Forest Collaboration: Barry Wynsma

Forest Collaboration: Barry Wynsma

“Most folks – me included - don’t like big square or rectangular clearcuts. That would be one example of how the Forest Service got itself into so much trouble with the public. But I think it’s time for the public, Congress and the Administration to give the Forest Service a chance to prove that it can again be trusted to listen to the public and do what the public wants in its forests. Based on my experience, I believe the agency’s personnel can do the restoration work that needs doing in our national forests. So you can count me among those who are certain that the Forest Service has been reformed. Now we need to reform the laws and regulations that are impeding progress in some very sick national forests.”

Barry Wynsma U.S. Forest Service, Retired Member, National Association of Forest Service Retirees Evergreen Contributor Bonners Ferry, Idaho

Barry Wynsma retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2011, following a distinguished 33-year career in which he pioneered the development and implementation of forest restoration and fuels reduction treatments in small diameter timber stands that are at the heart of forest collaboration projects we are featuring in this series. Yet for reasons he explains in this interview, he remains a skeptic where collaborative success is concerned.

Mr. Wynsma holds the unusual distinction of having worked on only two ranger districts in his entire career: Lost River, Mackay, Idaho, Region 4, Salmon-Challis National Forest [10 years] and the Bonners Ferry Ranger District, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, Region 1, Idaho Panhandle National Forest [23 years].

Mr. Wynsma’s record of accomplishment was such that the Forest Service’s Washington office sought his expert counsel in implementing small wood and biomass restoration/thinning projects. Universities, private industry and other western states Forest Service offices have also sought his expertise. He was thus an advisor to the widely regarded White Mountain Stewardship project on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in northern Arizona.

Many of the collaborative stakeholders we have interviewed since April wish more Forest Service employees had Mr. Wynsma’s remarkable career experience, but job transfers are now so frequent that employees rarely have time to learn much about the communities or forests in their care. Stakeholders lament the time it takes to “educate” new hires on ranger districts where their collaborative projects are located.

Mr. Wynsma also writes periodically for Evergreen and is the author of “The Single Use Sustained Yield Act,” a forest management proposal that has been favorably reviewed by several members of Congress. Earlier this summer, we featured “SUSY” in an essay written by Mr. Wynsma.

Evergreen: Mr. Wynsma, you remain a skeptic where the success of forest collaboratives is concerned. Why?

Wynsma: I think it’s a too little, too late band aid approach to a knot of problems associated with analysis paralysis. That’s one problem – and a big one – but maybe the bigger problem is that the collaborative process remains very vulnerable to sabotage by non-participants, mainly the serial litigators that operate in Region 1. Congress needs to close this loophole because the stakeholders who are members of collaboratives are volunteering hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours of their personal time to developing forest restoration projects.

Evergreen: And what do you see as the root cause of analysis paralysis?

Wynsma: Conflicting laws and regulations that Congress has handed the various federal resource management agencies. The Forest Service has one mission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has another and the National Marine Fisheries Service has yet another. The Forest Service’s hands are frequently tied, so we get analysis paralysis and regulatory gridlock, which leaves unqualified federal judges to sort out conflicts that Congress created and should be addressing.

Evergreen: You worked on the Bonners Ferry Ranger District for more than 20 years and handled lots of project appeals from environmental groups. What's your take on the environmental mindset that drives appeals and litigation?

Wynsma: It was always a struggle for me to understand why extreme environmental groups could be so hypocritical about forest management. We all use wood and paper in our daily lives. Wood is a renewable resource. It is also recyclable, biodegradable and carbon neutral. You would think that environmentalists would be among forestry’s biggest boosters. Instead, they have turned conflict into an industry, through their misuse of laws and regulations that are so confusing that they have become a feeding ground for environmental lawyers. It’s a game now, and they play it very well.

Evergreen: The conservationists we’ve interviewed are very supportive of the kinds of forest restoration projects you developed, and are outspoken in their support of loggers and saw mills that are doing the heavy lifting on their projects.

