Crafting a New Forest Service: Unwinding the Forest Health Crisis in the Western United States

Crafting a New Forest Service: Unwinding the Forest Health Crisis in the Western United States


The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 90 million acres of the nation’s federal forest estate are in Condition Class 3 or 2 – a fire ecologists’ rating system that attempts to account for the ecological damage a wildfire might do to a forest. Class 3 forests are said to be “ready to burn,” while Class 2 forests soon will be.

Judging from what can be seen in the West, I believe these estimates are low. The estimated one billion dead trees standing in national forests in Colorado and California does not include trees killed by wildfire over the last two decades.

Wildfires are now burning with unprecedented ferocity. Fire behavior has become so unpredictable that many firefighting veterans question the advisability of committing firefighters whose safety is at considerable risk.

The causes are many: prolonged drought; insect and disease infestations in over-stressed trees; too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land; long ago logging practices that favored the best trees and left too little behind to insure sufficient natural regeneration in appropriate species. The list goes on.

In their frequent congressional testimony, outgoing Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, and Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, have done a respectable job of describing the problem and its solution.

Congress has taken steps to “fix” the problem, but members in both the House and Senate have been unwilling to embrace the kind of big picture thinking that will be necessary to pull the West’s prized National Forests back from the brink of ecological collapse. There are many reasons why, but none more damaging than a suite of well-intended but conflicting environmental laws administered by federal agencies whose missions and regulations make it impossible for the Forest Service to attack the forest health crisis on meaningful ecological scales.

Nowhere is regulatory gridlock more apparent than in the head-butting that characterizes the relationships between the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Until Congress sees fit to reconcile these regulatory conflicts, the West’s National Forests will continue to die and burn in wildfires for which there is no historic parallel.

Secretary Vilsack and Chief Tidwell have both urged Congress to fix the so-called “fire borrowing mess.” Why the Forest Service is forced to pay its firefighting bills from its forest planning and restoration budget is beyond me. Work that could be done that would reduce the risk, size and frequency of wildfires goes unfunded because the money is redirected to the very wildfires the public deplores.

Likewise, both Messrs. Vilsack and Tidwell have called congressional attention to the fact that restoring national forests – doing the stand tending and thinning work necessary to reduce the risk of wildfires - is impossible in the absence of wood processing infrastructure.

Minus state-of-the-art wood processing and logging technologies, associated manpower, local cultural knowledge - and viable and unsubsidized wood product markets for small-diameter trees that need to be removed - over-stressed forests will continue to die and burn in godawful wildfires.

The well-respected Nature Conservancy is actively searching for investment capital/partner[s] for a state-of-the-art sawmill it hopes to build near Wenatchee, Washington, ground-zero in eastern Washington’s federal forest health crisis. The Conservancy has even hired a fundraiser for its Seattle office whose job is to court lumbermen with the know-how and financial resources necessary to build and operate such a mill. Two years and counting, no luck so far.

Why? Because experienced lumbermen, who could easily build the $100 million mill, don’t trust the federal government to provide a stable and adequate supply of commercially usable small diameter logs for 20 years – the amount of time required to amortize the capital investment.

And why no trust? Because the Forest Service is mired in a litigation mess of Congress’ making: the much-abused Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows environmentalists who favor a “let nature take its course” approach to federal forest management, have the power to stop any forest restoration project they oppose. In Montana alone, most projects proposed and implemented over the last five years are mired in federal court delays that kill the investment climate.

The quickest fix for the ensuing litigation mess is to exempt federal forests from the Equal Access to Justice Act. Make collaboration the Law of the Land. Settle differences of opinion concerning a project through binding arbitration; require arbitration judges to select the management plan that best meets the contested project’s forest restoration goals.

As for investment capital, the quickest way to get it flowing again is to fill up existing log yards with federal timber, green and burnt [minimum diameter six inches on the small end] that has commercial value.

