193 Million Acres: Toward a Healthier and More Resilient US Forest Service -- A New Book!
If you've been reading Evergreen in the past few years or longer, you’ve seen a raft of articles that look at the US Forest Service with a critical eye.
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By Steve Wilent
If you’ve been reading Evergreen in the past few years or longer, you’ve seen a raft of articles that look at the US Forest Service with a critical eye. Or Jim Petersen’s eyes and those of numerous other authors whose articles have appeared on this web site. Several years ago I set out to collect another set of essays on the same subject, including one from Jim, and I convinced the Society of American Foresters (SAF) to publish it. The result is 193 Million Acres: Toward a Healthier and More Resilient US Forest Service. I served as the book’s editor. In my “day job,” I work for SAF as editor of its monthly newspaper, The Forestry Source.
You may have heard of SAF, a nonprofit outfit that bills itself as “the national scientific and educational organization representing the forestry profession in the United States.” SAF was founded in 1900 by Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service; Pinchot served as SAF’s president from 1900 to 1908 and again from 1910 to 1911. I used some of Pinchot’s words, from his 1907 booklet, The Use of the National Forests, in the introduction to the book, which follows.
I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of 193 Million Acres, because I strongly believe in the book’s mission. Once you’ve finished with it—which might take a while, since the book has about 700 pages—you might send it to a member congress, your local National Forest collaborative group, a journalist who covers the environment or natural-resources issues, or anyone else who may have an opportunity to propose, enact, or support reforms that would help the agency take better care of our public lands and the communities that depend on them. Your purchase also would support SAF. The authors and I received no payment for our work; once the production and printing costs are covered, any additional sales revenue will go to SAF. So far, we’re a long way from recouping those costs. But if SAF never makes a dime on this book, so be it. What’s truly important is that the gamut of ideas and proposals in 193 Million Acres help change the status quo.
I thank Jim for the opportunity to present this introductory essay to you via the Evergreen website. Whether you read it or not, whether you buy the book or not, I ask that you make a donation, if you can, to support Jim’s excellent work. We’re all on the same page here: To help make the US Forest Service healthier and more resilient.
The one thing you ought to know about this book is that, above all, it is a love story. Each of the authors in this collection of essays set out not to disparage the US Forest Service, but rather to offer constructive criticism to help it become healthier and more resilient. Some of them might not use the word “love” to describe their motivations for writing, but I would wager that they all feel something very like it. Love, and pride, too—and the full range of emotions most people feel for their families.
In a chapter in Roger Sedjo’s 2000 book, A Vision for the US Forest Service: Goals for Its Next Century (published by Resources for the Future), Jack Ward Thomas, who served as chief of the Forest Service from 1992 to 1996, wrote:
I admittedly begin and end with a strong bias. I believe that the Forest Service—warts and all—is the best conservation organization in the world. The people of the past and present Forest Service have made it so. I came to the agency thirty-three years ago after ten years with a state wildlife agency because I simply wanted to be part of the Forest Service—part of something bigger than myself and an agency that set standards for the world.
More than a decade later, Thomas wrote “The Future of the National Forests: Who Will Answer an Uncertain Trumpet?” for Fair Chase, the magazine of the Boone and Crockett Club (boone-crockett.org), an organization founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell. Members included such luminaries as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service. Thomas still felt love and pride for the agency, but he, like many others, felt that the agency had changed, and not entirely for the better. His essay appears in this volume—see page 3. Although Thomas, who died in 2016, wrote the essay in 2011, many of his observations remain valid today.
“For the foreseeable future,” Thomas wrote, “the U.S. Forest Service seems likely to face reductions in already inadequate funding and personnel levels while demands for goods and services increase.”
And the agency still struggles to comply with “laws must have seemed a good idea in the context of time and circumstances”—the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, for example. These laws, Thomas wrote, form “a now intractable Gordian knot (an intricate problem insoluble in its own terms) rendering National Forest planning and management ever more costly and ineffective.”
The authors of the other essays in this book set out to follow in the footsteps of the contributors to A Vision for the US Forest Service. Their intent, as Sedjo put it in his preface, is to “address two primary issues: why the Forest Service faces difficulty, and how it might overcome those difficulties and regain a well-respected position.”
