Embracing Forest Collaboration: Mary Farnsworth

Embracing Forest Collaboration: Mary Farnsworth

"The lesson in ‘Playing God’ is that there is no such thing as leaving nature alone. People are part of Creation. We do not have the option of choosing not to be stewards of the land. We must master the art and science of good stewardship. Many environmentalists do not understand that the only way to preserve nature is to manage nature."

Alston Chase, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Macalester College Author, “Playing God in Yellowstone” and “In a Dark Wood” Evergreen Magazine, September 1990

Mary Farnsworth is the Forest Supervisor of the 2.5 million acre Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Prior to her arrival in Coeur d’Alene in October of 2011, she was Deputy Forest Supervisor on central Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest. She hails from San Diego, California and is a 1987 Humboldt State University [California] forestry graduate. Her 28-year Forest Service career has taken her to four western national forests – the Umatilla and Deschutes in Oregon, the El Dorado and Tahoe in California and the Payette in Idaho. She also held a staff position with the National Fire Planning office in Washington, D.C. In this interview, she discusses the importance and power of collaborative groups that are helping the Forest Service develop a series of forest restoration projects on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

Evergreen: Ms. Farnsworth, you’ve been very outspoken in your advocacy for forest collaboration, much more so than many of your Forest Service colleagues around the country. Why?

Farnsworth: Because it is a terrific way to get local people engaged in what the Forest Service is doing on the ground. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the term “forest collaboration,” which seems like a buzz term for people engaged in the work of the forest.

Evergreen: What would you have named this process if the choice had been yours?

Farnsworth: To me, forest collaboration is about citizen stewardship. Citizen engagement in our planning and management processes is vital to the Forest Service on many levels, not least the fact that, with the declining federal budget, we aren’t as well staffed as we once were. Getting local folks involved and knowledgeable in natural resources issues makes our job much easier.

Evergreen: But how? The experts – the ecologists, biologists, botanists, engineers, silviculturists and firefighters – all work for you. Few citizens know anything about forest planning or management. How can they possibly help you?

Farnsworth: The public often provides information about social issues, local economics and what matters to them. And its important information. Bear in mind that the American people own the forests we manage. When Congress wrote the National Forest Management Act in 1976, it included a section mandating citizen participation in the Forest Service’s planning process. Much has changed since then, but Congress still sees great value in citizen engagement in forest planning. So does the Forest Service, and so do I. But the bottom line here is that the Forest Service has a legal obligation to consult with the American people when developing or altering its Forest Plans or site specific project planning through the NEPA process.. And that’s a good thing because good forest management is part science and part art. The public can help us with the art part.

Evergreen: Would it be accurate to say that forest collaboration is simply an evolutionary step in a citizen involvement process mandated by Congress nearly 40 years ago?

Farnsworth: I think so, though the process is a lot more refined than it was in the early going.

Evergreen: In what way?

Farnsworth: When the first Forest Plans were released for public comment in the mid-1980s, people predictably took sides around the idea that you were either in favor of commodity production, such as timber, or environmental protection. We remain a polarized society when it comes to natural resource management. In rural areas across the West, most folks favored commodity production because their livelihood depended on logging and wood processing. Likewise, if you lived in an urban area, there was a strong possibility that you favored environmental protection because you didn’t have an economic stake in the outcome of the planning process and you didn’t want your forest to be impacted by logging.

Evergreen: So what’s changed?

Farnsworth: There has been a movement toward the center by stakeholders who were once on opposite sides of the pro and anti-timber debate. In northern Idaho, lumbermen and conservationists meet pretty regularly with other stakeholders to discuss common problems and interests. The fact that they are working together – collaboratively if you will - has helped the Forest Service immensely.

Evergreen: How is this coming together helping you?

Farnsworth: The collaboratives have helped us build better projects, such as the Bottom Canyon project, which went from a proposal for six million board feet of timber production to around 20 million. It also contains some important aquatics restoration work and some trail re-routing to address long-standing erosion issues. Through collaboration, we are able to spend less time mediating disputes, or defending ourselves in court, which means we get more work done on the ground.

Evergreen: What do you think is driving old adversaries toward one another?

Farnsworth: I think it’s the forest health challenge that we are facing here in Idaho. All of our collaborators – our citizen stewards – see the same picture we see and the view is very concerning. Forests are becoming less resilient, and are less able to fend off insects and diseases. Additionally, the risk of catastrophic wildfire is as great as it has ever been. We have millions of acres of national forest land needing treatment of one kind or another.

Evergreen: Many people wonder why the Forest Service doesn’t just get busy and do it.

