FIA DATA: The Gold Standard, Part 2

FIA DATA: The Gold Standard, Part 2

Remarks by James D. Petersen

Founder and President, The Evergreen Foundation

FIA Annual User Group Meeting

Hosted jointly by the Society of American Foresters

And the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement

Aloft Hotel

Louisville, Kentucky

April 16-18, 2019


I was last in Louisville about 10 years ago. An old and dear friend who owned several thoroughbreds asked me to represent him at the Derby because he was too ill to travel. I accepted his invitation not realizing what it meant to show up at Churchill Downs wearing the colors of a Derby horse owner – and then to be ushered to his private box in the fifth row about half way down the track – and then smile at all the peons who came past his box thinking I was him. “Good luck,” “Hope you win,” “Lovely afternoon isn’t it.”

Smile and nod. Nod and smile. Repeat Steps 1 and 2. I assure you it was an experience unlike any I’d ever had or hope to have again.

We didn’t win but we did finish fourth, just out of the money.

My friend also owned sawmills – and I’m pretty damn sure he would think this venue far more productive than the Kentucky Derby. So do I.

Time is short, so let me tell you what brings us here to visit with you.

To the extent that I have been using FIA data for more than 30 years, it is likely I am the old fossil in the room. The late Con Schallau, a PhD forest economist stationed at the PNW lab at Oregon State University, introduced me to your treasure trove not long after I started Evergreen Magazine in 1986.

Con hauled several voluminous FIA reports off his bookshelf, handed them to me and said, in a voice that sounded like he’d just loaned me his personal copy of the Magna Carta, “Here, you need to read these.”

Being an information junkie, I did!

Understand that this was 1986 and there was no Internet and there were no smart phones, only landlines and FAX machines that used that lovely paper that curled. My first computer, a clunky old desktop, took about five minutes to boot up, and the commands were so long and unmemorable that I wrote them down on a yellow pad stationed beside my IBM Selectric II typewriter. I trusted it more than I did my desktop.

Today, we have smart phones that connect us to the world, pocket-size laptops, laptops with keyboards that even my clumsy old fingers fit, and desktops with more horsepower than the computers that took our first astronauts into space.

My new desktop – an IBUYPOWER MSI GEFORCE RTX – whatever the hell that is - boots up instantly at the push of one button.

The mere fact that all this computing horsepower exists in a user-friendly form is leading FIA’s researchers into a new era, democratizing access to data in a way I never thought possible.

Now it is possible to overlay map layers that tell stories that heretofore only existed in dreary columns of numbers that stupefied ordinary mortals like me.

And now the entire story of America’s forests is imbedded in colorful interactive maps that reveal county level data sets that are only a mouse click away.

At the risk of jumping ahead of myself, what the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program has done will revolutionize, maybe even weaponize, our nation’s byzantine forest policy making process.

My wife and business partner, Julia, and I will be with you today and tomorrow, listening and learning everything that we possibly can about who you are, what you do and how you do it.

Do you assemble and interpret FIA data and its underlying science or are you users – customers in a manner of speaking – just like us?

The most important thing I can tell you about us is that our non-profit Evergreen Foundation mission statement has not changed in 33 years. Very simply, we are here to help advance public understanding and support for science-based forestry and forest policy.

We are in Louisville at the invitation of the Forest Service, which is its own long story.  Most I knew who worked for the Forest Service retired years ago. We got to know one another during the first decadal forest planning years in southern Oregon and northern California and now we stay in touch through the National Association of Forest Service Retirees.

During their work years, these men and women were the first to notice my constant use of FIA data and they appreciated the fact that I was a real stickler for facts, documentation and footnotes. Such was the nature of my bootcamp-like journalistic training. My mentors were tough as hell reporters and editors who polished their craft in foxholes in Europe and the South Pacific during the Second World War.

I polished mine in radio, television, magazines and daily newspapers in Idaho, Montana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Oregon. I have now been in training for 55 years, and I like to think that I still learn something new every day.

Suffice it to say that I come from an era when facts mattered and no one gave a damn about your feelings. Hashtags were seldom used pound signs.

My earliest use of FIA data revolved around an Evergreen edition titled, “The Truth About America’s Forests.” We published seven updates between 1989 and 1996, and we gave away more than one million copies across these United States.