Managing wildland fire, and paying for it, is foremost among the difficulties the Forest Service faces today—perhaps it is the agency’s greatest challenge yet. Four essays in Section 2 of this book deal directly with fire, including, “Forestry and US Fires Service Fire Management: Moving beyond Conventional Practices,” by Philip N. Omi, Brandon M. Collins, and Scott L. Stephens. In “Restoring Fire as a Landscape Conservation Tool: Nontraditional Thoughts for a Traditional Organization,” Michael T. Rains and Tom Harbour write that “Both of us love the Forest Service and think of it as a great organization, but we are nonetheless convinced that the organization needs to become much more proactive now, especially in the way it manages wildfire and implements prescribed fire.”
As you’ll read in the other five sections, managing wildfires and addressing widespread deteriorating forest health, especially in the Western US, while getting a handle on the increasing costs (a record $2.4 billion on fire suppression in 2017, or 55 percent of its total budget for the year) and the effects of devoting so much time and effort to doing so, are central to everything the Forest Service does and might want or need to do in the future.
One bright spot for the agency: its demonstrated success with collaborative planning, as Rick Tholen explains in “How Collaboration Can Help Resolve Process Predicament on National Forests: Examples from Idaho.” Tholen, a member of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership and the Payette Forest Coalition, writes that “the emergence of these collaborative groups offers hope that the agency could be poised to overcome” many of the obstacles it faces, including fire. Many of the collaborative groups, he writes, are “trying to expand forest restoration to a scale that will make a difference in how wildfires burn.”
For a different take on the advantages of collaboration, read “Cooperative Federalism, Serving the Public Interest: A Policy Analysis of How the States Can Engage Local Stakeholders and Federal Land Managers to Improve the Management of the National Forests,” by Tom Schultz, Holly Fretwell, Dennis Becker, and Kelly Williams. The authors write that cooperative federalism “recognizes a legitimate role for the states to assist in the management of the national forests,” and that this type of collaboration may be “a game changer.” This essay is nearly long enough to stand alone as a book of its own, but it is well worth taking the time to study it. Along the way, the authors offer a fascinating look at the agency’s internal operations and the external forces that influence it. The “Role of Conflict in Organizational Culture” and “Organizational Culture Influences Behavior and Decisionmaking” sections ought to be required reading not only for Forest Service employees, but also the collaborative groups they work with.
I refer to these and the other chapters as essays, because they are essentially position statements: The authors express their opinions about the challenges the Forest Service faces and how it ought to meet these challenges. Most of these works are not primarily research-oriented academic papers of the sort that appear in the Society of American Foresters’ two journals, the Journal of Forestry and Forest Science, which typically have sections devoted to research methods, results, discussion, conclusions, and supporting literature, though some of the essays in this book follow a similar formula. Nonetheless, all of the essays in this volume have been peer reviewed, using the double-blind process required by most academic publishers. Here’s what I asked of the reviewers: “As a reviewer, your main objective is to offer constructive criticism of the manuscript. Naturally, that may include questioning the authors’ conclusions and the reasoning, references, and data they use to support those conclusions, whether or not you agree with them, as well as challenging any material that you find incomplete, misinterpreted, or untrue. In short, are the proposals reasonable and feasible? And overall, how can the essay be made better?” The input from the peer reviewers was, on the whole, very helpful.
Note that the constructive criticisms of the agency in this book are not aimed at its employees—the foresters, scientists, environmental analysts, recreation managers, firefighters, administrators, and others who, by and large, are highly talented and dedicated to their vocations. In Thomas’s words, they aim to set standards for the world. The same goes for the many people who serve the Forest Service (and, indirectly, all of us) as volunteers, from the folks who help maintain trails to those who devote countless working to craft collaborative resource management projects.
You may very well disagree with some of the authors’ conclusions. Wildlife biologists and others might disagree with the proposition in “Improving Implementation of the Endangered Species Act,” by Stephen P. Mealey et al., for example. The authors aimed to “make the case that decisionmaking relative to ESA implementation should include expanded temporal dimensions that, where appropriate and relevant, rigorously consider short- and long-term effects of management action and inaction.” Whether you agree or disagree, Mealey and his coauthors have at the very least provided food for thought and, perhaps, for reforms the Forest Service (and other federal agencies) might make to regulations and policies for implementing the Endangered Species Act.
