The Next Chief

The Next Chief

Vicki Christiansen’s decision to retire this summer has me thinking about the qualities – and qualifications – the Biden Administration should look for in a new Chief of the Forest Service.

The President’s very ambitious climate change agenda won’t get to square one until Congress gets serious about repairing the damage it’s done to the Forest Service over the last 25 years.

The beleaguered agency is currently short some 13,000 people in on the forestry side of its operation – a direct result of the skyrocketing cost of battling wildfires that are, in turn, a direct result of a congressionally-orchestrated failure to manage growth in national forests that are dying and burning.

The slow motion collapse of the Forest Service’s forestry operation – engineers, ologists, foresters and technicians - began during the Clinton years following the federal government’s June 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species.

Although the initial impact fell most heavily on the Pacific Northwest’s Region 6, no Forest Service region west of the Mississippi escaped the 31-year bloodletting.

To conserve owl habitat, the government shut down most of the federal timber sale program. But owl population numbers are still in freefall, possibly as a result of barred owl predation, but more dramatically as a direct result of the West’s wildfire pandemic. Millions of acres of spotted owl habitat have been lost in western Washington, western Oregon and northern California.

Vicki Christiansen is the tenth Forest Service Chief to be appointed since we published our first edition of Evergreen in 1986. Not one of them has been able to convince Congress that federal forest management has been headed in the wrong direction since the owl listing. Most of them tried, some more than others, but Congress was unmoved until the 2018 Camp Fire swept through Paradise, California, killing 85.

We will argue that carcinogenic wildfire smoke is also causing many in Congress to wonder what led us to where we are today and what might be done to unwind 30 some years of errant forest management. We do our best to explain the problem and its solutions in our recent book, First, Put Out the Fire! But Chief Christiansen summed things up nicely in her June 17 testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Senator Angus King, a Maine Independent, asked Christiansen if there was any connection between the precipitous decline in timber harvesting and the increase in wildfires.

“Yes sir, there is,” she replied.

When King pressed her for a more detailed response she said the Forest Service had taken an “ecosystem approach” to managing the nation’s federal forests. It’s hard to square this with the incineration of millions of national forest acres year after year. We certainly understand and support the necessity of managing forests for multiple values, but we are losing these very values to wildfire.

Elsewhere in her testimony, Christiansen called for “a paradigm shift” and sufficient funding to rebuild the agency’s forestry workforce. It has been declining slowly but steadily since Bill Clinton moved into the White House in January 1993.

It is this “paradigm shift” that tugs at the tail of the 5,000-pound elephant standing in the room that no one has wanted to discuss for the last 30 years: Logging, managing growth, salvaging dead timber, thinning diseased and dying trees that fuel our wildfire pandemic – the obvious first steps the anti-forestry cabal hates because, more than anything else, it despises the timber industry and its capitalist/free enterprise roots.

It will be interesting to see how they attempt to derail the exceptionally well-researched Climate 21 Project Transition Memo co-authored by Robert Bonnie, former USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Leslie Jones, also a former USDA Deputy Undersecretary and Meryl Harrell, a USDA Senior Advisor.

Their 20-page memo offers the Biden Administration a laundry list of “actionable advice for rapid-start, whole-of-government climate response coordinated by the White House and accountable to the President.” The trio draws on the advice and counsel of 150 experts with high level government experience, including nine former cabinet appointees.

You know what? It’s really well done. Some readers will blanche at its climate change themes, but I could not care less because almost every topic discussed in the Transition Memo requires immediate action aimed squarely at our wildfire pandemic and our hopelessly understaffed U.S. Forest Service.

The Memo traces the path forward in plain English. No government jabberwocky. Just a 100-day check-off list that says do this and do that and here’s where we’ll be in 100 days. But to repeat: To repeat: The President’s ambitious climate change agenda – including the Climate 21 Project - won’t get to square one until Congress gets serious about repairing the damage it did to the Forest Service over the last 25 years – with the able assistance of several Administrations.

There does seem to be a more serious tone in Congress this session, but we’ve been to so many goat roping’s and well greasing’s over the last 30 years that it’s difficult for us to know who or what to trust. At the moment, we’re going on faith.

With faith in mind, we’d like to offer some advice on the qualifications and qualities the Biden Administration should look for in the next Chief of the Forest Service. Nothing is more important than years of boots on the ground experience with forestry, wildfire and major project execution. Pushing pencils shouldn’t count for much.

What counts is an intimate understanding of the nexus of forestry and its real world practitioners. If the last 30 years of environmental and economic tragedy teach us anything, it is that leaving forests to “nature” isn’t an option.

Pick a person with years of field experience on the forestry side and the ability to communicate clearly, concisely and bluntly with Congress, the public and Forest Service staff at the District Ranger, Supervisor and Regional levels.

Many who work at these three levels know how to navigate complex layers of regulation imbedded in the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Unfortunately, their successes have frequently been dismantled by intentionally crippling directives from the Chief’s office or political appointees in the Council of Environmental Quality or USDA’s Natural Resources and Environment.

It is essential that the next Chief know how to legally navigate the regulatory maze. Also critical is that he or she immediately assemble boots-on-the-ground triage teams that also know how. Finally, there is some tidying up to do in the Washington office.

In the wisdom of a late friend, “Can’t never could do anything.”

Jim Petersen
Founder and President
The non-profit Evergreen Foundation

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