Western sawmills that survived the collapse of the post-World War II federal timber sale program are currently running at about 50 percent capacity, so I don’t think a mill capacity study is needed. The locations of these wood processors, and the species and sizes of the logs they prefer, is well known to Forest Service staff, yet the agency continues to design projects that are doomed to failure because the sales are too small or too distant from mills to be profitable, log quality is poor and agency appraisals are priced well above markets.

Many observers believe this behavior is purposeful, that the Forest Service has taken a “see, we told you this would fail” position. I’d like to think agency staff simply lacks the commensurate knowledge and experience, but there is some evidence that the Forest Service has dug in its heels, especially as it concerns congressionally-blessed forest collaborative groups that are attempting [with some success] to assist the Forest Service in development, implementation and monitoring of locally inspired forest restoration projects.

My two cents worth:

Based on my 32-years of “on the scene” reporting from collapsing federal forests in the western United States, it is my studied opinion that Congress does not yet understand the bevy of environmental and economic benefits that can flow from science-based forest management. Nor is it willing to acknowledge the financial outlays necessary to care for the public’s 190-million-acre forest estate.

Despite their unwillingness to adequately fund federal forest management budgets, most in Congress see nothing wrong with pandering to the public’s clearly-stated felt necessities; those things it wants from its National Forests: clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round recreation opportunities. These are not amenities readily available amid the blackened rubble of stand-replacing wildfires.

I have lost track of the number of acres of National Forest timberland that have been destroyed by stand-replacing wildfires over the last 30 years, but I know it is north of 20 million. That works out to about six million acres annually.

These numbers seem high, but a graph of annual losses from 1980 through 2015 shows annual losses between four million and 10 million acres, so an average of seven million. Acreage measurements numb us to the real losses, which we can measure qualitatively as losses in old growth [clinically known as late succession reserves], recreation opportunity foregone for decades, if not centuries, and countless deer, elk, bears, squirrels and songbirds overrun by fires that can incinerate a mountainside in minutes.

Apart from the carnage, I think the Forest Service’s blasé response to wildfire is reprehensible. The last Forest Service Chief to throw a public fit about these huge and very destructive fires was its first Chief, Gifford Pinchot, who, in September of 1910, publicly chewed Congress’ ass for failing to fund the agency’s firefighting budget. Sound familiar?

Technically, Pinchot was no longer Chief. He had been fired months earlier for insubordination by President Taft. But it hardly mattered. Pinchot was still such a public force to be reckoned with that he was interviewed more frequently in the aftermath of the 1910 Fire than his successor, Henry Graves.

Three million acres of virgin timber in northern Idaho and western Montana were lost in the 1910 Fire, most of it in a firestorm that raged for two days and nights. Here is what Pinchot told an aghast reporter from Everybody’s Magazine, a popular journal of that era:

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was cast, the rider thrown, the battle lost. For want of trails the finest white pine forests in the United States were laid waste and scores of lives lost. It is all loss, dead irretrievable loss, due to the pique, the bias, the bullheadedness of a knot of men who have sulked and planted their hulks in the way of appropriations for the protection and improvement of these national forests.”

I want to hear a Forest Service Chief chew some congressional ass in the same manner. Where in hell is the passion? Where has it gone? Where is someone with the guts to tell truth about what is happening in our western National Forests?

In 1952, Collier’s Magazine readers voted the U.S. Forest Service one of the two most admired organization’s in the nation. The other? The United States Marine Corps. No one should have been surprised. Many Forest Service employees of the era were World War II veterans. They were uniforms. They believed in what they were doing to help rebuild America in the wake of war and the Great Depression. They were principled, disciplined professionals who went about their work in a way the entire country admired.

Not many know this, but the post-war federal timber sale program was pretty much invented by Truman Democrats who saw the West’s still mostly roadless National Forests as the economic engine that could power the nation’s transition from wartime to peacetime footing. They were right. Most of the houses that war weary GI’s bought [with government-guaranteed “GI Bill” mortgages] were built with wood harvested from National Forests.