My long years of use of FIA data got me invited to your client meeting at Mount Hood Community College in Portland, Oregon in October of 2017.

I used the occasion to say that I consider FIA data to be gold standard where information concerning forests and forestry is concerned, and I encouraged those who assemble these marvelous data sets to stay the course and not get stampeded into the weeds by the political correctness monitors who seem to be everywhere in our increasingly chaotic lives.

As the conference was adjourning, Glenn Christiansen, who I suppose many of you know, asked me if I might be interested in doing something larger about FIA in Evergreen Magazine and on our website. “Sure” I said, not realizing that contracting with the Forest Service today is far more complicated than it was when I accepted a similar invitation from the Forest Products Lab’s director in 2003. Chris Risbrudt and I sealed the deal on a handshake. If you want to see the finished product, log on to our Evergreen website, click on “Magazine Archive, and scroll down to the “Giant Minds, Giant Ideas” PDF file.

The Forest Service no longer does business on a handshake, so it took us a few months to find our way through the maze, but we made it thanks largely to the persistence of Greg Reams and the FIA crew in Portland.

Our work plan calls for us to visit all the regional FIA stations, then post our reports on our website and summarize our findings in a print version of Evergreen Magazine. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Over the last three months, we have visited all four stations – Portland, Ogden, St. Paul and Knoxville. Now the real work begins.

Our goal is ambitious. Simply stated, Julia and I are hell-bent on doing everything in our power to raise the visibility of the FIA Program, both within the Forest Service and among publics that would use FIA data if they knew it existed.

We were surprised by our discovery that there are Forest Service employees who have never heard of FIA. In fact, we are told that Regions One and Five are the only Forest Service regions that use FIA data in their planning processes, though I am also told that Region 6 uses some FIA data that has already been imbedded in other planning tools, like LandFire.

Why the National Forest System does not make better use of FIA data is beyond me, but this seeming oversight helps explain why so many national forest plans and their related planning updates bear little resemblance to FIA data sets that quantify and qualify the underlying causes of the wildfire pandemic that is sweeping the West and the pathogens that are gnawing away at forests in the Northeast and Midwest.

It’s the same in our nation’s forest policy arena. There are few hints that those who craft federal environmental regulations have ever heard of FIA.

How can anyone write these voluminous and often conflicting rules and regulations without first finding out why so many of our nation’s forests to fall apart; without first asking, “What can we do about this?”

At all four research stations, we conducted one to three-hour long interviews with key people responsible for FIA’s impressive array of research programs. If there is a single word that describes what FIA is and does, that word is “Wow!”

In boldface capitals with a big exclamation point after the word “Wow!’

We’ve already started posting some of our reports on our website – and you are free to share them with anyone in your networks. The wider and more diverse our audience, the better.

There is an over-arching essay on our website titled FIA: The Gold Standard and there is a Portland-specific introduction titled Ivan Doig Walked these Halls.

Few know that Doig, who was easily one of the finest writers of the last century, wrote several pieces about the Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station two years before This House of Sky, his autobiographical masterpiece was published in 1978.

But Doig did indeed walk the halls of the grand old Gus Solomon Courthouse in search of information for three essays he wrote about the PNW station, which is housed on the fourth floor, as is the Pacific Northwest’s FIA program.

Over the next three months, more region-specific reports will be posted on our website as quickly as they are approved.

The word “approved” underscores our obsession with error-free truth. Thus, every manuscript will be approved by the respective research station before it is published. We encourage you to share these reports with your networks as they come on-line on our website.

There is an artful dance that goes with manuscript approval. We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but we need to present the truth in a way that doesn’t sound like the Forest Service talking to itself.

Having spent 30-plus years translating complex forest science into plain English, I know Forest Service-ease very well, and I know it puts ordinary mortals to sleep, so please leave the story-telling to us. It is what we do every day.

As we complete the final and approved versions of our Portland, St. Paul, Knoxville and Ogden essays, we will  post them on our website and ask that you do the same with your networks.

We will also publish print versions for each region. We still print periodically because many of our long-time followers prefer to hold the truth in their hands rather than struggle through it on their smart phones.

So do I, though our website is formatted to fit a smart phone. We did this because we know that most in Generations X and Y – 1965 to 1995 – prefer to get their news via their cell phones. Generation Z – those born in 1995 or thereafter - have added a twist. They get their news from the algorithm of their choice. I find this habit very troubling because most contemporary news sources tend to lean far left or far right without much regard for what is actually happening in the world. This is tantamount to plugging your ears and loudly chanting “la, la, la” whenever someone says something you’d rather not hear.

