A conversation with Forest Service Chief, Randy Moore

A conversation with Forest Service Chief, Randy Moore

One of my best friends has known Randy Moore for decades. To my pleasant surprise, they are alike in ways I suspect neither is aware of.

Chief Moore and my friend have enjoyed long and successful Forest Service careers. They are both dedicated professionals with exceptional analytical skills. Both of them know the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] inside and out, though I suspect my friend is more effective in the trenches where the Act is procedurally applied.

Moore is far more diplomatic and articulate than my friend, who is fearless and about as plainspoken as it gets. They will both smile when they read this sentence.

Moore is besieged by big city newspaper reporters armed with trick questions, but I believe the interview you are about to read is the first he has intentionally given since he was named Chief in July of 2021.

I have my friend to thank for convincing him to visit with me via TEAMS for close to an hour on Friday, April 14. Talking with Moore is a bit like drinking from a fully charged fire hose. Once he gets rolling it's hard to keep up with him.

I admire Moore's decision to accept the Biden Administration's invitation to become Chief at a time when he could have just as easily retired. Forty-five years in a fish bowl would be more than enough for most of us.

Moore joined the Forest Service in 1981 following a three year stint with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a solid launching pad for a young man from Louisiana with a Southern University degree in Plant and Soil Science.

Congress ratified the National Forest Management Act five years before Moore signed up. It restricted the size of clearcuts, constrained annual harvest, mandated prompt reforestation and, most notably, required the Forest Service to develop the first ever 10-year forest plans for all 154 national forests.

Evergreen's baptism under fire began with the draft forest plan public comment periods for the Six Rivers, Rogue, Siskiyou, Umpqua, Winema and Klamath national forests. It was a whirlwind learning experience.

NFMA was one of seven major environmental laws enacted by Congress between 1963 and 1976. The laws in chronological order: the Clean Air Act, 1963; the Wilderness Act, 1964; the National Environmental Policy Act, 1970; Clean Water Act, 1972, Endangered Species Act, 1973; Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, 1974; and the aforementioned National Forest Management Act, 1976.

Years later, the late Jack Ward Thomas, the Forest Service's thirteenth Chief, described these acts and the regulatory maze they spawned as the "Gordian Knot," meaning that their conflicting mandates made it impossible for the agency to abide by all of them without getting sued.

This is the world Chief Moore attempts to navigate every day. It's a good thing he is good humored and laughs easily.

Backbenchers all know how to fix what ails the Forest Service but after writing about the Forest Service for 38 years - 55 if I count my time as a newspaper reporter - I know that "fixing" the beleaguered agency will take decades and cost billions of dollars. The workforce hole that exists in the agency's forestry operation will take years to fill. Many who will eventually sign on are in grade school today.

Moore is no stranger to political conflict. He was Region 5 Regional Forester - the hotly contested 18 national forests of California - for 14 years before he accepted the Chief's post.

California has been the epicenter of the wildfire/forest health/salvage logging/endangered species debate since Evergreen's earliest days. The war rages on with no end in sight, though the loss of entire towns and millions of acres of pristine forestland in killing wildfires has been a wakeup call for conservationists who have concluded that leaving forests they love to the vagaries of "nature" isn't a good idea.

In this interview, Chief Moore discusses the challenges he faces, including some that will remain challenges long after he retires. The same is true for what goes on here at Evergreen, which is why I have offered to take him fly fishing in Northwest Montana, hopefully this year. The Kootenai, Yaak and Bull rivers are our family favorites.

Jim Petersen, Founder and President
The non-profit Evergreen Foundation

Evergreen: You are the 20th Forest Service Chief. When I think of the agency's giants, I think of Gifford Pinchot, Bill Greeley, Max Peterson, Jack Ward Thomas and Dale Bosworth. Are you modeling your Chief's career after any of your predecessors?

Moore: I know all of the living Chiefs and admire them all. We have many great leaders in the Forest Service working at all levels of the agency. I have been influenced by many of them. I am blessed to have some very talented people at every level but, as you know, we have a serious workforce shortage on the resource side that will take years to fill and operate at the journey level. Subcontractors and our partners are helping greatly but there is no substitute for in-house experience that is required.