Farnsworth: I wish we could, but we lack the staffing and funding for widespread, large scale restoration. Moreover – and you know this as well as I know it – in response to decades of judicial rulings the bar has been raised for the level of analysis that is necessary for a project to be “defensible” in court. This has fundamentally altered the way in which we plan and execute our work. Everything we do takes longer and costs more money.

Evergreen: So how is collaboration – what you call citizen stewardship – helping you get more work done with smaller budgets and fewer people on staff?

Farnsworth: First and foremost, the coming together that defines collaboration gives former adversaries the opportunity to talk through their differences of opinion and find common interests before a project decision has been made. The process can take months or even years, but if the collaborators work in good faith, there is a high probability that trust will eventually replace suspicion and common ground will replace old battlefields.

Evergreen: That’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t always work, does it.

Farnsworth: No, it doesn’t, and there have been some notable failures. But we are blessed to have stakeholders in northern Idaho who seem to understand that together they can do things they never could have done separately. It’s the coming together – the consensus if you will – that makes our job so much easier than it was when the shrill voices were the only ones we heard.

Evergreen: Personalities seem to have a great deal to do with collaborative success.

Farnsworth: Some people just seem to be able to work better with others. It’s that old trust thing again. Good listening skills are a must. This process isn’t about deciding what you are willing to give up. It’s about figuring out how the collaborative group can come to agreement on what each participant wants and needs.

Evergreen: What do you see as the Forest Service’s role in collaboration?

Farnsworth: Our role is to give the process its best chance for success. Ultimately, the buck stops on my desk, meaning the final decisions about project specifics rest with me, but we encourage our two north Idaho collaboratives to give us their best ideas and recommendations concerning designated projects. It’s a learning process for all of us.

Evergreen: In what sense?

Farnsworth: As you said earlier, many who join collaboratives don’t know much about natural resource management. We do a lot field trips and a lot of explaining why we do things as we do. On the other hand, the Forest Service isn’t noted for its listening skills. At times, we have been insensitive to economic concerns and, at other times, we have been insensitive to environmental concerns. I believe that if you ask for input from citizen stewards – and we ask a lot of our collaborative partners - you best pay close attention to what you are hearing from them. Most of these folks volunteer their time.

Evergreen: How many collaboratives do you work with on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest?

Farnsworth: Currently two: the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative, which is doing its work primarily in Kootenai and Bonner counties, and the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative, which is centered in Boundary County.

Evergreen: No collaboratives in Shoshone or Benewah counties?

Farnsworth: Not at the moment, though rumor has it the Shoshone County Commissioners may be working toward reinvigorating their collaborative presence.

Evergreen: What about Benewah County?

Farnsworth: Right now, Benewah County does not have a collaborative group. Our staff currently works with a Natural Resource Advisory Committee works under the direction of the county commissioners. Matt Davis, our new District Ranger in Benewah County, brings a solid background in collaboration to his new position. I have high hopes for his ability to work collaboratively with the commissioners and their resource committee.

Evergreen: Is litigation still a problem on this forest?

Farnsworth: The Panhandle has gone from being one of the most litigated to one of the least litigated forests in the Northern Region. I credit the work of the collaboratives and our staff. They’re doing very good work. You’ve probably heard me say that we are a very good value for the Forest Service.

Evergreen: We have heard you say it, and it has us wondering what you mean by “good value.”

Farnsworth: We do what we say we are going to do and we do it very efficiently. The Forest Service isn’t a business in the traditional sense, but my job isn’t that much different from that of any CEO operating a company with some 300 employees. My responsibility is to lead, to look for ways to bring greater efficiency to our work, and to look for money we can use to do the work we’d like to do if we had more money. We have met our timber targets every year since I came here and we are desperate to do more.

Evergreen: What is your annual timber target?

Farnsworth: Its 50 million board feet at the moment. With more funding, I’m confident we could do at least 60 million board feet. But to tell you the truth, I much prefer to measure our performance in terms of work done rather than board feet. And I assure you, there is a lot more work that we could and should be doing on this forest.

Evergreen: And money is the only limiting factor?

Farnsworth: We are stretching our dollars every year. Partners are helping us do more work and we are, as I said, a good value, meaning we are high on the list to receive additional funding should it become available from any source.

Evergreen: Where might you get the additional dollars you need?

Farnsworth: As an example, we are working closely with the National Forest Foundation. NFF was chartered by Congress to be a support group for the National Forest System. On the Idaho Panhandle we have the only “Treasured Landscape” in Idaho, which is one of only 13 in the nation. It’s the Lightning Creek drainage on the Sandpoint Ranger District. We are spending $400,000, and NFF, through their fundraising efforts, will match that dollar amount so we get double the work done on the ground.

Evergreen: What’s the common goal you share with your collaboratives?

