There was a time when Americans could expect their federal government to offer service that was both even-handed and helpful. Even timely.

They may not have gotten it, but at least the expectation was there.

That has changed, for many of those who now work in government, and for those who depend on the government to treat them fairly.

An article on the front page of the Capital Press last week illustrates that change. It’s not that the U.S. Forest Service wanted to force ranchers whose cattle graze on the Malheur National Forest to accept a biological opinion that would dictate the conditions. The Forest Service produced the 335-page document just as ranchers were preparing to turn out their cattle on the 1.7 million-acre forest. The catch: they couldn’t move their cattle until they agreed to the biological opinion.

The ranchers, who pay about $200,000 for the use of 111 allotments, saw the situation is an ultimatum, and it was. By producing the biological opinion at the last moment, that conclusion was inescapable.

The Forest Service, however, maintains that the reason for the tardiness of the document is that it is short-handed. No doubt some staffers are also tied up in legal matters, such as defending against environmental lawsuits filed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The ESA is a law that allows environmental groups to sue federal agencies over more 1,661 populations of fish, wildlife and plants currently listed as threatened or endangered. In the case of the Malheur National Forest, the population of steelhead was the subject of the biological opinion. It should be noted that, according to the Forest Service, 4,500 to 20,000 steelhead live in streams and rivers within the national forest for part of their life cycle. It should also be noted that sport fishermen around Oregon reported catching more than 15,000 summer and winter steelhead in the 2017-18 season. The fish is not exactly on the verge of extinction.

As it is now written, the ESA is little more than a hammer that environmentalists can use to drive ranchers off federal land, stop all types of development and raise money. Only a few populations have been taken off the list, often over the objections of environmental groups.

Because of this poorly written law, federal agencies such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are short-staffed. When President Richard Nixon signed the ESA into law in the 1970s he probably had no idea it would become a litigation generator that turned scientists and land managers into defendants. Instead of doing their jobs, they are being dragged into court.

But there’s also an “embedded bureaucracy” in the federal government that, instead of carrying out the law, carries out its own agenda, according to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. The Malheur National Forest is in his congressional district.

“Some of this has been going on for decades and there’s a lot of momentum behind it,” he said.

All of which is illustrated by the biological ultimatum — er, opinion — delivered to ranchers last May. The ranchers could have rejected it and been without summer grazing for the year, or they could have accepted it. Even with tighter restrictions on grass height, having a place to graze is better than the alternative of buying hay.

Had the biological opinion been delivered in a timely manner that would allow a thoughtful analysis, the ranchers would have felt as though they were being treated in an even-handed and helpful manner.

As it it turned out, the treatment was neither.

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