Lyle Laverty is one of two Forest Service veterans known to be on the Trump Transition team’s list of candidates to be the next Chief of the Forest Service. The other is Michael Rains, who we are interviewing in a few days. In this interview, Mr. Laverty answers as series of questions we posed concerning issues of great concern to forest collaborative stakeholders who have been the subjects of a series of in-depth Evergreen interviews we initiated in early 2015.
Mr. Laverty’s career track is somewhat unique. He has served in both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior. At Interior, he was the Bush Administration’s Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and within the Forest Service, he held several high-profile positions including Deputy Assistant Chief responsible for leadership and development of the National Fire Plan, an assignment that came with 191 million acres and a $2 billion congressional appropriation.
Mr. Laverty was also a team leader and co-author of the Forest Service’s 2000 Cohesive Strategy, prepared in response to a Government Accounting Office report suggesting that the Forest Service lacked an integrated strategy for addressing catastrophic wildfire in western national forests.
Mr. Laverty is also a former Regional Forester [Rocky Mountain Region, Lakewood, Colorado], former Forest Supervisor [California’s Mendocino National Forest] former Director of the Forest Service’s Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness Resources program, and a former Director of Colorado State Parks.
He began his career with the Forest Service on the Six Rivers National Forest in at Orleans, California nearly 50 years ago. Now retired, he runs his own forestry consulting business, serves of the Board of Directors of the National Woodland Owners Association, is chairman of the Salvation Army Denver Advisory Board, and is chair of the Wyoming/Colorado Section of the Society of American Foresters. He is a registered professional forester and member of the National Association of Consulting Foresters.
Evergreen: Mr. Laverty, you are on the Trump Administration’s list of candidates for Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. You have a long history of service with the Forest Service, the State of Colorado and the Department of the Interior, but what makes you think you can do the job any better than the last half-dozen Chiefs, including the late Jack Ward Thomas, who admitted his failure to find a way to circumnavigate political and regulatory hurdles that make active management of national forests virtually impossible?
Laverty: That’s an excellent question, but first let me say that I don’t expect much will happen on the Chief’s front until the President-elect selects a new Secretary of Agriculture. As you know, there are several excellent candidates in the running, including your Idaho Governor, Butch Otter believe the opportunity to work with an administration and a Congress that all understand the importance of creating jobs and sustainable communities, combine to create an environment supporting active management of America’s national forests.
Evergreen: We have heretofore argued that perhaps the new Chief should come from the private sector, and be selected solely on the basis or his or her ability to manage 32,000 far-flung employees whose views on the Forest Service’s management role seem to vary widely. Why pick you or any of the other experienced insiders?
Laverty: I think it would take a year, perhaps longer, for someone not familiar with the organization to get up to speed on the political and regulatory hurdles that you reference. Given the wildfire-forest health crisis the nation faces, I believe we do not have a year. Whoever the Secretary selects needs to be able to hit the ground running.
Evergreen: And you obviously believe you are the guy.
Laverty: I do
Evergreen: Tell us what you believe to be the most important qualification for the Chief’s job?
Laverty: Leadership, leadership, leadership – the experience, insight and ability necessary to share a compelling vision, then engage and communicate that vision passionately to those 32,000 employees you referenced.
Evergreen: We had high hopes for Tom Tidwell, the current Chief, but the wildfire-forest health crisis he inherited when he was appointed eight years ago, is much worse. What’s the problem here?
Laverty: Based on my conversations with dedicated field employees, I believe there is a serious disconnect between the Chief’s office, regional offices, supervisor offices and district rangers. Until maximum decision authority rests with forest Supervisors and District Rangers, little is going to change for the better. That’s unfortunate because the Forest Service is blessed with a cadre of results driven employees working at the district level anxious to proactively address the condition of America’s national forests.
Evergreen: How do you drive management decision-making back down to the district level?
Laverty: To begin Jim, the chief must create an organizational environment that acknowledges the significant role district rangers have with communities across America. Given the power of those relationships, as much decision responsibility and authority must be given to field leaders as possible. I believe it is imperative for the chief to articulate the organizational roles, responsibilities and functions of each organizational unit in the agency, affirming the agency focus to support field units. There are no laws or regulations that prevent it from happening today. The Chief needs to know he or she has the unwavering support of the Secretary and his or her office.