The post-war federal timber sale program was destroyed during the litigious timber wars of the 1980s. It is gone for good, a result of new social necessities that favor a more holistic approach to federal forest management. Again, clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round recreation opportunity.

It is the Forest Service’s responsibility to identify, articulate and implement this new, more holistic approach. It tried 30 years ago, but was shouted down by the environmental chorus of that time. Now the silence from the Chief’s office is deafening. Again, where is the passion?

The Forest Service’s once rock-solid credibility is on the line. The next Chief of the Forest Service must quickly find a way to restore moral and esprit de corps. It will not be easy. Trust is gone. The agency has lost its way.

The Next Chief:

The U.S. Forest Service is in desperate need of a Chief with strong CEO-level management and organizational skills, someone capable of running a far-flung company with 34,000 employees. He or she must bring solid financial experience to the job, and they must be able to clearly, concisely and firmly communicate with Congress, and with employees whose views and values are so diverse that they have no collective understanding of the agency’s mission, goals or objectives.

It is unlikely that a person with these qualifications will be found in the Forest Service today. So, yes, it is time to appoint a Chief who very likely won’t be able to tell the difference between a ponderosa pine and a Douglas-fir. It doesn’t matter if he or she can fix a badly broken and terribly inefficient organizational structure.

The new Chief should immediately appoint two advisory boards – one composed of Forest Service retirees whose collective forestry experience spans thousands of years, and another composed of local stakeholders who have lived in and around western federal forests long enough to have made some mistakes and developed a corresponding wisdom and capacity for judgement. Here I think of the local forest collaboratives Congress has blessed. The diversity of opinion and value represented in these all-volunteer groups is an exceptionally accurate representation of the nation’s voter demographic.

Mission drift:

“Caring for the land, serving the people” has been the Forest Service’s motto for decades. Sadly, the agency no longer cares for land or serves people. It has lost its way amid conflicting values, conflicting regulations and conflicting science. So too has it lost its voice, and most certainly its willingness to publicly challenge its more vocal special-interest critics, most of them Washington, D.C.-based environmental organizations that wield too much political power.

The New Forest Service:

There are many regulatory messes Congress could fix in the current term, but some of what ails federal forest management agencies will require more forceful leadership than the agency has had in many years.

A new Forest Service is needed, but it can only evolve from a new mission – and that mission should be to restore the health and resiliency of federally-owned forest ecosystems; to wit: the west’s fast collapsing National Forests.

This crucially important task must not be left to “nature” because nature is completely indifferent to human need. Only by more actively managing forests than current regulations permit can healthy, more resilient forest ecosystems be established. The one-size fits all cookie-cutter approach that Congress has long favored must be avoided. Mixed conifer, dry site forests prevalent in the Intermountain West are ecologically very different from Douglas-fir-dominant forests west of the Cascades in Oregon, Washington and northern California. Management regimes must recognize and respect these differences.

The new Forest Service will be an elite corps of men and women schooled in the forest sciences, professionally trained to work with National Forest stakeholders, and to meet the Forest Service’s new mission. They will oversee forest planning and routine daily management activities. They will be able to clearly and concisely explain and defend the Forest Service’s mission to the press, elected officials and communities whose futures are tethered to nearby National Forests.

Immediate “fixes”

