“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
Our Forest Collaborative interview with Mary Farnsworth drew so many questions from Evergreen followers that we were obliged to interview her a second time. Ms. Farnsworth is the Forest Supervisor on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Based in Coeur d’Alene, she oversees a staff of more than 300 scientists and technicians. She has been with the Forest Service for 28 years and has served on the staffs of four western national forests. In this follow-up interview we focus on forest conditions in northern Idaho as well as her additional insights into questions concerning the collaborative process.
Evergreen: More than 20 years of research assembled by both the Forest Service and the Policy Analysis Group at the University of Idaho warns that insects and diseases are overrunning Idaho national forests, and that we are in the throes of ecological collapse. Three million acres were lost in a northern Idaho/western Montana firestorm in 1910. Are we headed toward another 1910 tragedy?
Farnsworth: It would be difficult to predict another disaster on the scale of 1910, but in my opinion it is possible. Of course, our standing staff of firefighting professionals, the available firefighting tools and our road networks that exist today are far different than they were in 1910. These differences give us a distinct advantage that wasn’t present a hundred years ago. Still, if all the wrong fuel and weather conditions were to combine, fires on the scale of 1910 could occur. Once a fire, or series of fires, gets large enough there isn’t much you can do except keep people out of harm’s way until the weather shifts and gives the advantage back to the firefighters.
Evergreen: Do you have a disaster plan for such a large scale fire?
Farnsworth: Yes, and we rehearse large fire and critical incident scenarios every year as part of a multi-agency group that includes our state, local, tribal and federal fire management partners. Additionally this year we invited a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team to work with our multi-agency group to further increase our skills and preparedness. The Forest Service and our partners all understand that sooner or later we will experience a large scale wildfire or multiple fire situation in North Idaho, so we take our planning efforts seriously in order to be well prepared for when that day comes.
Evergreen: This is the ticking clock that everyone we’ve interviewed in our Forest Collaboration investigation has referenced?
Farnsworth: Yes, we share an understanding that the only way to improve the forests’ resistance and resilience to disturbances like wildfire, insect infestation and disease is to take an active approach toward restoring forest health.
Evergreen: How can you possibly cover all of the areas needing treatment before the imminent big fire you predict occurs?
Farnsworth: It’s like eating an elephant. It’s an enormous task, but the only way to get it done is one bite at a time. Our approach right now is to focus our restoration efforts in the areas that need it most. We have an impressive array of science based tools that allow us to prioritize the areas with the greatest need for forest health restoration and to identify areas where active forest and fuels management work will create a break in the continuity of fuels that will help to protect our wildland-urban interface.
Evergreen: Couldn’t Congress or the President declare some sort of national emergency that would allow the Forest Service to do the thinning and stand tending work needed without regard for environmental laws that slow the process?
Farnsworth: I can’t speak for what Congress or the President can do, but I will say that that I don’t believe environmental law is independently slowing our process. We’ve had most of these laws in place since the 1970’s. I believe our society is evolving to ask more questions, and they want more involvement in the management of their national forests. That’s not a bad thing. For a long time it seemed that appeals and litigation were the most direct route for interested groups to have a say in forest management, but in recent years we’ve been seeing a subtle shift from that kind of antagonistic relationship with interested segments of the public to a more collaborative relationship. In the early stages of any collaborative effort the process is likely to be slow. But as trust is built, progress speeds up and we end up with a process that provides meaningful participation by interested segments of the public, while still meeting desired project outcomes.
Evergreen: What you are implying here is that much has changed in our society since the U.S. Forest Service was voted one of the two most admired organizations in America, the other being the United States Marine Corps in, I believe, 1953 or 1954.
Farnsworth: I think it’s fair to say the perception of the Forest Service has changed in the past 60 years. To say the very least, “Trust us” isn’t a phrase that works well for the Forest Service today. We are learning that the best way to move our restoration goals forward is to place an emphasis on building trust with our local communities and interested public. Our recent work in collaboration is one of the ways we are building trust and I’ve been very pleased with the results we are seeing on the Idaho Panhandle.
Evergreen: What major short comings do you see in the collaborative process? Too much time? Not efficient? Scale of work too small?
Farnsworth: My experience with collaborative processes has strengthened my opinion that collaboration is a worthwhile endeavor. In some cases it may take longer but I believe we are developing better projects that not only meet the purpose and need defined by the Forest Service, but collaboratively developed projects also do a better job of addressing the desired outcomes for our communities and other interested parties.