Wynsma: All the more reason why their hard work needs to be protected from serial litigators. I make the distinction between conservationists, who favor the wise or conservative use of natural resources, and environmentalists, who are somewhat hypocritical ideologues who use natural resources, like all the rest of us, but still want them preserved in no-use areas.

Evergreen: Do you think Congress and the Forest Service and see collaboration as a political tool for minimizing the threat of appeal and litigation?

Wynsma: I believe that is what the Forest Service and Congress hope, but until Congress insulates the collaboratives and their projects from appeals and litigation, I don’t see how we can ever hope to wrap our arms around the decades of forest restoration work that are out ahead of us.

Evergreen: Forest collaboration has lumbermen, loggers and conservationists sitting around the same tables looking for common ground and mutually beneficial solutions to a host of thorny forest management problems. The results can be measured in board feet. Shouldn’t we all be applauding?

Wynsma: We certainly should be applauding, but we should also be addressing an underlying problem involving the need for increasingly diverse representation in collaborative groups. Since I retired four years ago, I’ve joined the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative (KVRI) forestry subcommittee, and I’ve participated in most of their meetings and field trips.

Most who attend represent the Forest Service, state and local government, the Kootenai Tribe, the Nature Conservancy and the Idaho Conservation League. All of these folks are paid to attend, which is fine, but some of the most innovative thinkers I met during my years with the Forest Service were loggers who can’t attend these meetings because they go to work before daylight and usually don’t get home until dark. The same can be said for a lot of Main Street folks who have jobs and can’t afford to leave work to sit for hours in collaborative sessions.

Evergreen: We’ve heard the same lament from others we’ve interviewed. No one seems to have an answer.

Wynsma: One answer would be to encourage the collaboratives to make field trips to active forest restoration sites. I worked with a small group of loggers in northern Idaho that are real artists when it comes to Designation by Description and Designation by Prescription work. The KVRI collaborative has hosted tours of their work. It really helps collaborative participants understand how restoration work is done and what the finished product will look like.

Evergreen: And what exactly are “Designation by Prescription” and “Designation by Description.”

Wynsma: Designation by Prescription, or “DXP,” is a tool the Forest Service has used for decades to complete pre-commercial thinnings in young plantations where small trees not of commercial value are thinned by hand using chainsaws, then and left on site.

The Forest Service provides specifications describing which trees are to be retained based on a silvicultural prescription that includes a species preferences, tree quality and leave tree spacing. When stewardship contracts became available, DXP was authorized for use on a case by case basis in small diameter timber stands and plantations that could be mechanically thinned, including small diameter saw logs and pulpwood.

Since Congress ratified the 2014 Farm Bill, DXP has been available for use in standard timber sale contracts. Before I retired, I implemented one DXP stewardship project that included thinning a 270-acre, 34-year-old plantation using high tech small scale harvesting equipment.

Evergreen: And “Designation by Description?”

Wynsma: Designation by Description, or DXD, has been used by the Forest Service for many years. It describes to a logger what trees he can cut and remove. For example, “Cut and remove all trees less than eight inches in diameter,” or “Cut all lodgepole, grand fir and hemlock.” The focus here is on what to take, while DXP focuses on what trees to leave, and the logger has a little more flexibility in tree selection. But the Forest Service still controls what trees are to be left, based on the desired silvicultural prescription. I used a wide variety of DXD contracts during my years of treating small diameter timber stands.

The project I took you out to see used the DXP method, and may be the first - or at least one of the first – mechanical thinnings in a plantation in Region 1. I’m sure you will agree that it looked very nice. [we do agree and will feature the project in an upcoming interview with David Ehrmantrout, the logger who did the work – Editor]

Evergreen: You’ve said many times that you believe acres treated is a more meaningful measure of successful forest restoration than board feet harvested. Why?