Evergreen: Who are some of your partners?

Moore: To name a few keystone partners, the National Forest Foundation, American Forest Foundation, Mule Deer Society, Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, American Forest, Nature Conservancy, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Evergreen: These are all very credible organizations. How did you recruit them?

Moore: These partners has been our partners for a very long time but the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act gave us an opportunity to increase the level of participation.
The Forest Service needs talent and commitment, wherever we can find it. The agency has not always made this easy. We have made some policy changes in our Grants and Agreements that have made it easier to partner with us. We also need to broaden our appeal to attract new partnerships with underserved and underrepresented organizations and we need diverse perspectives, backgrounds and cultures. It all takes time.

Evergreen: How do your relationships with tribes fit in here.

Moore: Strictly speaking, our tribal relationships aren't partnerships. They are government to government relationships that translate into shared leadership.

Evergreen: Tribes also do lots of wildland firefighting work for you, don't they?

Moore: They are among our best crews.

Evergreen: Given the wildfire/forest health crisis we face in western national forests, what are your short and long-term priorities and what hurdles do you see that may impede progress?

Moore: This is probably where I should say that the challenges we are facing were years in the making. Not just five or 10 years but decades in which national forests, especially in the West, were undermanaged. As woody fuels continued to build up, and as federal dollars were being shifted from natural resources to fund increasing wildfire suppression costs we continued to lose our ability to manage the forest at a pace and scale needed to match or exceed the pace and scale of the increasingly complex and catastrophic fires.

Evergreen: But recent history tells us we won't get ahead of our wildfire crisis until we deal with tree density in forests that hold too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land. Is this the undermanagement problem you reference?

Moore: Yes. We need to identify publicly acceptable ways to reduce the vegetation buildups that are fueling these wildfires.

Evergreen: Is this your end game?

Moore: It's certainly one of them. We have too much vegetation in our national forests. It's the underlying cause, but there are other factors we must face: our changing climate, the fact that more homes are being built in the Wildland Urban Interface and a hundred years of successful fire suppression in ecosystems that were adapted to fire. We've identified 250 firesheds, each spanning 250,000 acres on public and private land. With an integrated, all hands on deck approach, we can strategically treat 20 to 40 percent of 134 of these 250 firesheds in ways that will significantly alter fire behavior.

Evergreen: So with your partners and their skill sets and political influence you believe the Forest Service can reduce the size, frequency and destructive force of these wildfires by treating 20-40 percent of 134 of 250 designated firesheds?

Moore: Yes, that's what we believe and it is supported by our scientists. And to be successful, we also need to hire and train several thousand new Forest Service employees.

Evergreen: Congress recently deposited $10 billion in the Forest Service's checking account. That's a first in the agency's 118-year history. How are you allocating these billions?

Moore: Last year - 2022 - was devoted to prioritizing needs and implementing NEPA ready projects. This year we will begin to ramp up the implementation of projects. We are allocating $900 million this year toward this effort.

Evergreen: What top priority needs did you identify?

Moore: Reducing wildfire risk begins with reducing fuel loading. This will require a number of things including increased stability of the existing wood processing infrastructure, retrofitting some mills and introducing wood innovation in the mix. For example, cross laminated timber and biochar which stores carbon in the ground, improving soil productivity and water filtration.

Evergreen: I want to go back to the word "stability" for a moment. I presume you also mean certainty of log supplies that justify capital investments in new wood processing capacity. I don't think the general public knows these investments are often north of $100 million.

Moore: That's correct.

Evergreen: I will hazard a guess that many of the opportunities you see for smaller family-owned mills are within or fairly close to designated the Wildland Urban Interface units and the communities were these mills are located.

Moore: Right again. As you know, these mills are often their town's largest employers. They're very important on levels that extend far beyond economics.

Evergreen: We have been writing for years about next generation wood product innovations as a way to strengthen poor rural economies but you are the first Forest Service Chief to express it so candidly.