It is likely that many readers will disagree with some of the arguments in “Lessons from Groups that Litigate Logging,” by Douglas Bevington. Some readers may choose not to read it in the first place, assuming they won’t agree with anything a group that files lawsuits against logging projects has to say. I hope these readers will reconsider. In the second paragraph of his essay, Bevington writes:
The recurrent message from those groups is that ongoing pressures on Forest Service staff to promote commercial logging on national forests—to “get out the cut”—continues to lead to mismanagement, and it is only by removing those pressures that the Forest Service can put itself on a better path for managing forests in which large wildfires are a natural and inevitable ecosystem component.
Agree or disagree, Bevington’s essay nonetheless is an important one, and I urge you to read it and to consider his arguments regarding “the importance of substantively addressing the issues being raised by groups that litigate timber sales.”
Likewise, I hope Bevington and his colleagues will read the essays in this book that offer different views of the role of commercial harvesting on the national forests, such as W.V. (Mac) McConnell’s “Changing the National Forests: Three Proposals: Timber Program Self-Financing, Featured Use Management, and Community-Support Forests.” The basic premise for the establishment of community-support forests, he writes, is “that meeting human needs is a proper function of public land management and that the public lands administered by the US Forest Service are not meeting these needs adequately.”
How can the Forest Service better meet the needs of society when so much of its budget it devoted to fire suppression? In the Timber Program Self-Financing section of his “Three Proposals” essay, McConnell suggests using timber sale receipts to fund timber sale activities. “Over the years,” he writes, “a perennial lack of adequate congressional funding and other factors have prompted the Forest Service, with congressional approval, to seek other means of accomplishing needed work.”
Collaboration, as Tholen describes it—national forests working cooperatively with local citizens, nonprofit groups, the forest-products industry, city and county governments, and others—are one path toward accomplishing needed work. These types of collaborative projects demonstrate “the feasibility of designing projects that benefit both forest ecosystems and local economies.”
Creativity and flexibility, to a great degree, are factors in the success of collaboratives in Idaho and elsewhere that have “shown remarkable staying power given their diverse membership.” I suggest that the greatest gift that Congress and future administrations could give to the national forests, aside from adequate funding and legislation that loosens the Gordian knot of laws, is greater freedom to innovate, to take reasonable risks—encouragement to be creative, as well as support for doing so even when things don’t go as well as planned.
For example, both of the essays on recreation in this volume address the need for additional funding: “Wild and Free: Diverse Dispersed Recreation as the Forest Service’s Main Mission,” by Sharon Friedman, and “Implementing Sustainable Recreation on the National Forest System: Aligning the Reality and Promise,” by Steven Selin. According to Friedman, there is “a growing crisis of funding and capacity” for the Forest Service’s recreation program.
In “A Tale of Two Forest Services and Hope for a Third,” Tom L. Thompson notes that “The backlog of deferred maintenance on over 370,000 miles of roads, 13,000 bridges, 30,000 buildings, 27,000 and recreation sites, 3,000 dams, and numerous other assets increases each year, and the demand for recreation use and resource demands increases from an ever increasing and diverse public. In 2016 that overall backlog was $5.5 billion.”
Selin calls on Congress and the Forest Service to “provide a strategic, focused, financial investment” in the agency’s recreation program. The Forest Service’s Framework for Sustainable Recreation (FSR), released in 2010, did not include such an investment. “It is high time the agency did so now,” wrote Selin. It seems unlikely that Congress will provide sufficient funding for this kind of investment in recreation or for addressing other elements of the backlog Thompson mentions. Perhaps an increase in the agency’s ability to be creative and flexible is in order.
For example, a national forest with a large backlog of deferred recreation facility maintenance, given the freedom to develop a solution on its own, might use stewardship contracting of the sort Tholen and others write about. In forest-health projects, a stewardship contractor typically thins an overcrowded stand and uses some of the proceeds from selling the merchantable timber to pay for the removal of small trees and brush that have little or no value, or for other ecological restoration services. The emphasis is on ecological: projects that are not primarily intended to restore or improve ecological conditions or functions aren’t allowed. According to the Forest Service handbook, “construction of developed campgrounds” and “maintenance of non-haul roads not causing water quality degradation”—roads not primarily intended for transporting harvested timber—are not appropriate stewardship contracting activities.
