species, whether its weeds affecting habitat and forage, or whirling disease affecting important trout populations. The BLM has generally kept up with the problem and has steadily accelerated the battle.

In the 1960 discussion on forest management, which centers on the O and C lands in Oregon, a smooth path forward was predicted for a sustainable harvest of 1 to 1.2 billion board feet annually for the next fifty years. The projection was good for about half of that period. Twenty-five years in, by 1985, there was growing public discontent about the effects of clearcut logging on public lands, and the BLM’s O and C lands in Oregon were eventually swept into the larger Northwest forest wars symbolized by the environmental concerns over the northern spotted owl.

What the Project Twenty-Twelve planners missed – and what almost any long-range planning effort will struggle to understand – are changing societal values. The planners did not forecast the increasing public and political consensus about environmental protection. They did not – or perhaps could not – forecast that the 1950’s Congressional debates over wilderness would lead to the passage in 1964 of The Wilderness Act.

That fundamental piece of national public land policy was followed by much other legislation – the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, to name a few.

The Project Twenty-Twelve report, proves that the most difficult thing to predict in the pace and magnitude of change. It’s pretty easy to collect data and then use a straight line to project growth into the future, but being able to see where the line will curve, or break or take a new direction is much more difficult.

The great general was right. Plans are useless, but planning is essential. Perhaps this old, dusty BLM report can – fifty years after its release – help a new generation of public land managers and policy makers ask better questions about the assumptions we all make about the future.

We can always start with the question and think deeply about it: what is taking place now that won’t – or can’t – continue into the future?

My thanks again to Andy for bringing the Project Twenty-Twelve report – ancient history, but fascinating information – to my attention.

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