Enough said.

What exactly are Julia and I learning from our tours of the four FIA stations?

We are fascinated by the fact that each station has its own personality reflecting the different forest types and societal “felt necessities” that characterize the four region.

In St. Paul, headquarters for the Northern Region, there is a lot of chatter about the spread of pathogens in forests that are the region’s outdoor playland. There is also a public worry about the loss of forests to urban sprawl – mainly housing developments and malls - and there is great enthusiasm for FIA’s recent urban forestry outreach.

We think this outreach is one of the smartest strategic moves FIA has made in a long time. It connects people living in cities with trees in their city parks, on boulevards and in their yards, with more rural forest environs that probably don’t see often enough.

In Ogden, the West’s wildfire pandemic and its awful impacts on forests and communities are big deals. Here the public comes face to face with the very sobering truth that in most western national forests, mortality now exceeds growth. Our New West lifestyle, with its emphasis on clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat, a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity and great natural beauty is at great peril.

There is also lots of talk about the Timber Product Output [TPO] reports assembled by our University of Montana friend, Todd Morgan, who is here this afternoon and who, under the aegis of UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, assembles TPO data for every western state except Washington, which does its own.

Todd’s reports form the quantitative basis for the increasingly anxious public conversation about the need to expand the West’s flagging wood processing capacity so that we again have viable markets for dead and dying trees that must be removed from western national forests before our wildfire pandemic kills everything in sight.

In Ogden, we also met Sean Healey, “the GEDI guy!” I am not easily surprised, but I was astonished to learn that the Forest Service has taken data collection to a new high – the NASA Space Station orbiting 254 miles above Earth.

Sean has Scotch-taped the first message it sent back to Earth about three weeks ago. My quick and dirty translation of what looks like the readout on a heart monitor goes something like this:

“Yoo-hoo everybody down there, I am passing high over a forest in Africa. I see lots of trees and they are all about 30 meters tall.”

Now, I know there’s a lot more to the Forest Service’s NASA partnership than this, and I know that satellites can’t see into a forest the same way boots-on-the-ground survey crews can, but you talk about a “Wow” factor. This is it – big time. Spies in the sky and eyes on the ground. The public is going to love this story as it unfolds for us.

In Portland – the first FIA station we visited – the emphasis is in six areas:

  • Carbon accounting
  • Remote sensing in the inaccessible parts of the West, specially Interior Alaska
  • Tracking and documenting old growth conservation
  • Wildlife habitat conservation
  • Harvest simulation models that calculate biomass accumulations and visualize the look of different forest treatments
  • Urban forestry – again a very strategic and timely move on FIA’s part

There is a new and growing concern in urban environs about the West’s wildfire pandemic. Carcinogenic smoke that has historically been mainly confined to rural areas is now a major problem in three of the West Coast’s largest and most politically influential cities: Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.

Our summers are getting longer and more contentious. Millions of people are housebound during a time of year when they are normally outside enjoying the sunshine. Now you can’t see the sun, only an orangish glow in putrid brownish air that poses significant health risks for all who live in the 11 western states.

Amid all this putrid smoke, we are hearing new “what to do” conversations in places where you could not have started a wildfire conversation a decade ago.

In Knoxville, we came face to face with the fact that the South is different from the rest of our nation, not least because most forestland in the South is privately owned.

The myriad public and environmental influences we see in the West, where most forests are publicly owned, simply aren’t present, and the ties that bind federal and state natural resource management agencies to one another are – of common necessity - much stronger.

This truth underscores cultural differences and public perceptions about land use. What is a southern forest this year might well be a soybean or cotton field next year. Most who live in the South have grown accustomed to these sudden transitions in land use.

Hence, FIA Timber Product Outputs – the meat and potatoes of the South’s burgeoning forest products industry – are widely supported by state and local governments and manufacturers who need FIA data to qualify and quantify their log sources as far into the future as possible.

For years manufacturers knew their sources well, but Real Estate Investment Trusts [REITS] and Timber Investment Management Organizations [TIMOS] have separated land ownerships from manufacturing ownerships, leaving manufacturers with a newfound need for timely, high quality FIA data that identifies and quantifies log sources.