Wynsma: Not every restoration project involves a majority of saw logs. Most of the small wood contracts that I put together paired areas where there were saw logs with adjoining areas where most of the trees that we wanted to remove were pulp logs at best. You try to get the saw log side to produce enough value to pay for the pulpwood side. If you don’t include enough saw log value you will have a hard time finding a bidder for the project. It’s a tightrope, and to be successful you need to collaborate with those who have to make a living doing the restoration work.

Frankly, I see acres treated as a more accurate measure of progress than board feet sold, though I do agree that board feet harvested is a useful measure of acres of timber stands that are being treated for excessive buildups of dead and dying trees.

Evergreen: Acres treated doesn’t always mean acres if overstocked timberland.

Wynsma: That’s true. Some in the Forest Service like to give themselves credit for treating brush fields or claiming areas burned by wildfire as having been “treated.” That’s not an accurate measure of the kind of forest restoration work the public expects the Forest Service to do in overstocked and diseased forests that can benefit significantly from a wide variety of thinning and biomass disposal techniques I’ve used over the years.

Evergreen: Collaboration has rekindled lots of local interest in what the Forest Service is doing to restore at risk national forests. We see this as one of its biggest selling points. Do you agree?

Wynsma: I do. Collaboration helps provide the social license the Forest Service needs to implement projects. It has also introduced collaborators to the daily challenges the agency faces in dealing with the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

Few people realize that the Forest Service has to salute all of the laws regardless of project size. I know a few people who walked away in shock; shocked by the amount of work the Forest Service has to do, even on small, non-controversial projects that really need doing. But I’m still attending KVRI meetings because I’ve come to believe that government is run by those who show up.

Evergreen: We hear the word "restoration" in many of our interviews - and we're not sure what it means. What's your take?

Wynsma: I can hear a couple of my forester and silviculturist buddies laughing already because you just set me up for a topic we all liked to argue about when referring to some of the small diameter timber stands in which I was implementing the “thinning, regeneration or restoration” treatments.

The most serious problem facing us in our national forests is stand density - stands of small diameter trees that have stopped growing and won’t grow again unless we give create growing space for them – forests that are full of dead and dying trees that are fueling fires that kill live trees in adjacent stands – burned over landscapes that need to be replanted, and replanted areas that need to be thinning before they too crowd themselves out of growing space.

So restoration to me means converting overstocked forest into stands in which stocking levels, age classes and the mix of tree species are such that the forest can sustain itself, so long as we return periodically to do the necessary thinning and stand tending work.

Evergreen: That’s a tall order given the ramifications of the regulatory mess you’ve described.

Wynsma: It is for sure, but there’s more work to be done. Restoration also fuels reduction through the removal of excessive downed wood, hopefully being able to utilize that material as biomass energy. It also means fixing streams and fish habitat, roads that need repair, and reforesting landscapes that have been severely damaged by large fires.

Evergreen: Several people we've interviewed say that they see collaboration as one of many tools in the Forest Service's tool box. What other tools did you use during your years with the FS?

Wynsma: I utilized the collaborative process on a couple of my final projects. For most of my small sales and special products projects I preferred to use categorical exclusions because they are the most efficient tool for implementing NEPA work.

I’m pleased that Congress is talking about expanding this authority because most of the projects the Forest Service does could and should be completed using a CE. The reason being that most projects developed using an Environmental Assessment conclude with a “Finding of No Significant Impact” or “FONSI.” They do so because most projects include mitigation measures designed to prevent or minimize the threat of adverse impacts to the environment. It’s mainly “cookie cutter” work the Forest Service has been completing successfully for decades.

Evergreen: Are more tools needed - or does the Forest Service have all the tools it needs to start working on much larger physical scales?

Wynsma: In my opinion the Forest Service is dying to show the public just how well it has learned the hard lessons of the past.

Evergreen: Like what?

