Dennis Becker is the Director of the Policy Analysis Group [PAG} within the College of Natural Resources [CNR] at the University of Idaho. He was hired in 2014, replacing Jay O’Laughlin, who directed the think tank for its first 25 years. Becker is a Kansas native. He holds a B.S. in Park Resource Management from Kansas State University, 1992, an M.S. in Recreation and Tourism Resources from Michigan State University, 1997, and a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho, 2002. Becker has been an Associate Professor at CNR since 2015. Before coming to Idaho, he held Associate and Assistant professorships in Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota, 2005-2015.
Prior to his Minnesota tour, Becker did post-doctoral work at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest [PNW] Research Station in Portland, 2002-2005. He also worked as a research forester with PNW, searching for ways to reduce forest treatment costs in fire-prone forests and increase biomass market opportunities. He also helped develop principles and criteria for monitoring community and forest restoration projects.
In this interview, Becker explains PAG’s genesis – it was one of the first such state-funded think tanks in the nation -its current research and his vision for the group’s rapid demand-driven growth.
EVERGREEN: Dennis – we’ve hope known you long enough to call you Dennis – tell us a bit about your growing up years. They aren’t covered in your curriculum vitae which, by the way, lists some 200 refereed reports you’ve authored or co-authored. Quite a remarkable feat for one so young!
BECKER: [Laughs] Yes, you’ve known me long enough to call me Dennis, and thanks for the age plug. When you are in the business I’m in you do an awful lot of writing. It’s the nature of the beast.
EVERGREEN: Publish or perish.
BECKER: Publish or perish, though the onus on those who publish less is not as great as it once was.
EVERGREEN: So you grew up in Kansas.
BECKER: I did. I grew up in a small farming town in central Kansas settled by German immigrants. We grew wheat and raised cattle. I spent my childhood chasing my dog around the farm, flushing up pheasants, and chastising my dad for removing any fence line trees and vegetation because that’s where all the wildlife was found.
EVERGREEN: It’s a long way from Kansas to the nearest conifer forest.
BECKER: About 600 miles. I joke that I got into forestry because I grew up in Kansas. There’s some truth to that. But more importantly, it was that upbringing that instilled in me values of hard work, neighbors, and the importance of communities. Though it’s been awhile since I lived in a rural area, that’s where my heart has always been, and in large part why I care so much about community-business-agency connections.
EVERGREEN: You must feel very much at home here in Moscow.
BECKEER: I do. It’s a great place to raise a family.
EVERGREEN: What exactly is the Policy Analysis Group?
BECKER: We’re an independent university research unit that provides third-party analysis of natural resource policy issues broadly relevant to the citizens of Idaho. The Idaho legislature created the PAG in 1989 to provide timely, scientific, and objective data and analysis on current natural resource and land use questions of relevance to the citizens of Idaho.
EVERGREEN: Give us some examples.
BECKER: Well, for example, we might provide analyses of various natural resource issues spanning forestry, wildlife, rangelands, and other natural resources. Our expertise lies in economic analyses, like estimating the economic contribution of natural resource sector – the forest products sector for example – to the state’s economy. We might assess how different policies would impact future timber markets, or the impact of forest collaboratives on the pace and scale of federal forest treatments.
EVERGREEN: Who are your customers?
BECKER: We work most closely with state and federal agencies, but also with county and local governments, non-profit organizations, as well as businesses and industry associations. We like to think of ourselves as dispassionate analysts who can ask hard questions without being influenced by one group or another. We pride ourselves on transparency and open dialogue.
EVERGREEN: Where does the buck stop around here?
BECKER: We’re guided by the Dean of the College of Natural Resources, who is ultimately responsible for our work as stipulated in state code. But we also have an Advisory Committee comprised of a diverse cross-section of public and private natural resource interests including the directors of Idaho Department of Lands and Idaho Fish & Game, the state director for the Bureau of Land Management, a national forest supervisor and regional Forest Service liaison, to private interest represented by the Idaho Farm Bureau, Potlatch Corporation, Idaho Conservation League, and Idaho Wildlife Federation.
EVERGREEN: How is PAG’s work funded?
BECKER: Most of our operations are funded by an annual appropriation from the state legislature via a special program budget called Forest Utilization Research. Our funding is in conjunction with that of the UI College of Natural Resources Experimental Forest, Pitkin Forest Nursery, and the Rangeland Center. Because of the source of funding, all these projects include topics relevant to Idaho citizens, including our work with state as well as federal agencies.
EVERGREEN: Do you solicit funding from other sources?
BECKER: We do – from agencies and private foundations and organizations within Idaho as well as nationally. This work still ties back to issues relevant to Idaho by analyzing policies in neighboring states that could inform local management, or where additional staff or research materials are needed to complete the work. This includes funding graduate students whose work is essential to our mission.
EVERGREEN: Do you ever get research requests from private citizens? and, if yes, what do they ask, and do they offer suggestions for research projects?