  • As earlier noted, fix the fire borrowing mess by separating the Forest Service’s management and restoration budget from its firefighting budget, a budget that I think ought to be handed over the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thus freeing the Forest Service from the staffing burdens created by the need to shift forest planning and management personnel to fire duties that often take them away from their real jobs for four to six months every year.
  • End the time-honored practice of transferring staff every two or three years, or sending them off on temporary duty assignments that, again, take them away from their forest planning and management assignments. Leave them in forests – at the district level - and rural communities long enough for them to develop a working knowledge of both. Time was when those who worked in District Ranger offices were involved in most every civic organization in nearby communities. Now they are often complete strangers. No bonds are formed and no friendships made.
  • Select and train NEPA teams whose only job is to develop and oversee long-term restoration projects. Keep these teams in place in a single location for at least a decade. Reward them for staying put.
  • Set measurable annual goals and reward performance. There are, at present, no standards for measuring employee performance A standard is needed against which individual performance can be measured against forest restoration goals.
  • Given the very nature of the ecological problem we face [too many trees, too much disease, too many insects, and too many stand replacing fires] I think acres thinned, accompanied by prescribed burning, would be an excellent and quite relevant standard.
  • Those who exceed annual goals set for them by agency management get bonuses and those who fall short are given one year to redeem themselves. Thereafter, they are dismissed from the Forest Service.
  • The Forest Service’s 10 regional offices should be shut down as quickly as possible. The chain of command should run from the Chief’s office directly to the Forest Supervisor and District Ranger offices. Move the whole agency closer to the ground. Locate it in communities where the work needs doing.
  • If a Forest Supervisor knows the voice on the other end of the call is the Chief, he or she will be more likely to treat collaboratives with respect, and less likely to tell the group, “We don’t have to do that if we don’t want to.” Believe me, I’ve heard it. Supervisors with holier than thou attitudes should be immediately dismissed.
  • Given Forest Service budget and staffing limitations, hand as much NEPA and project work as possible to forestry consultants and contractors tasked with the day-the-day work: thinning, harvesting, replanting, road, bridge and campground maintenance. Put agency personnel in oversite positions. Make it their job to make sure planning and implementation regulations are followed to the letter.
  • A near-at-hand opportunity to roll out this more efficient, less costly approach presents itself with implementation of Good Neighbor Authorities imbedded in the 2014 Farm Bill. GNA provides the regulatory tools needed for States to handle National Forest restoration projects the Forest Service can’t get to because of staffing and budget limitations.
  • The new Forest Service needs to be responsive, nimble and publicly savvy. It needs to know what it about. It needs to care for land and serve people; it needs to be worthy of its time-honored motto.
  • Just as there are no measurable standards for grading individual annual performance, there is no standard - and there are no timelines - for measuring a National Forest’s annual performance against national performance goals or timelines. No one in the Chief’s office says to the Idaho Panhandle National Forest Supervisor, “This year you will thin this many acres, including burning slash piles and replanting harvest areas. Here is your budget. Now go do it.”
  • There is no justification for this inexplicable oversight in a management system that purports to resemble cohesive planning, a catch phrase often used by the Forest Service to explain what has become little more than an annual smoke and mirrors routine.
  • When all volunteer collaborative groups complain about the urgent need to increase the pace and scale of restoration work, this is what they are talking about. Everyone is flying blind. No one knows that to expect next. There is no plan, nothing that connects A to B to C or, ultimately to Z. No privately-owned enterprise could conduct its business in this manner and expect to survive. The Forest Service survives because it is a public agency with a budget so byzantine that even the Chief can’t explain it.
  • Monies earned from forest restoration projects – and, yes, most of them could earn a profit if they were properly designed – need to stay with each National Forest to help pay for unprofitable projects and reforestation. Every National Forest with which I am familiar has a reforestation backlog. This, too, in inexcusable. Loggers and lumbermen are very resourceful. Seek their advice on how to get more work done on more acres for less money.
  • The litigation mess has already been discussed, but at the risk of repeating myself, Congress needs to immediately bullet-proof the heavy lifting that is being done by the west’s collaborative groups. These groups often spend years building trust and a common understanding in their ranks. They are doing excellent work, sometimes despite inexcusable Forest Service foot-dragging. Mandate collaboration. Replace litigation with arbitration. In the words of the old Hippie bumper sticker, “Give peace a chance.”

