“I still have some doubts about how arbitration might substitute for litigation, but I know that there is interest in the concept in Congress. Authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture the discretion to try arbitration on a pilot basis is something that may prove beneficial.

However, I think those who litigate still believe collaborative forest projects place their highest priority on revenue generation, which they oppose on public lands. But no privately held company is going to do the necessary restoration work if they can’t earn a profit from their investment.

The country can’t afford the cost of restoration exclusive of private investment, so publicly acceptance of private capital investments in environmentally important forest restoration projects is essential.

The Forest Service uses the best available science, has a very open and transparent progress and encourages collaboration, which I remain confident will help our skeptics understand our restoration motives. More active management on more acres is key to increasing resiliency in forests that have been negatively impacted by drought, insects, diseases and wildfires – natural forces driven by climate change. “

Tom Tidwell
Chief, U.S. Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

Counting the three visionaries who organized and ran the U.S. Forest Service before its 1905 christening, Tom Tidwell is the agency’s 20th Chief. Mr. Tidwell has been with the Forest Service for 32 years and is the third Chief in succession to have been promoted from the Northern Region in Missoula, Montana. He has held a variety of posts on eight National Forests in three regions during his tenure. He was a District Ranger and a Forest Supervisor before becoming a Legislative Affairs Specialist in the Washington Office, where he worked on the National Fire Plan, the Planning and Roadless rules, and the Secure Rural Schools County Payments Act. Additional assignments have been in Fire and Aviation Management, Recreation, Engineering, State and Private Forestry and Tribal Relations. Mr. Tidwell is a Washington State University graduate and a Boise, Idaho native.

Evergreen: We got acquainted during the years when you were Region 1 Forester, based in Missoula, Montana. Now you are Forest Service Chief, and you are based in Washington, D.C. How is your D.C. job like your Missoula job, and how is it different?

Tidwell: It is still a job with the Forest Service, but the key difference is the magnitude of the scale and significance of the decisions we make at the Washington Office. Having 40,000 employees to implement the mission versus the 3,000 or so that I had in the Northern Region helps make up for some of the difference. However, there are days when there is no comparison.

Evergreen: Have you been following our forest collaboration series on our website?

Tidwell: I have as best as I could during what has been a very difficult wildfire season.

Evergreen: Is collaboration going to become an increasingly important decision making tool for the Forest Service, or have we peaked where we are now?

Tidwell: Collaboration will definitely be a more important tool going forward because it draws its strength from the very diverse values and opinions of fully engaged stakeholders. It has been a steep learning curve for all of us, collaborators and Forest Service employees alike but we are making significant measurable progress in terms of acres treated, restoring forest resiliency. I think Congress’s decision to link collaboratives to the Forestry Title in the 2014 Farm Bill was a pretty powerful endorsement of the process and the praiseworthy work that forest collaborators have been doing.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed since last April – conservationists, lumbermen and national forest stakeholders of all stripes – believes that the pace and scale of their work is much too slow given the enormity of the forest health problem facing the Forest Service in the western states. What can the Forest Service do administratively to help the collaboratives do more work faster?

Tidwell: We can work faster and more efficiently if collaboration and the NEPA process move concurrently to one another. But the Forest Service also needs more internal capacity to keep up with the necessary field work; site surveys, project design and layout. More capacity means more staffing which requires a stop to the erosion of the Agency’s funding. Assuming sufficient staffing, there isn’t any reason why the two years that collaborators now invest in 5,000-acre projects can’t be invested in 100,000-250,000 acre projects.

Evergreen: Why not collaborate at the decadal Forest Plan level and leave the project-level details to the Forest Service?

Tidwell: Ideally, collaboratives would be involved at all levels from the forest plans down to the project level. I understand the problems and frustrations associated with pace and scale. I’m very supportive of the need for larger, long-term projects because they treat landscapes large enough to improve forest resilience while addressing the need for certainty that justifies long-term investments in expensive restoration and wood processing technologies.

Evergreen: If forest collaboratives are to continue to work at the project level, might the Forest Service help them by prioritizing some much larger projects for their consideration?