BECKER: All the time. They’re looking for a trusted information about critical natural resource issues. They want someone they can trust, who can provide a dispassionate analysis of sometimes highly controversial issues.
EVERGREEN: How do you accommodate these requests?
BECKER: We try to connect our different studies to the various state and federal land management issues evolving around the region.
EVERGREEN: So, you try to knit the whole resource management story together in a way that offers a complete perspective for all your customers, including the state legislators who fund your work with taxpayer dollars?
BECKER: That’s correct.
EVERGREEN: How do you decide where to focus your research?
BECKER: The Dean of the College of Natural Resources is the ultimate decision, but we work closely with our Advisory Council to take the many different project ideas and to distill them down to projects we collectively think will be of value to the citizens of Idaho, the Legislature, and responsible agencies.
EVERGREEN: You must be closely tied Idaho’s Department of Natural Resources
BECKER: We are. Work quite closely with all the natural resource agencies in the stat helping them with their various questions. We also get involved in questions that come before the State Land Board concerning issues like state endowment grazing rates or timber sale procedures.
EVERGREEN: Requires a lot of pencil pushing, doesn’t it?
BECKER: In a manner of speaking, yes. We have some of the best natural resource economists in the nation on staff – highly skilled analysts, plus graduate students and post-doctoral fellows all working together on a variety of projects.
EVERGREEN: Speaking of projects, what’s currently on the front burner?
BECKER: Currently, our four big projects are studies concerning the economic contribution of Idaho’s state endowment lands, the economic contributions of Idaho’s natural resources, the impacts of forest collaboration, forest market impacts on federal timber harvesting and the tax implications of public lands.
EVERGREEN: The perennial questions – always important in a state where there are so many diverse demands placed on publicly-owned natural resources.
BECKER: That’s for sure.
EVERGREEN: With so much competition for natural resource use, has anyone ever attempted to sway the director or outcome of your research?
BECKER: There’s certainly an interest in us doing the work we do characterizing the economic contribution of the industry to the state’s economy, but as far as influencing the results of our analysis, no there has been no attempts to sway our work. We work very hard to maintain an independent identity, and to ask the questions that need asking. If we didn’t challenge conventional wisdom, we wouldn’t have the respect we have, and I think most folks appreciate that perspective, because in the long run, it’s more important for us to be trusted arbiter of information than to be beholden to a single interest or outcome.
EVERGREEN: When your predecessor, Jay O’Laughlin, retired a few years ago, he told a reporter that it was never his mission to resolve the challenges brought before PAG. It that your position, too?
BECKER: It is my position and it is the Dean’s position. We don’t make policy here at in the Policy Analysis Group. Our role is to provide elected officials with timely information, analysis and perspective. Resolving whatever differences manifest themselves in our research is their job.
EVERGREEN: Regarding your current research concerning the impacts the region’s forest restoration collaboratives are having on federal forest management, what advice might you offer these groups based on your earlier research when you were with the Forest Service’s PNW lab at Portland?
BECKER: Good question. Our current research is ongoing, and no reports have been published, but based on what I read – on your website among other places – I’d say that building stakeholder trust, digging deep into the management options and exploring the obvious natural connections between forest management and all forms of outdoor recreation are very important.
EVERGREEN: Do you see these collaboratives as “the future” of National Forest management in the Intermountain West?
BECKER: We don’t have any crystal balls here at PAG. There does seem to be an upward trend in local citizen participation in the federal forest planning and management processes. It’s no secret that there is a lot of frustration with the status quo, even in Congress, most of it brought on by our even lengthening wildfire seasons and the fact that rural counties continue to struggle economically from a de-emphasis on timber production. But, again, our role here at PAG is simply to inform policymakers. Resolving differences of opinion ins their job.
EVERGREEN: Would you also agree that the strongest collaboratives are those that represent the interests of broadest cross-sections of forest user groups?
BECKER: Intuitively, yes.
EVERGREEN: Where disputes over management direction cannot be resolved, might binding arbitration be a better way to settle differences than litigation?
BECKER: That question is above my pay grade, though I can tell you that Todd Morgan at the University of Montana Bureau of Business Research has done some work concerning the impacts of litigation, but it’s not a topic we’ve researched.
EVERGREEN: Hundreds of small rural communities in the West are having a hard time reinventing themselves in the wake of the collapse of the old federal timber sale program. What advice might you offer based on your research?
BECKER: PAG isn’t in the business of giving advice, but closer coordination between the Forest Service and our Department of Natural Resources via new authorities granted in the 2014 Farm Bill suggest that Congress does understand the challenges facing rural timber communities in the West. The presence of technologically-advanced wood processing infrastructure in our state is also a good sign, as is architectural interest in utilizing engineered wood products, like cross-laminated timbers and mass plywood panels in residential and commercial building applications.
EVERGREEN: It’s an exciting time in forestry, and certainly an exciting time to be directing the Policy Analysis Group.
BECKER: It is all of that and more. We have a lot our plates here in the College of Natural Resources. There are good things in Idaho’s future and in ours.