Evergreen: How so?
Laverty: Because many special interest groups with big offices and big staffs in Washington, DC oppose decision-making outside the Beltway. They like the fact that they are at the center of decision-making involving Congress, Interior and Agriculture, and they don’t want to share power with other special interest groups that function at the regional or local level.
Evergreen: And you favor decision-making at the local or regional level?
Laverty: I absolutely do. It’s time to break the old model and reassemble the pieces. Decentralization is key. Management decisions should be made by field people with first-hand experience and a working knowledge of local problems best resolved by accessing and using the best available science. Perhaps the most important factor in this model is the strength of the relationships district rangers have in the communities across America. I have found relationships are the keys to communication and understanding.
Evergreen: Speaking of models, weren’t you part of a group that launched a study of Forest Service leadership some eight years ago?
Laverty: I was. We discovered that employee confidence in leadership was at an all-time low. There didn’t seem to be any esprit de corps left. The entire organization was a hot mess, and not much has changed. The recent OPM survey shows not much has changed. We suggested a model to develop strategic leaders, leaders at every level that can set direction, align people, and motivate them to success. Creating an environment to actively manage America’s natural resources wholly depends upon developing leaders of substance at all levels of the agency.
Evergreen: When we started Evergreen Magazine 30 years ago, you never saw a Forest Service employee out of uniform. Today, you rarely see one in uniform. We think this speaks volumes for the fact that a once proud and much admired public agency has become a rudderless ship.
Laverty: I agree. I recall my professional orientation as a “junior forester.” Regional Forester Connaughton shared the history, tradition of the agency, and the badge. I remember to this day, how he passionately talked about the pride of wearing the uniform and wearing it correctly. Tom Peters, years ago, talked about how a business presents itself is an indicator of how the business is run. I believe Tom’s principle is true today
Evergreen: How do you fix it?
Laverty: By giving good people good tools, by setting high standards, and by holding people accountable for job performance. Yogi Berra was once asked what was the most important thing in developing a world championship team. He replied instantly, “Hire world championship players.” I believe if this is true on the sports field and in private enterprise, it is equally important for the Forest Service. The agency has world champion players! If the Forest Service is to meet the challenges of this century, I believe it is critical that we develop an organizational structure that places the right people, in the right places, at the right moment.
Evergreen: We find it astonishing that there are no measurable performance standards in the Forest Service today.
Laverty: I do too. Our collective performance should be based on how we accomplished our mission. I am a firm believer performance needs to be out come based, not just activity-based. If we answer the question – are we truly making a difference? Perhaps most importantly, what difference did we make? We’ll have a good foundation for meaningful performance conversations.
Evergreen: We’d also like to see the Forest Service reward good employees who stay put long enough to develop an affinity for the land and its people. Pay them to stay put for at least 10 years.
Laverty: There is great value in tenure. Land and resources are complex. As an agency, we need to encourage folks to become established members of communities. We need them to understand the complexity of the resources they are stewarding. Tenure translates into learning and accountability. With constant changes, the individual never sees the full outcome of the decisions they make or the work they perform, they never understand the community, or develop the relationships necessary to achieve outcomes. Perhaps a bonus system for tenure could change the active movement. The current alignment of the agency’s human capital does not encourage learning or the formation of the strong community ties that were for decades an integral part of the Forest Service’s great success.
Evergreen: We have a copy of your “First 100 Days” agenda – and frankly we can’t recall ever seeing such a document from a candidate for Chief of the Forest Service.
Laverty: Thanks. Leadership necessitates clarity, and I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings about my agenda or what I believe the Chief’s office needs to do to rebuild trust and morale from the bottom up. It is critically important for the new chief to have a “road map” to keep focused on the first 100 days. There will be a myriad of pressing issues requiring the Chief’s attention, but having a strategic blueprint will help keep the focus on the elements necessary to help Make America Great Again!