Wynsma: Most folks – me included - don’t like big square or rectangular clearcuts. That would be one example of how the Forest Service got itself into so much trouble with the public. But I think it’s time for the public, Congress and the Administration to give the Forest Service a chance to prove that it can again be trusted to listen to the public and do what the public wants in its forests. Based on my experience, I believe the agency’s personnel can do the restoration work that needs doing in our national forests. So you can count me among those who are certain that the Forest Service has been reformed. Now we need to reform the laws and regulations that are impeding progress in some very sick national forests.

Evergreen: How about the collaborative process itself? It hardly needs reforming, but it looks to us like it needs help. Every collaborator we’ve interviewed has talked about the necessity of working more efficiently on physically larger scales.

Wynsma: And they are right, but the most important thing the collaboratives need is legislative insulation from serial litigators who are funding their activities with taxpayer money.

Evergreen: How would you do this?

Wynsma: I’d recommend appeal bonds at the very least, better yet would be to fully protect collaborative projects from lawsuits. Congress surely doesn’t expect stakeholders to work with one another for years, only to have those who refuse to collaborate file lawsuits to stop their work.

Evergreen: We hear a lot of talk inside the Forest Service about the need for larger budgets and more staff. Is the FS short-handed and in need of more money to do its work?

Wynsma: The agency is underfunded and understaffed. They are barely scratching the surface in terms of all of the restoration work that needs doing across the West. A complete redo of the way in which the wildfire budget is funded would be helpful, but around 70 percent of the entire Region 1 budget is allocated to planning, which means that only about 30 percent gets to the ground. This is the impact of layer after layer of often conflicting regulations takes its toll.

Evergreen: Let's revisit a proposal you made in one of your recent Evergreen essays. Tell us again what you think Congress should do to get the Forest Service back on track as far as forestry and timber management are concerned.

Wynsma: The Single Use, Sustained Yield Act, which I described in a recent essay I wrote for you, allocates a portion of each national forest - say 25 percent - to tree farming; growing timber crops for harvest. Harvest would never exceed growth, but these areas would be free from NEPA, NFMA and ESA restrictions.

Evergreen: Sort of like the single use application we see in congressionally designated Wilderness areas?

Wynsma: Exactly.

Evergreen: Didn’t Jack Ward Thomas make a similar case after he resigned his post as Chief of the Forest Service? The zoning idea, right?

Wynsma: That’s correct. Jack, among others, has argued the case for delineating areas that have the capacity to grow timber commercially. But to make this work, we have to insulate these areas from appeals and litigation, just like the collaboratives. In fact, collaboratives could pick the areas in which timber production would be emphasized, and I’d recommend plantations and other timber stands within community wildland urban interface areas as the starting point for inclusion.

Evergreen: We believe serial litigators refer to this idea as “logging without laws.”

Wynsma: Far from it. The goal would be to manage timber stands in ways that improve wildlife habitat by emphasizing increased biological diversity in our management prescriptions. We’d be increasing structural, habitat, species and age class diversity. Single Use Sustained Yield areas could be amended to existing Forest Plans and done using the collaborative process.

Evergreen: So you would have collaboratives designate are areas that have been managed, in one manner or another, for many years.

Wynsma: Right again. The emphasis would be on areas that have been harvested and replanted in years past, so areas that have undergone previous NEPA analysis, where the stands already need to be thinned to promote growth in residual trees. On forests in northern Idaho and western Montana there are a lot of 40 to 50 year old plantations that fit this model.

Evergreen: So you’re not looking at areas that contain critical species habitat or have no-harvest restrictions already in place.

Wynsma: Certainly not. No reason to get off to a bad start with conservationists that are participating in good faith in the collaboratives. They can work on projects in these stands for decades to come.

Evergreen: Have you talked with any conservationists about your idea?

Wynsma: I haven’t, but knowing how popular your collaborative series has become, I’m sure you’ll get some feedback from them. I’m just the messenger. Lots of people a lot smarter than me have been discussing and writing about this idea for a long time. I think it solves a lot of problems that have prevented the Forest Service from doing work it knows how to do very well.

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