Moore: My intention here is to not necessarily be candid but to build excitement around new opportunities. If we are to move aggressively towards removing some of the overstocked vegetation we will have to help introduce additions to the wood industry infrastructure. I want the Forest Service to be a part of the solution. We have a crisis going on in our nation’s forest and we all need to act with a sense of urgency. We will make mistakes along the way but we will learn from them and make course corrections.

Evergreen: Speaking of wildfire, you are the Forest Service's principal spokesperson, so it falls to you to explain the so-called "managed fire" debate that swirls around fires that escape crews and burn hundreds of thousands of acres and sometimes entire towns.

Moore: Our firefighting community, which includes states, tribes and private contractors, is 98 percent successful. The fact that two percent of our wildfires do so much damage tells us that we are in deep trouble. This is a call to order for all of us. It's all hands on deck. What rural and urban citizens are enduring isn't normal. Nor is it socially or culturally acceptable, and it is not environmentally or economically sustainable.

Evergreen: We certainly agree with you, but how do you plan to do this with environmental litigators attacking most forest restoration projects the Forest Service proposes? We are living in an era dominated by the vocal few, people in organizations that see wildfire as a good thing and forest management as a bad thing.

Moore: We always need to be mindful of the environmental laws that guide our decision making, and we also need to learn how to effectively use all of the forest management tools Congress has given us, including those like categorical exclusions and Good Neighbor Authority.

Evergreen: Mechanical thinning and prescribed fire are great tools. We've advocated for their greater use for years.

Moore: They are good tools, but we also need to figure out how to purposefully put fire back into fire adapted forest ecosystems. It's not either/or but a combination of thinning and afterwards prescribed fire. This has proven to work.

Evergreen: That won't be easy to do given the public's fear and anger over the destructive force of those two percent fires you referenced a moment ago.

Moore: We've developed an approach called Potential Opportunity Delineation - PODS. It functions as a framework that allows us to talk with the public about the range of choices we can offer in well-defined areas surrounding their communities. We want the public to have a voice in this process, and we want them to understand the possible consequences of their choices and be able to alter the choices to mitigate potential impacts. We do this together.

Evergreen: This sounds like an expansion of the forest collaborative process blessed by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill. We believe forest collaboratives that mirror their community demographic ought to be congressionally shielded from serial litigators. Do you agree or is there a better approach?

Moore: I don't believe the judicial system will ever deny the American public the right to challenge public agencies and the decisions they make, and nor should they. There isn't a way to bulletproof collaboratives or the National Environmental Policy Act. As long as we are guided by our existing set of laws and regulations, we should instead continue to sharpen our NEPA skills and collaboration to better match our circumstances and opportunities.

Evergreen: NEPA related forest planning has become a billion dollar business model for serial litigators who sue on process, not whether your plans actually pose environmental risks. Years of litigation involving unfounded claims regarding degradation of fish and wildlife habitat will continue at a very inopportune time given the disease and wildfire risks we are facing in our forests.

Moore: The Forest Service needs to be very straightforward and very honest with the public when we talk about what is happening in our national forests. This is the PODS discussion I referenced. Too much time, effort and money have been invested, and too much is at risk for us to allow the process of restoring natural resiliency in our forests to be derailed. We need to continue to invite these groups to join us in more productive problem solving.

Evergreen: Speaking of honesty, the 5,000 pound elephant in the room isn't returning fire to fire-adapted forests. It's logging, especially salvage logging following big fires. Dead standing trees become the fuel for the next fire. We've seen this time and again. But many people oppose logging no matter when, where, how or why it is done. How do we overcome this?

Moore: Again, we need to be very honest with the public about the short and long term risks we face as a society. We have the on-the- ground tools we need, and new engineering technologies and wood product innovations are increasing our opportunities for success, but none of the challenges we're discussing will be resolved overnight. This will take time, lots of listening and respect for every point of view.

Evergreen: When measured in terms of deteriorating air and water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, birds, plants, reptiles, amphibians, soil nutrients, microbes, natural beauty, cultural and spiritual values and human health and safety, the losses we are suffering are horrific.

Moore: I agree. It can't continue. We have a lot of work to do. I hope to set the stage for positive and meaningful long term change both within and beyond the Forest Service.

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