Evergreen: Your eight-point plan is very ambitious, and will certainly earn kudos in rural timber communities that were left high and dry by the regulatory mess that grew out of the Clinton Northwest Forest Plan. So much of what has derailed the best of intentions of the last half-dozen Chiefs can only be fixed by Congress because it is Congress that created what Jack Ward Thomas called the “crazy quilt” of conflicting regulations that you will face if you are named Chief.
Laverty: That’s true, but Congress has come a long way since the Northwest Forest Plan was implemented. There is now a much broader understanding of what is needed to restore the health of diseased and dying national forests. Witness congressional support for forest restoration collaboratives. Witness congressional support for stronger ties between the Forest Service and states where national forests are located. Congress is moving in the right direction. The Western Governors at their recent meeting affirmed to the importance of active engagement and collaboration in the management of America’s national forests.
Evergreen: Explain please.
Laverty: The Forest Service is not being honest with itself, Congress or the public, about the environmental and economic risks facing much of the western United states. The new Chief needs to be transparent and honest with the Secretary and the Congress in an open environment to discuss practical approaches to address them. The agency’s own fire models show that under the right weather conditions – the so-called perfect storm – a wildfire that starts in northern California’s Sierras could burn all the way into central Montana. Such a catastrophe would devastate the West’s municipal water supply, to say nothing of the other benefits we enjoy from our national forests.
Evergreen: Again, the crazy quilt of conflicting environmental regulations that purport to protect land, water and species, but in fact endanger all of them by preventing the management and restoration work that could reduce the onset and spread of insects and diseases that fuel big wildfires.
Laverty: That’s correct. With an administration and a Congress that all understand the benefits of healthy forests and healthy communities, I believe we can navigate a course to create healthy ecosystems, ecosystems that include communities
Evergreen: We have often referenced what Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called “society’s felt necessities.” We’d like to quote it for you to see how you think it meshes with our court system’s frequent rejection of Forest Service restoration projects. Holmes said, “The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience: the felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, institutions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with the fellow men have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed.”
Laverty: Jim, perhaps reframing the question to how much of societies felt necessities can we watch go up in some, be lost to erosion, or stop visiting our national forests before we engage in a more meaningful approach that considers the consequences that come from our inaction. In the decades following the agency’s creation in 1905, it remained largely a custodian of the national forests. The federal timber sale program didn’t gain momentum until after World War II. Public support for the program remained quite strong until the late 1960s, when the first big clear-cutting debate developed on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. As the debate spread west into Montana and the coastal Douglas-fir region, public concern for over-harvesting and visual impacts – society’s new felt necessities – increased rapidly. Congress responded by passing laws and regulations that made active management increasingly difficult. Now the pendulum is beginning to swing in the opposite direction in response to the wildfire crisis that is sweeping through western national forests. The Forest Service is well positioned to facilitate the conversation.
Evergreen: The reversal you describe has taken a generation to manifest itself. We have been reporting on the wildfire crisis for most of our 30 years. Rural Americans have understood this crisis and the need to more actively manage at risk national forests, but urban Americans are only now beginning to understand the gravity of the problem.
Laverty: That’s true – and again, I believe the Forest Service can articulate the environmental impacts of the forest health crisis existing on many national forests. The forest products industry needs to help Americans understand the importance of a strong industry infrastructure to help address hasn’t done a good job of explaining itself, either. Special interest groups that oppose active management have filled the information vacuum with their own point of view, so it is no wonder that it has taken so long for the public to begin to understand what’s happening.
Evergreen: Hundreds of smaller, family-owned sawmills that were totally dependent on the federal government’s post World War II timber sale program, have gone out of business in the years since the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in June of 1990. Like a poorly equipped army, we lack the capacity – in this case wood processing infrastructure – to fight a war against a better equipped and better trained force.
Laverty: That’s not an analogy I’ve heard before, but it certainly speaks to the fact that the mill closures you reference cost the Forest Service its biggest paying customer from the post-war era. The recreation-based industries that have blossomed over the last 25 years form a new and publicly popular customer base. Today we need the mill infrastructure to support management activities necessary to sustain healthy forests. We’ve talked about this before, but healthy forests support healthy communities and provide the settings for a diversity of outdoor experiences.
