CORVALLIS, Ore. - The privatization of public forest lands, an idea that has actually been implemented in New Zealand, is now finding some advocates who believe it could help resolve forest management controversies in the U.S.
That's probably wishful thinking, one expert says.
A researcher at Oregon State University who has studied and written about "the New Zealand model" says there is a poor understanding of what was actually done there, and more differences than similarities in the issues facing the two countries.
"I've heard considerable talk in Washington, D.C., political circles about moving towards the New Zealand approach, and even interest among county commissioners here in Oregon," said George Stankey, a professor of forest resources at OSU and research social scientist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service.
"But when you really understand what they did in New Zealand and why, it seems pretty obvious to me that importing that policy here would be highly questionable," he said. "I'm almost certain it wouldn't work."
A common myth, Stankey said, is that New Zealand took all its public forest lands and sold them off in the 1980s to the highest bidder, in an effort to raise badly needed cash, resolve environmental controversies and improve the management of the forests.
The reality, he said, is that the nation sold only the rights to timber management - not the land itself - on a very small portion of its intensively managed forest lands, while putting the vast majority of less developed forests off limits, in perpetuity, to timber harvests.
New Zealand, almost exactly the same size as Oregon, has large areas of temperate forests and a long experience with radiata pine, an imported conifer species they aggressively manage and grow quickly in about 30-year rotations.
In its forest management initiatives, New Zealand did turn what was once a break-even or money-losing proposition into one that raised considerable money for the nation.
Environmentalist-versus-timber industry battles were also, in fact, dramatically reduced.
"One parallel that does hold up," Stankey said, "is that both countries in the early 1980s were facing major controversies about forest land management between their timber industries and various environmental groups. What New Zealand did has helped considerably to resolve those controversies, and that's what has a lot of people in the U.S. very interested."
But the parallel falls apart pretty quickly after that, he said.
New Zealand was facing near-bankruptcy about 15 years ago, unlike the more prosperous U.S., and looked to changing management of national forests as one way to raise money instead of spend it.
Historically, New Zealand had managed its radiata pine plantations aggressively, while doing far less timber harvests on other public lands. In the U.S., almost all public forests have been committed to more widespread, multiple use management for timber, recreation, wildlife and other uses.
New Zealand chose to auction off its radiata pine plantations - only about 7 percent of its overall forest land base - while at the same time removing virtually all other public lands from timber production.
Enabling it to do this, Stankey said, was a different type of "winner-take-all" political system where the prevailing political party was largely free to do whatever it wanted, with comparatively few checks and balances from the administrative or legislative branches of government.
"New Zealand was politically able to make radical changes, they had a very different historical use of their forests, and they were willing to place vast acreages off limits to logging," Stankey said. "That's what helped them reach a compromise acceptable to environmental groups and the public."
It's always important to monitor ways that other nations have resolved problems, Stankey said, and there may be some lessons the U.S. could learn from what New Zealand did. They did a few things wrong in the way the land was auctioned off, and they did some major things right by addressing the concerns of all the major interest groups in their land management decisions.
"But in the U.S.," he said, "the political, social and biological situation is far different. Our forests look different, are managed differently, and are subject to national political debates that can go on forever. What they did just wouldn't work here."