A very different picture unfolds in the Far West and the Intermountain and Northeastern states, where logging and forest products manufacturing capacity have been declining for decades.

There are numerous reasons for this decline, some market-related and others related to environmental laws and regulations that have made protecting our national forests from insects, diseases and wildfire increasingly difficult.

In the West, where we live, our urban neighbors remain deeply suspicious of the motives ascribed to loggers and lumbermen.  Do they still want to “chop down all the trees,” as our hard-core environmental groups suggest? Or could loggers and lumbermen help us answer the “what to do” question. Will thinning dead and dying trees really reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in forests that are too dense for the carrying capacity of the land? Or is this just a new excuse to “chop down all the trees?”

Our nation is conflicted as to what to do about the pathogens, insects and wildfires that are chewing their way through our forest heritage and our forest future. Do we stand down in hopes that Nature will solve this problem for us, or do we roll up our sleeves and go to work in forests that are clearly and visibly falling apart before our very eyes?

I implore you who work for FIA not to take the bait this Hobson’s choice represents. Do not make this “take it or leave it” choice for those who inquire of your services.

Leave the thorny and often politically-laced questions to the politicians, the activists, doomsayers, editorial writers, forest collaborative groups and the well-heeled organizations that represent state and private forest landowners.

Work like crazy to maintain your heritage and reputation as the finest purveyors of forest truth anywhere in the world today. This is what made you so bloody valuable to me 30 years ago and it is what makes you so bloody valuable to us today and this is what will make you just as valuable to future generations.

I am currently working on a book titled First, Put Out the Fire! I expect to complete a draft manuscript by the end of June. My goal is to explain the roots of our wildfire crisis and our options for restoring natural resiliency in forests that sometimes hold so many trees they are nearly impenetrable.

I am making generous use of FIA data, with lots of links to data sets, plus QR codes that will guide readers to even more information available on websites maintained by the Forest Service’s research stations.

I want to lead readers to as much data as they can possibly absorb because having a fact-based understanding of our wildfire pandemic is key to the formation of science-based forest policies that support restoring natural resiliency in forests we all love and need.

When we complete our FIA regional reports – which will also be linked to my book - we will make some recommendations as to strategies and tactics necessary to raise FIA’s visibility.

I share a belief with my friend, Michael Rains, who many of you know, that FIA needs to occupy its own rung on the Forest Service corporate ladder. It should not be so damned hard for people to find you or to gain access to the marvelous body of research you have produced.

Julia and I both believe you are doing a great job of making your databases more user friendly, and we will be posting many links on our website to drive site visitors to the interactive maps you are producing. We’ve even added an FIA button to our website’s tool bar to make it easy for site visitors to find your ever-expanding body of research.

Here’s an example of how we envision this working:

When we were in St. Paul last month, Hobie Perry pulled up a colorful multi- layer forest map on his laptop that was of such fine detail that we could see our sylvan neighborhood in Dalton Gardens, Idaho.

Each layer told a story about a forest value of increasing public interest. We could see streams, rivers, watersheds, trees of many different species, fish and wildlife habitats, pretty much all of the bits and pieces that make up forests within a 30-minute drive of our home.

All Hobie had to do to show us a different map layer was click his laptop mouse and, bingo, there it was in stunning color.

This is Star Wars stuff. This is Luke Skywalker flying down Beggar’s Canyon, around Dead Man’s Turn, past the Stone Needle and through Diablo Cut. This is the stuff that had my then 10-year-old son and I on the edges of their seats in George Lucas’s epic 1977 space opera.

I assure you, FIA will capture the public’s fancy once it knows that layer after layer of interactive information of such fine detail is only a mouse click away.

This is the kind of user-friendly information people have needed for decades. It allows them to confidently and intelligently enter the “what to do” conversation by first alerting them to forest conditions and opportunities in their own back yards.

In our case, the interactive maps Hobie pulled up provide the ground-truthing evidence we have needed to document and explain the risks we and our Dalton Gardens neighbors face every summer because the mountains that touch our backyards hold too many trees that are dying. We are one electrical storm away from a fire storm.

We have a good friend who owns a vacation home in Sisters, Oregon who we suspect will make very timely use of FIA’s marvelous county-level data sets. Sisters is a lovely little art enclave that hosts a wonderful music festival every summer. We’ve attended in years past and really enjoyed it.