Tidwell: We can certainly do what you’re suggesting but, again, funding for adequate staffing for the necessary field work, project design and layout, along with associated NEPA is a limiting factor. Apart from that, there is no reason why we can’t propose larger projects. We’d certainly like to encourage collaboratives to take on larger projects.

Evergreen: There is a definite imbalance between the number of NEPA approved projects and the availability of infrastructure. For example, there is virtually no wood processing infrastructure left in Arizona, yet the 4FRI Project features numerous NEPA projects that span four national forests. On the other hand, there are few NEPA approved projects in northern Idaho, western Montana or northeast Washington, where significant infrastructure assets remain. How can this imbalance be corrected?

Tidwell: More capacity for staffing larger projects is the key. The Forest Service has reduced staffing, outside of fire positions, by 39% due to the need to fund fire suppression. Other than this limitation, there is no reason why we can’t have projects the size of 4FRI in every region.

Evergreen: Speaking of 4FRI, many lumbermen with decades of wood processing experience, believe Good Earth Power, which is based in the Middle East, is a poorly financed, inexperienced smoke and mirrors routine with connections well beyond Forest Service purview. We know they are far behind in their contractual obligations. Have you looked into their finances since the Campbell Group walked away from their agreement with Good Earth?

Tidwell: I hadn’t heard about the problems you’re describing. Apart from that, I can only say that I continue to have faith in the 4FRI project. Good Earth Power is obviously a key player, but there is plenty of work to be done in the Southwest to engage any number of companies that are interested in doing the work. Right-sizing the business model is challenging because there was so little wood processing infrastructure left in the Southwest when we started. We have to rebuild it, and the rebuilding requires that we draw on the talents and experiences of a great many people.

Evergreen: What, if anything, can be done to bring serial litigators to the collaborative table?

Tidwell: I still believe that part of the problem is that some litigants do not understand that our stewardship contracts and timber sale contracts are designed to improve forest health and ecosystem resiliency. The biomass and sawlogs removed are a by product of the work that needs to be done to restore resiliency. Litigation is very frustrating for everyone who is engaged in the collaborative process. Likewise, it is very frustrating for our employees. Unfortunately, the fact that the Forest Service prevails in the majority of its court cases does little to erase the misplaced public perception that we are somehow doing something wrong or illegal in the course of developing and implementing our projects. This simply isn’t the case.

Evergreen: Might baseball-style arbitration be a good substitute for litigation?

Tidwell: I still have some doubts about how arbitration might substitute for litigation, but I know that there is interest in the concept in Congress. Authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture the discretion to try arbitration on a pilot basis is something that may prove beneficial.

However, I think those who litigate still believe collaborative forest projects place their highest priority on revenue generation, which they oppose on public lands. But no privately held company is going to do the necessary restoration work if they can’t earn a profit from their investment.

The country can’t afford the cost of restoration work exclusive of private investment, so publicly acceptance of private capital investments in environmentally important forest restoration projects is essential.

The Forest Service uses the best available science, has a very open and transparent progress and encourages collaboration, which I remain confident will help our skeptics understand our restoration motives. More active management on more acres is key to increasing resiliency in forests that have been negatively impacted by drought, insects, diseases and wildfires – natural forces driven by climate change.

Evergreen: Companies that buy timber sales or stewardship contracts are required to buy performance bonds. Why not require the same bonds of those who object to or litigate projects?

Tidwell: That’s a better question for Congress. However, I do not see how requiring a bond will decrease litigation and could actually increase litigation. Also, I have serious concerns with limiting litigation to only those that have the financial capability.

A better approach is for the Agency to continue to address the public’s concerns and to strengthen the public’s understanding of why healthy, resilient forests are essential. We have made great progress to restore the public’s trust in how we are managing the national forests and grasslands. Our support for collaboration has made a key difference—doing what we can to strengthen the collaborative process makes more sense to me…

Evergreen: The Forest Service and Congress have both enthusiastically blessed forest collaboratives. Yet neither of you has voiced support to protecting collaboratives from serial litigators? Do you realistically expect that these stakeholder groups to continue to invest thousands of volunteer hours without protection from serial litigators?

Tidwell: What is more important is to ask the collaboratives to increase the scale of the landscapes they are working on. Collaboration is hard work for all and I appreciate the efforts from all those engaged in our collaborations. I want to incentivize these efforts by having the collaboratives address restoration needs on large landscapes.