Farnsworth: Forest restoration is our goal. To be successful, we need to bring back western white pine and western larch, which are not susceptible to insect and disease problems we see now. The 1910 Fire and the subsequent blister rust invasion devastated our once dominant white pine stands. And root rot diseases have taken a toll on Douglas-fir, western hemlock and grand fir. Restoring white pine and larch requires that we first remove a lot of disease susceptible fir and hemlock and fire-prone lodgepole pine, then plant rust resistant white pine and larch.

Evergreen: Sounds like a big job.

Farnsworth: It is. And I suspect it will create some discomfort among publics that are accustomed to seeing the forest as it is, so we have a big educational job ahead of us. Simply thinning to reduce stand density isn’t sufficient because it will encourage aggressive natural regeneration in the tree species we are trying to ratchet back, and we perpetuate root diseases to the extent that the stands do not develop past the age of 30 or 40. It’s a long haul process that will require a lot of collaboration.

Evergreen: The federal government pays no real property tax on the lands it owns in hundreds of counties in the western United States. The precipitous decline in harvesting has pushed these counties to the brink of economic collapse. How do you see this?

Farnsworth: I am sympathetic. Their plight is one reason why I push forest collaboration so hard; the other being that we have a lot of work to do to restore the ecological integrity of western national forests. It’s a building process. As we increase the pace of restoration we know timber will be a byproduct. I believe the Idaho Panhandle National Forest is capable of sustaining a harvest level at least twice what it is today.

Evergreen: You got a big push from the 2014 Farm Bill, didn’t you?

Farnsworth: We certainly did. Working with state and federal land management agencies, our collaborative partners identified high priority projects covering 1.7 million acres. We are currently addressing 26 projects within the scope of our Five Year Action Plan.

Evergreen: Is it too much to hope that Congress might finally understand that local forest collaboratives are the key to resolving long standing disputes over the manner in which national forests are managed?

Farnsworth: The mere fact that Congress would ask states to lead a grass roots effort to identify priority projects would suggest that Congress values collaboration.

Evergreen: Let’s go back to the Bottom Canyon project for a moment. What can you tell us about it?

Farnsworth: It began as a conversation with the Idaho Panhandle Collaborative. At the time, the partners were trying to write silvicultural standards for the whole forest, and I said, “No, the Forest Plan is our guiding document. However, there is a project coming up called Bottom Canyon. Why don’t you come up with a project alternative and we will consider it.” They did it, and did a wonderful job, and we accepted their design, which includes about three times the harvest volume we had in our original proposal. It’s really a terrific project.

Evergreen: You’re dead serious about collaboration, aren’t you?

Farnsworth: I am dead serious. It takes time, effort, patience and education, but I firmly believe that this is how forest planning and management should be done. The responsibility rests with the Forest Service, but there is plenty of room here for our citizen stewards to help us get the work done.

Evergreen: The Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative is also a big deal in your world, isn’t it?

Farnsworth: Absolutely. KVRI is one of the oldest collaboratives in the country. Around the time I arrived here in 2011, the group was notified that their proposed project had been selected for inclusion in the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program created by Congress about four years ago. Theirs is one of only 23 CFLRP projects in the entire nation. The project spans 800,000 acres including 413,000 in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. KVRI is a very diverse group. There are 21 members and another 23 partners, but the big three are the Boundary County Commission, the City of Bonners Ferry and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. CFLRP will bring an additional $10 million to Boundary County over the nine year life of the project, so as you might imagine, the group’s members are pretty outspoken in their belief that the Panhandle presents a good investment opportunity for scarce dollars.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed senses that the clock is ticking on a job that is understaffed and underfunded. Do you hear the clock ticking, too?

Farnsworth: I certainly do. We have to find ways to get more work done more efficiently on the ground. And that means we must engage with any group that sees the same problem we see and is willing to invest their time, effort and money in a solution.

Evergreen: Would it make a difference if all five of northern Idaho’s counties were united in their support for forest collaboration?

Farnsworth: The power of five counties speaking with one voice would be huge. Instead of working individually, the counties could direct their time, energy and money toward a set of common goals for northern Idaho: more economic growth, more timber production, more recreation enhancement; more of everything that our communities want from their national forests.

I also believe that, as a group of five, the counties could help us attract additional funding and, as I’ve already said many times, our collaboratives help us build better projects. Their social diversity gives us more social license for our projects; and when projects are challenged, our collaborators – our citizen stewards – can speak up on behalf of their own work. So, yes, if the five counties and the Forest Service were all working toward the same collaborative goals, we could get a lot more work done. Bob Boeh of the Idaho Forest Group – one of our citizen stewards – once said to me, “Imagine if we were all in the same boat, rowing in the same direction in unison. We’d get there quicker!” He’s right. We would.

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