Evergreen: Were Congress to ask you, what recommendations might you offer for improving/strengthening the collaborative process?
Farnsworth: I can’t speak to what Congress should or could do. However, I feel that collaboration cannot be dictated from above. Collaboratives are comprised of volunteers; each representing their own interests. Not all collaborative groups are the same. Nor can the process of collaboration be forced. Collaboration requires time and patience.
Evergreen: How about the old “zoning” idea that Jack Ward Thomas described several years ago? Why not give collaborative groups the opportunity to identify forest areas that best fit a use designation? For example, wilderness acres, roaded recreation areas, unroaded recreation areas and timber management areas?
Farnsworth: I’m not interested in carving up the forest for specific, exclusive uses, and I don’t think our collaborative partners are either. In reality, the Idaho Panhandle’s Forest Plan management areas were derived from public input and focus group efforts early in the Forest Plan revision process. One of the greatest strengths of the collaborative groups here on the Idaho Panhandle is that along with their diverse interests they share a common understanding of the forest health issues that the national forest is facing. Having a common vision allows everyone involved to understand that we must view the forest as a whole, work together, and over time, improve forest health across the entire landscape.
Evergreen: Would you agree that collaboration must include prescribed fire and clear cutting to maintain tree species that are most resistant to insects and diseases?
Farnsworth: In my experiences, successful collaboration happens when we end up with a project that meets the purpose and need, as defined by the Forest Service, while also addressing the desired outcomes brought forth by our collaborative partners. The methods we use on any given project vary based on the type of project being developed. We don’t come into collaboration with demands that every collaborative effort must include certain types of treatments. Collaboration requires communication between Forest Service resource specialists and collaborative members. In each case the purpose and need drives the collaborative discussions with a strong emphasis on the project’s desired outcome and the interests of each collaborative partner. Most of the large scale NEPA projects on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests include prescribed fire and regeneration harvest treatments for the right reasons in the right places.
Evergreen: Shouldn’t collaboration be an agreement on outcomes, not methods – what the forest will look like and provide in the future, not on the methods needed to achieve outcomes?
Farnsworth: The U.S. Forest Service motto is “Caring for the Land and Serving People”. We take this motto very seriously. Although our employees often have the greatest forest health expertise at the collaborative table, our discussions about the methods we will use are essential to building trust with our partners and our communities. As we care for the land, serving people means including them in our discussions, helping them understand why we use various methods, and taking their concerns seriously.
Evergreen: So the line between outcomes and methods is necessarily blurred by collaboration?
Farnsworth: With the idea that we need to build trust in mind, our collaborative discussions are deeply rooted in outcomes, but the methods we use also matter. They matter to the Forest Service, but for economic and environmental reasons they also matter to our collaborative partners.
Evergreen: Would you agree that the Forest Service does not need help with the HOW of management? What it needs is public acceptance of what it takes to keep forests vibrant and productive, to reduce the risks associated with insects, disease and wildfire. Isn’t this the real role of collaboration?
Farnsworth: I don’t think it’s that simple. Our employees are experts in the science of forest health but there is more to managing public lands than science alone. Through the relationships we are building on the IPNF, we are gaining greater trust among our communities and building a reputation as a Forest Service unit that is able to accomplish more work in forest health restoration than we have in many years. We gain that trust not by simply telling our interested partners that we are experts and that they should trust us, but by actively involving them in discussions about how we do our work and why it is important. This level of transparency can be slow going at first, but as trust increases the conversations become more efficient and we are able to move forward on projects with the support of a diverse group of collaborative partners.
Evergreen: So the common element here – with outcomes, methods and the how of it – is trust.
Farnsworth: That’s correct, but the trust we are building through collaboration also helps in “how” we are funded to work in the woods. In the past, collaboration on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest has resulted in several significant funding boosts that have allowed us to accomplish more work than ever, such as the Kootenai River Valley Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) project or the National Forest Foundation’s (NFF) Treasured Landscape Lightning Creek restoration project. Additionally, with a reputation as a national forest that has the backing and support of local communities and partners, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest is seen as a forest that is a good investment for additional funding when end of year funds or other funding sources become available at the regional and national level. In past years the Idaho Panhandle National Forest has benefitted from several such unexpected influxes that allowed our forest to quickly implement contracts for a variety of restoration projects.