It's time for a Cabinet-level Department of Natural Resources: Part 2

We believe all federal forest and rangelands should be consolidated within a single cabinet-level Department of Natural Resources.

Jim Petersen -
4 MINUTE READ
It's time for a Cabinet-level Department of Natural Resources: Part 2

Editor’s note: In Part 1 (click here to read) of this two-part essay, we explained why we believe all federal forest and rangelands should be consolidated within a single cabinet-level Department of Natural Resources headed by someone who has an affinity for land and the gravitas to publicly defend the Forest Service when the anti-forestry cabal is in full throat. Minus this – and a serious unraveling of our regulatory mess - our western wildfire pandemic will rage on until there is nothing left to burn. In Part 2, we revisit a question that is the focal point of Evergreen’s mission and outreach. What to do, how to do it and where to start?

The best place to start is at the beginning: attack wildfires as quickly as possible. Put them out while they are still small, just as the Forest Service did for decades.

We didn’t get ourselves into this mess because the Forest Service got too good at putting out wildfires. Actually, we Americans demanded that the agency put out forest fires as quickly as possible. Most of us still think this makes sense.

We got ourselves into this mess because we stopped tending our garden. And yes, the West’s 190-million-acre federal forest estate is an exceptionally large garden composed of countless thousands of plants, animals, birds, fish, frogs, snakes and sub-terrain fungi that enrich the soil from which all life springs.

We love this garden for its great beauty. It gives us peace and solitude in an otherwise crazy world. Why allow wildfires to destroy our garden? Why not do the thinning and tending work necessary to reduce the risk that these fires will grow larger and larger?

The two best garden tools we have are thinning and prescribed fire.

  • Thinning to hold insects, diseases and forest growth in check and give the trees and plants we prefer the opportunity to grow larger over time.
  • Prescribed fire to hold down woody debris accumulations that invite insects, diseases and inevitable wildfire.

These incontrovertible forestry fundamentals are the most basic and unavoidable steps in tending a garden – any garden. Why are we allowing insects, diseases and wildfire to destroy the garden that feeds our bodies and souls – to say nothing of the thousands of professionals who help tend our garden?

The bureaucratic pecking order in our nation’s capital dictates that the Forest Service obey the laws and regulations Congress and the administration in power hand down. Forest Service chiefs are government employees. They have none of the cache that comes with being a politically appointed cabinet secretary.

It has been a long time since we had an Ag Secretary who did not view the Forest Service as an ugly stepchild. The resulting bureaucratic disarray is mind numbing.

Ag and Interior don’t even share the same aviation assets during our unending wildfire seasons. The Forest Service gets the big planes. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management – which is mainly a rangeland outfit - gets the little ones. No wonder the Forest Service doesn’t have enough rapid response amphibious single-engine air tankers or helicopters to cover the parts of the rural West where our national forests are concentrated.

The only lasting solution to the West’s wildfire pandemic necessitates creating a federal Department of Natural Resources, then finding a Cabinet Secretary who has the political savvy needed to unravel the horrible regulatory mess Congress and the anti-forestry crowd have created in homage to “saving forests.”

What we are trying to “save” is being destroyed by wildfires that annually add billions of tons of carbon to the air we breathe. Carcinogenic smoke. What we are trying to “save” is also the reason we are losing forested watersheds that provide about 80 percent of the West’s municipal water supply.

The Biden Administration has made “fixing” climate change one of its signature issues. That’s fine but “fixing” our climate is a long term problem and time is not on our side. So let’s pick the low hanging fruit in our national forests first, while there is still time. This isn’t rocket science. We have the tools and the knowhow but we have lacked the political will to move forward as quickly as we must.

The Forest Service’s historically decentralized organizational structure – Regional Foresters, Forest Supervisors and District Rangers – was an exceptionally effective management system before the agency was kneecapped  by conflicting agency readings of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act [1970], the Endangered Species Act [1973] and the National Forest Management Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, both ratified in 1976.

The confusion grew much worse following the federal government’s 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [Interior] was soon given oversight authority the Forest Service’s forest planning responsibilities.

Forest Service district rangers and forest supervisors soon found themselves sitting across conference room tables from Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who had long felt they got little respect from the USFS. Their message was direct and maddening: Unless the Forest Service agreed to modify its’ already approved forest plans, the F&WS would not sign off on legally required biological opinions.

Not surprisingly, some professionals in both agencies took seriously the leadership challenges posed by NEPA, et al. Other less courageous souls threw up their hands and walked away.

Those who accepted the challenge to find ways through the regulatory minefield soon learned that no good deed goes unpunished. Their procedural workarounds were challenged in federal district courts and appeals courts.

The perfect storm: Decades of bad blood confounded by conflicting agency missions, laws, regulations, guidelines and policy interpretations that continue to provide a lucrative, taxpayer-funded feeding ground for serial litigators and their anti-forestry clients.

Although the standoff between the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service occurred more than 30 years ago in Region 6 – spotted owl territory in western Oregon and Washington – the fallout continues to stall Forest Service efforts to ramp up a west-wide plan for reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in western national forests.

Congress must consolidate all federal lands under one roof so the conflicting missions of the involved agencies can be honored and the Forest Service can be given the richly deserved opportunity to honor its self-proclaimed mission: caring for the land and service people.