I know how frustrating litigation can be, but I still believe that the more we can address the concerns of potential litigants during the collaborative/NEPA process, the better our chances for avoiding litigation. We are seeing success with this approach as litigation declines and courts are granting fewer injunctions.

Evergreen: Several collaborators – conservationists included – told us they believe D.C. environmental groups have first call on Forest Service thinking relative to forest restoration in the West – and that this is the reason why larger restoration projects are not in the offing. Can you assure local and regional forest collaboratives that this is not the case?

Tidwell: That is not the case. First call on our thinking is the science that drives what needs to be done to increase ecological resiliency, forest health. To be able to do more large scale projects we need to increase our capacity so that we can begin to develop larger projects while we continue with our annual program of work. With the urgency to thin forests especially around communities and the need to maintain existing wood products industry, we cannot afford to stop implementing projects for a couple of years to be able to develop larger projects…

Evergreen: We know several western lumbermen who are willing and able to make capital investments in wood processing infrastructure needed to provide viable markets for the small diameter trees and biomass that forest restoration projects yield, yet not one of them will make these investments without certainty of supply, which neither the Forest Service nor Congress seem to be able to provide. How do we get over this hump?

Tidwell: Develop more long-term stewardship contracts. These contracts provide the certainty of work for up to 10 years.

Evergreen: There hasn’t been much progress made on getting forest restoration projects designated under the 2014 Farm Bill up and running. What’s behind the delay?

Tidwell: There actually has been good progress. Our employees working through collaboratives have started the planning for projects and have even implemented some projects using the new CE authority this year. The Good Neighbor authority has taken longer to begin to use due to the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act and to take the time to work with the States to develop templates that would be effective.

You need to understand that by the time the 2014 Farm Bill was passed, we had already completed the analysis and decisions for the majority of projects that we are implementing this fiscal year. It did not make sense to stop those projects just to be able to move forward with using 2014 Farm Bill authorities.

Evergreen: The decadal Forest Plans are themselves NEPA documents. Why then are project level EA and EIS documents necessary?

Tidwell: Again, we need collaborative efforts for both. Forest Plan revisions generally provide only programatic direction for up to 15 years, while project level decisions implement site-specific actions in accordance with Forest Plan direction. We need collaborative efforts for both.

Evergreen: Most Americans refuse to accept this year’s loss of more than 7 million acres in wildfires as “the new normal.” Should they?

Tidwell: Climate change is producing fire seasons that are drier, hotter and 60-80 days longer. Couple these changes with the longer and more intensive droughts and the result is the new normal. We can significantly reduce fire severity, the threats to firefighters, pilots and communities by increasing the pace and scale of our restoration efforts – but it has to be an all lands approach. The Cohesive Strategy outlines what needs to be done and we are making steady progress. Now it is just a matter of increasing the pace and scale of our work.

Evergreen: Yet unknown millions of board feet of standing timber has been lost in this wildfire season. Might the forest collaboratives be effective vehicles for fast-tracking fire salvage?

Tidwell: Forest collaboratives can be very effective in identifying areas of agreement on how to use fire salvage to implement restoration of burn areas. The Rim Fire restoration is a good example.

Evergreen: As we understand it, federal regulations concerning Categorical Exclusions limit post-fire salvage to 250-acres projects, even when the acres burnt are within the suitable timber base. What’s needed that would allow the Forest Service to salvage fire-killed timber on much larger acreages so that these commercially valuable acres could be harvested, restored and replanted more quickly?

Tidwell: By maintaining the public trust by building understanding and support for how fire salvage can be a key component to address public safety and implement post-fire restoration. We also need to be clear when fire salvage is to recover some of the merchantable material that is not needed for the site to recover and to ensure that there is a market for the biomass. Most large fire restoration will need an EA or EIS to document the analysis that is needed. Any expansion of a CE for fire restoration must maintain the public trust by providing adequate assurances to the public that their concerns will be addressed.

Evergreen: On a related front, we note that post-Katrina, the federal government had no trouble quickly initiating a massive timber salvage effort along the Gulf Coast. Why so much trouble with fire-salvage in western national forests?