What if every national forest had the freedom to develop a long-term stewardship or service contract under which an amount of timber is harvested each year to pay for some or all of the recreation and/or other infrastructure construction and maintenance planned for the following year, even if such work has no significant environmental benefit? Revenues might be deposited in a recreation or infrastructure maintenance fund; any surplus funds would be carried over to the following year, saved for a rainy day (including the effects of a flood after a particularly rainy day), or spent on other recreation- or transportation-related projects, such building a new campground or fixing potholes. Advice on such expenditures could be sought from the forest’s resource advisory committee (RAC), and RAC recommendations would carry a great deal of weight. Donations to such funds might come from corporations, nonprofit groups, and individuals; in her essay, Friedman suggests something similar in a discussion the importance of “friends of the forest” groups.
If the idea of using timber revenue for these purposes sounds simplistic, it is: Harvesting timber at any scale, even the relatively small scale needed for supporting a forest’s recreation program, is one of the most common causes of conflict between the agency and environmental groups—groups that litigate logging. On national forests without sufficient timber resources to fully support a sustainable recreation or infrastructure program, congressional appropriations might be adjusted accordingly, or the forest and its partners might implement innovative funding mechanisms of their own. Surely common ground can be found, perhaps with the assistance of the RACs and the kind of collaborative groups Tholen describes. In any case, having a predictable, sustainable source of recreation and infrastructure funding would free the national forests from the uncertainty inherent in the annual congressional appropriations process and so-called fire borrowing, the temporary diversion of non-fire funds to fire suppression.
The idea that a national forest might use its natural resources to pay for the maintenance and protection of those same resources as well as infrastructure is nothing revolutionary; private forest landowners prove the concept every day.
Why the National Forests Were Made
The Forest Service manages 193 million acres—154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico. How big is that many acres? About 301,563 square miles. Texas, South Carolina, and more than half of Rhode Island combined are about 193 million acres. Think of it as more than twice the area of Montana plus Connecticut, or nearly 8 percent of the land area of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only the Bureau of Land Management manages more land.
The Forest Service’s mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” What are these needs? It is worthwhile at this juncture to review the words of one of forestry’s great communicators, Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the US Forest Service and first president of the Society of American Foresters, from 1900 to 1908. Here are a few excerpts from Pinchot’s 1907 booklet, The Use of The National Forests, which is online in its entirely, thanks to the Forest History Society, at tinyurl.com/hf3e3eb.
Why National Forests Were First Made
Congress took this action because the forests of the great mountain ranges in the West were being destroyed very rapidly by fire and reckless cutting. It was realized that unless something were done to protect them, the timber resources of the country and the many industries dependent upon the forest would be badly crippled. So the law aimed to save the timber for the use of the people, and to hold the mountain forests as great sponges to give out steady flows of water for use in the fertile valleys below.
To the User of Timber
But are the timber and wood locked up? Very far from it. The timber is there to be used, now and in the future.
To the User of the Range
Is it shut out from use? Quite the contrary. It is grazed by cattle, sheep, and horses just as it always has been. It is one of the resources and is there to be used.
To the User of Water
What happens to the water? Nothing, except that the flow is steadier.
To the Taxpayer
What happens to county taxes? People who are unfamiliar with the laws about National Forests often argue that they work hardships on the counties in which they lie by withdrawing a great deal of land from taxation. They say that if the lands were left open to pass into private hands there would be much more taxable property for the support of school and road districts. The National Government of course pays no taxes. But it does something better. It pays those counties in which the Forests are located 10 per cent of all the receipts from the sale of timber, use of the range, and various other uses, and it does this every year. It is a sure and steady income, because the resources of National Forests are used in such a way that they keep coming without a break.
[These days, the Forest Service pays 25 percent of timber-sale revenue to counties, but as shown in Figure 1, as timber harvests have declined since 1990, counties have received far less than they did during the middle of the 1900s, from 1950 to 1990.]
The Whole Result
Taking it altogether, then, it will be seen that a National Forest does not act like a wall built around the public domain, which locks up its lands and resources and stops settlement and industry. What it really does is to take the public domain, with all its resources and most of its laws, and make sure that the best possible use is made of every bit of it. And more than this, it makes these vast mountain regions a great deal more valuable, and keeps them a great deal more valuable, simply by using them in a careful way, with a little thought about the future.
Of course, the national forests are no longer open to settlement, but Pinchot’s words still serve to guide the agency—and explain to the public why these great national resources were set aside.
The mission of this book is to take a hard look at the Forest Service today, with much thought about the future. I hope it stimulates discussion, opens new avenues of thought, and, ultimately, helps make the agency’s operations more efficient and effective while maintaining, expanding, and improving its land-management activities. Those of us who love the US Forest Service want nothing less.
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