Longer term “fixes”

  • Congress needs to reconvene the Public Land Law Review Commission and task it with reconciling conflicting federal laws and regulations that are impeding forest planning restoration work. The “gotcha” mindset that permeates the federal consultation process is ridiculous on its face, to say nothing of the damage it is doing to federal forests.
  • Likewise, the “survey and manage” mandates imbedded in the forest planning process in the waning hours of the Clinton Administration are terribly destructive. They mandate management restrictions for which there is no equivalency in nature.
  • The late Jack Ward Thomas, Forest Service Chief during the agency’s timultuous spotted owl years, recognized and wrote about the need to zone National Forests in accordance with their highest and best uses: Highly productive timberlands, less productive timberlands requiring a lighter hand on the land, and Wilderness.
  • Congress should honor Thomas’ sensible approach by establishing an “equality of permanence” standard for National Forest acres that have been classified as “roaded and suitable” for active timber management. These acres are thus granted the same standard of permanence as are designated Wilderness acres. Such a standard would go a long way toward eliminating process-focused litigation currently focused on roaded and suitable acres.
  • This standard of permanence should also be applied to roadless areas for which no permanent management direction is currently in place.
  • There is again lots of chatter about transferring the Forest Service to the Department of the Interior. We should also consider shifting all federal lands to a new U.S. Department of Natural Resources.
  • So-called “managed fire” has emerged from the fire ecologist community as a strategy for “restoring” forests that, owing to tree density, are hosting insect and disease infestations. This is a slippery slope that exposes the Forest Service’s failure to shift gears when it became apparent that federal forests in the Intermountain West were growing too dense to sustain themselves in fire-dependent ecosystems. Now we have little choice but to allow some of these conflagrations to burn themselves out over many months, but it is a “prescription” that has no place in a society that has such an abundance of world-class forest science at its fingertips.
  • Earle Wilcox, a Bureau of Indian Affairs forester based in Spokane, Washington first sounded the forest density alarm in the early 1950s Wilcox warned that “excluding fire” from fire-dependent ecosystems was causing a dramatic increase in forest density. Because he knew the public had no patience for wildfires, Wilcox recommended that the pace and scale of thinning and prescribed fire be increased. No one listened.
  • Fire can play a very useful role in managing Intermountain, mixed conifer, dry site forests. but it must be understood that the stand-replacing fires that we are witnessing today are not the gentle under burns that frequented Intermountain forests for eons before white settlement began after the Civil War.
  • It must also be understood that many of those bygone burns were intentionally set by Indians who used fire to create or maintain habitat for deer and elk, staples in their diets. Only recently have fire ecologists begun to recognize the role that “Indian fire” played in shaping our nation’s landscapes, not just in the West, but from coast to coast.
  • Salvaging burnt timber in the aftermath of big fires has been a politically volatile topic in the West for 30 years. Opponents allege that salvaging burned timber is “like mugging a burn victim.” Yet there is no evidence to prove harm from salvage. Indian tribes, states and private landowners quickly salvage their losses. It’s an easy way to generate the revenue needed to pay for replanting and other remedial work. But not the Forest Service. Why? Again, the regulatory mess.

Much has been written about the federal Endangered Species Act. As I understand the Act, its purpose is to protect habit for species whose numbers are in serious decline. There are some notable successes – the eagle being one. There are also notable failures – the northern spotted owl being one. Why are owl population numbers still in decline 27 years after the bird was listed as a threatened species? Predatory barred owls appear to be one reason and interbreeding between spotted and barred owls another. But what I find so alarming about the current situation is the effort by so-called “owl scientists” to silence scientists who don’t agree with their findings. Why are the skeptics being denied access to peer-reviewed journals?