Two summers ago, the Milli Fire poured so much carcinogenic wildfire smoke into the town that it had to cancel the festival, a decision that cost the town’s restaurants, art galleries and gift shops an estimated $2 million.

Wildfire smoke has also raised hell with the fabled Shakespeare Festival at Ashland, Oregon and numerous other venues, including our annual fly-fishing trips to northwest Montana. Two summers ago, visibility on the Kootenai River was down to a couple hundred feet, and for the first time in 30 years, we did not fish. I’m still mad as hell about our lost trout fishing season.

Again, enough said.

We expect to complete our FIA work by the end of June.

Meantime, we will soon be promoting it in a series of advertisements in SAF’s Forestry Source. We have arranged a swap with our friend Steve Wilent, who edits The Source. He will promote our FIA series in a series of quarter-page advertisements in The Source and we will promote SAF’s 193 Million Acres book, a collection of essays designed to help the Forest Service honor its  time-honored mission: Caring for the land and service the people.

Given our wildfire pandemic, I think a mission course correction is needed – not somewhere down the road, but immediately.

A fair question at this juncture is who do we think your new customers might be? Given great public concern for forest conditions in all four regions, we believe the low hanging fruit and the most fertile ground includes forest collaborative groups, chambers of commerce, groups representing our nation’s burgeoning outdoor recreation sector, public health and safety departments, including fire departments, and local governments, including county commissioners and city councils.

Don’t be surprised if you are deluged with questions concerning the startling fact that mortality now exceeds growth in several western national forests. Local and state governments in the West are in panic mode. Our wildfire pandemic is hollowing out much more than our forests. It is hollowing out our communities, our future and our souls. People are angry. Very angry.

The Forest Service frequently reminds rural westerners that our National Forests belong to the entire nation, not just the rural communities they often surround that have been devastated by the collapse of the federal timber sale program and the loss of economically vital sawmills and logging companies. And this is certainly true.

But also true is the fact that our national forests are in a death spiral. We have an environmental crisis on our hands that demands big picture thinking and a solution that speaks to our shared values, not just the whims of the well-heeled or the politically influential who live in ivory towers. Leaving our nation’s forests to “nature” is not a workable or desirable solution. Everything our forests provide that is of economic and environmental value is at risk.

Here I often turn to a wisdom shared with me more than 20 years ago by a PhD wildlife biologist named Alan Houston. We were out walking on the Cumberland Plateau in east Tennessee on a brilliant fall morning when he turned to me out of the blue and said something so remarkable I can still repeat it from memory. He said, “When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be devastating at times, but with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”

FIA data and research station science can help stakeholders of all stripes and persuasions come together to craft forest solutions that are national in scope.

Imagine sitting in a House or Senate hearing with your laptop dialed in to an FIA website. The truth at everyone’s fingertips: free of charge, moving at the speed of light. The very nature of our nation’s often rancorous conversation about forest conservation and how to achieve it has been changed forever – hopefully along more constructive lines - thanks to the marvelous tools and data bases that FIA has placed at our nation’s fingertips.

I want to close out this afternoon with a bit of trivia – my recent discovery that Meriwether Lewis and a crew of nine floated past what was then Louisville in a 55-foot keel boat in October 1803 on their way down the Ohio River – about three blocks from this hotel - to Clarksville, Tennessee, where they rendezvoused with William Clark on October 14 -  seven months to the day before their Corps of Discovery headed west from St. Louis into the 828,000 square mile expanse the United States Government had  purchased from Napoleon’s France on July 4, 1803 for a mere $15 million – about $600 billion in today’s dollars.

Metaphorically, our nation’s modern-day Corps of Discovery continues its mission guided by nine decades of forest survey data brought to life by colorful interactive maps created by those of you who work in the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. I hope all of you realize what a marvelous contribution you are making to a more constructive forest dialogue.

A biblical wisdom popularized by Steve Forbes when he was running his family’s Forbes magazine comes to mind: With all thy getting, get understanding.

We are delighted to be here with you. If today or tomorrow, any of you have suggestions, please share them with us. We hope to score some interviews with some of you later today or tomorrow. We’re ready and anxious to learn more about what you do and how you do it.

Thanks again for inviting us to be here with you.

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