Evergreen: We find it very revealing that some of the nation’s largest conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, are now on the hunt for investment capital needed to build new wood processing facilities capable of handling small diameter trees that are fueling big wildfires.
Laverty: The Conservancy’s engagement speaks to the urgency of our forest health crisis. If we don’t manage our national forests – remove as much dead and dying timber as possible and manage green timber in roaded areas – we will eventually lose the resiliency of our western national forests. Management is not possible without commercial markets for timber and commercial markets aren’t possible without large capital investments in new milling infrastructure.
Evergreen: How do we get from here to there?
Laverty: By creating a climate of political certainty that allows and encourages for private capital investments. We need to match the mortality scale or we will never catch up with the crisis. We need to articulate and demonstrate operational plans that support a consistent, sustainable, and reliable supply of material to support these reinvestments in rural America.
Evergreen: How would you as Chief do this on the scale you seem to be suggesting?
Laverty: The Forest Service is responsible for the care of basically three land classifications: roaded areas that have been under some form of management since the end of World War II, roadless areas in which little management has ever occurred, and Wilderness areas in which no management is permitted. We need to concentrate on the areas where roads exist and management has occurred in the past. There are millions of such acres that could be managed in perpetuity if our laws and regulations permitted it.
Evergreen: The question is, how much management will society’s felt necessities allow.
Laverty: The public understandably fears a return to the era when timber was the dominant management use. That’s not necessary or desirable, but the public and our elected representatives must squarely face the fact that we are losing national forests we all treasure. Time is short. We clearly can’t rescue every acre, but we can do much better than we have thus far.
Evergreen: The fire borrowing mess would seem to be a good place to start.
Laverty: It makes no sense for the Forest Service to be forced to borrow from its forest restoration and management budgets to pay the enormous and increasing cost of battling wildfires. These mega-fires are natural disasters, no less so than floods, hurricanes or earthquakes. Fire borrowing undercuts the Forest Service’s ability to reduce the risk of wildfires that threaten communities, watersheds, recreation and wildlife habitat.
Evergreen: We suspect that fire borrowing has also put the Forest Service’s replanting budget in the hole, too.
Laverty: I don’t doubt it. We need an immediate accounting of acres that have not been replanted following the aftermaths of big fires. We can create jobs and restore these lands to their productive functions.
Evergreen: Some, including many fire ecologists, believe we should allow big wildfires to burn themselves out, with no human intervention.
Laverty: It may be possible to manage some large wildfires, but the risks are very significant and it can take centuries for the resulting natural losses to recover. I know we can do better. We need to aggressively address the underlying causes of these huge catastrophic fires before they occur.
Evergreen: Hundreds of rural western counties were left high and dry by the loss of federal timber revenues that followed the 1990 spotted owl listing. Most Americans don’t understand that the federal government does not pay property taxes on national forest lands within these counties. How do we make the counties whole again?
Laverty: The federal government needs to own up to its financial responsibility to these counties. How that gets done is well above the Chief’s pay grade, but actively managing roaded areas within these counties would provide a big economic boost America’s rural communities.
Evergreen: Where do you stand on the question of returning federal lands to the states?
Laverty: I understand the disenfranchisement frustrations shared by states and counties, but I don’t support the idea. Apart from the fact that no state or county could afford to own federal lands, it must be remembered that these lands belong to all Americans, not just the residents of states or counties in which the lands are located. My guess is that most of this frustration would quickly subside if roaded areas were actively managed.
Evergreen: Congress has blessed the forest collaborative groups that are helping the Forest Service design and implement restoration projects, but it has not seen fit to bulletproof their work from litigants who oppose active forest management. Should the collaboratives be protected from litigation?
Laverty: Absolutely. These are all volunteer citizen groups whose opinions and beliefs concerning forests and forest management mirror those of most of us. There are no better proxies for the new felt necessities held by millions of Americans. There is far too much at risk to allow the views of a handful of people to disrupt progress. We don’t allow such disruptive or costly intervention anywhere else in our society, and we should not allow it in our national forests.