  • The Pacific Northwest’s late succession reserves should be sufficient to support a viable owl population. So why are owl numbers still falling? I think it is because the Endangered Species Act emphasizes preservation of habitat at the expense of doing necessary thinning and stand-tending work in forests that have grown so dense that they no longer provide what owls need. The result is easily seen in dead and dying National Forests in central and eastern Oregon and Washington.
  • It may be time to merge the Forest Service’s Research Stations. There are many, and they do great work, but there is no special focus on forest restoration. The Forest Service and its collaboratives need quick access to implementable management prescriptions.
  • Many Station Research reports never find their way out of Station libraries, and many in the Forest Service don’t even know how to access and use gross growth, mortality and net growth data the agency’s Forest Inventory and Analysis group has been collecting from survey plots for decades. How can the agency plan if it doesn’t know where to find the information it needs or how to use it?
  • Save for a couple of Research Stations engaged in fire research, the agency focus is still on Clinton-era old growth projects. Missing is a much-needed focus on species and age class diversity – the bits and pieces of future forests. Over the years, I’ve interviewed many forest geneticists who insist that there is as much natural diversity in a new [early succession] forest as there is in an old [late succession] forest. As forests age, the mix of plant and animal species changes as a function of the changing structure of the forest. Research Station reports need to reflect this truth by providing collaboratives with the management tools they need to correctly alter stand density and the mix of tree species.
  • The Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory at Madison, Wisconsin needs a budget commensurate with the task that lies before us, and certainly one that reflects its remarkable track record. Most of the basic research in wood and paper manufacturing – including development of postage stamps we don’t have to lick – was done at Madison. Given that wood is the only structural building material on Earth that is renewable, recyclable and biodegradable, and that wood stores carbon through a process called photosynthesis, which is powered by the free and non-polluting energy of the Sun, I will argue that work done at the Madison lab is easily as important to our nation’s economic and environmental well-being as work done by federally-funded research program, and probably more important.
  • Finally, it is time for Congress to get serious about a permanent solution to the economic crisis that befell counties that were left high and dry by the 1990s collapse of the post-World War II federal timber sale program. Secure Rural Schools funding compensated counties for a portion of the 25 percent harvest receipts they lost, and it was widely assumed that in the ensuing years, counties would find new ways to prop up their once robust timber economies.
  • Conservation groups promoted the idea that jobs in the tourism sector would replace lost timber jobs. Twenty-plus years have passed and the hoped-for surge in tourism has yet to materialize. There is no evidence that it ever will. Moreover, the social and cultural structures present in logging and sawmilling communities aren’t of interest to urban-based companies looking to expand. In fact, the trend is in the opposite direction. Young professionals want to live in cities.
  • Across the rural west, the federal government owns as much as 90 percent of the land base in hundreds of counties. The government pays no property taxes on what it owns. How such a preposterous idea took root in the long ago established relationship between counties and the federal government is beyond understanding, but the 25 percent share of harvest receipts that counties received annually suggests to me that the government clearly understood its responsibility to counties and communities that it helped build during the era when the U.S. Forest Service was actively recruiting private capital investments in wood processing infrastructure needed to process federal timber.
  • Now the federal government has pretty much exited the timber management business in favor of a more holistic forest restoration approach that generates but a fraction of the family-wage jobs that timber management created. All well and good, but with the demise of Secure Rural Schools payments, Congress must find a fair and equitable permanent solution to the economic downdraft created by the fact that federal timberland isn’t available for private investments that are taxed by counties. The simplest solution would be for the federal government to pay property and timber severance taxes at the same rates paid by private timberland owners. Such payments would be less than what harvest receipts generated, but the counties would be equitably compensated for federal forest acres within their borders.
  • The quest to restore federal forest ecosystems necessitates significant private investments in technologically advanced tree thinning and wood processing equipment. The federal government should jumpstart this process by providing grant monies to entrepreneurs willing to make the necessary investments. Loans will not attract experienced entrepreneurs because there is [as yet] no certainty that forest restoration work will yield sufficient marketable timber and biomass to profitably cover equipment and labor costs.
  • Likewise, the federal government needs to compensate forest collaboratives for their all-volunteer work. It often takes five years for these stakeholder groups to get up and running. To ensure progress and accountability, collaborative groups should be paid a project fee based on acres treated annually. Collaborative members could then recover the thousands of travel-related dollars they spend annually.

Jim Petersen Founder and President Evergreen Foundation

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