Tidwell: Lack of public trust. In our Southern Region, the public understood we were salvaging the timber for public safety and to reduce the threat from insect and disease – to restore forest resiliency. In the west there is still the perception that we propose fire salvage for just short term revenue.   The industry must make a profit, and without the industry there is no one to do the work, but we propose fire salvage to address the needs of the land – and, yes, fire restoration creates a lot of jobs.

Evergreen: What will be your message to Congress in the aftermath of this dreadful fire season?

Tidwell: FIX HOW FIRE SUPPRESSION IS FUNDED [Tidwell emphasis]. We must find a way to reverse how the cost of fire suppression has reduced the Agency’s capacity to restore our forests and provide all the services that the public wants and needs from their National Forests and Grasslands.

Where we are making steady progress to reduce the wildfire threat to firefighters and communities, this fire season once again shows we must increase our pace and scale of restoration on the National Forests and implement actions on all lands to have fire-adapted communities and homes that are defensible.

I have been very clear on what needs to be done, as is stated in the Cohesive Strategy, but if we cannot find a solution to how fire suppression is funded, how to implement the Cohesive strategy, then we will continue to have these tragic, devastating fires.

Evergreen: Former Forest Service Chief, Jack Ward Thomas, among others, have suggested that the time has come to zone areas in national forest for single use timber production in the same way that we zone Wilderness and other single use areas. Our colleague, Barry Wynsma, a 33-year Forest Service retiree, is advocating for what he calls a Single Use Sustained Yield Act that would exempt these areas from NEPA, NFMA and ESA procedures – again as we do with Wilderness designations. Would you endorse such a zoning law for congressional consideration?

Tidwell: No. I believe our forest planning process provides the opportunity for the public to share how they want their National Forests managed. The more we can assure the public that the reason we are implementing a sustainable level of biomass removal is to restore and maintain forest resiliency we will create more advocacy, more support, treat more acres, produce more jobs than by designating a portion of the National Forests to a single use.

Evergreen: The Forest Service could promulgate new Categorical Exclusions that would streamline the NEPA process for collaborative project. Or Congress could create a new suite of CE’s and exempt them from litigation. Which approach makes more sense?

Tidwell: Neither, unless we can maintain the public trust that we have built over the years that provides for meaningful public engagement – the collaboratives being the best example. Parameters that address public concerns, similar to what the Forestry Title in the 2014 Farm Bill did, are vital. The public needs the assurance that these new authorities are for the purpose of increasing and sustaining the forest restoration work we are doing, not simply short term revenue generators.

Evergreen: How might Congress help the Forest Service help forest collaboratives work on larger scales?

Tidwell: Fix fire suppression funding. Expand the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act (CFLRA) authority.

Evergreen: FIA data sets reveal that, on unreserved national forest timberlands in Idaho that have been deemed suitable for management, just 3.4 percent of annual growth is harvested.

Meanwhile, 23 times annual growth – 555 million cubic feet – dies annually where it stands without creating even one job or taxable wage. This discouraging imbalance is present on every national forest in the West. It is, in our view, is the main reason why counties that hold national forests that are exempt from local property taxes are so angry with Congress and the Forest Service. What can be done to correct this imbalance?

Tidwell: Change the discussion. The reason we need to treat more acres is to restore forest resiliency to provide for all of the benefits from healthy forests.   The biomass, sawlogs produced are just one output, but the outcome is healthier forests. The American public wants their National Forests managed for the full mix of benefits When we embrace collaboratives to increase the pace and scale of restoration, we have less controversy, less litigation, more resilient forests and a lot more of jobs.

Evergreen: FIA data sets also tell us there are 1.5 million acres of suitable but overstocked plantations 30-40 years old in the Northern Region. Subtracting a half-million acres for steep slopes, is there any reason why a forest collaborative could not be set up and given the job of fast-tracking restoration of these acres? Perhaps using Designation by Prescription to save money?

Tidwell: We continue to increase our effectiveness through innovative approaches like designation by prescription which is just one tool that has helped us to reduce our unit costs by 26%. Forest collaboratives have been very effective. The problem is our capacity. The cost of fire suppression has reduced Forest Service staffing by over 39% from 2001 and through great efforts by our employees we are getting more acres treated each year than we did in 2001. But we have reached our limit.