Editor’s note: This is the second segment of a five-part interview with Michael T. Rains, who was Director of the Northern Research Station at Newtown Square, Pennsylvania for 15 years and, concurrently, Director of the Forest Products Laboratory at Newtown Square for three years. He retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2016. In earlier capacities, he was Deputy Chief of the Forest Service for State and Private Forestry, Washington, D.C.; Director of State and Private Forestry for the Northeastern Area, Radnor, Pennsylvania; and Director of Information, Resources Management and Business Operations for the Forest Service, Washington, D.C.
Mr. Rains attended five universities: Humboldt State at Arcata, California; the University of Mississippi at Oxford; Georgia State in Atlanta; the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and West Chester University at West Chester, Pennsylvania. His undergraduate degrees are in forestry, economics and labor relations, and his master’s degrees are in public administration, watershed management and secondary education.
We have known of Mr. Rains and his exceptional work for many years, most recently through the National Wildfire Institute, founded by our colleague, Bruce Courtright. When we were preparing questions for Interim Forest Service Chief, Victoria Christiansen, Mr. Rains volunteered to answer the same questions, in part because his name made the rounds before Tony Tooke was named Chief. Mr. Tooke recently resigned amid sexual harassment accusations. Ms. Christiansen was named Interim Chief days later. You will find our subsequent interview with Ms. Christiansen posted elsewhere on our site.
When Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, announced Ms. Christiansen’s appointment, we asked Mr. Rains for his assessment because she worked with him as part of the Forest Service leadership team when he was running the Northern Research Station. He expressed great pleasure in her appointment.
Mr. Rains is a brilliant but exceedingly humble man, so when he agreed to answer these questions, he wanted it made clear that he was “simply sharing his voice” with anyone interested in his perspectives.
EVERGREEN: How great is the damage done to the Forest Service by the Public Broadcasting System documentary?
RAINS: In my view, a tremendous damage has occurred. the Forest Service has suffered a huge hit to its credibility and reputation. As an example, look what Bill Gabbert, a managing editor and a former Forest Service firefighter said: “This is a disgusting, demoralizing, distasteful, detestable scandal facing the agency where I spent 20 years.”
EVEREGREEN: For a federal agency that almost never makes front-page news, the Forest Service is now well known – and not in a good way – among people who knew little about it before the PBS report was aired.
RAINS: Sadly true. The Forest Service was a relatively unknown federal agency before the PBS report aired. Now the first impression held by many in our society is, well, distasteful. It is crucial that the agency not take this lightly and settle into a typical pattern of “this too shall pass.” It will not. Fortunately, all indications from people like Dan Jiron suggest the agency is taking this very seriously.
EVERGREEN: Is your Forest Service glass half-full or half-empty?
RAINS: I think it can rebuild its image, but it will take the kind of single-minded dedication for which the Forest Service is well known – the “can do” spirit that drove the agency forward in the years following World War II, the difference now being that we are talking about caring for people who care for forests. Employees need to believe that their senior leaders care about them – really care about their welfare. I mean really care for their welfare. I overheard one employee say: “…our leader doesn’t care if I am sexually harassed. He just wants to make sure there is no fallout on him.” This is one of the reasons why the IDE must include a review and evaluation of the entire executive-level leadership of the Forest Service.
EVERGREEN: What might Interim Chief Christiansen say that might help calm anxious women in the agency?
RAINS: She needs to say something like this: “From this point forward I am holding every senior leader accountable to ensure that every employee will be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. The Forest Service cannot, it must not, it will not equivocate on this proposition. If it does, the Forest Service will eventually cease to exist. And, I will not allow that to happen. Please do not underestimate my resolve on this.”
EVERGREEN: Not much wiggle room in those words.
RAINS: To me, it’s very basic. Anyone who engages in discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation in the Forest Service will be dealt with swiftly and held accountable through the full force of all available ways and means. There should be no exceptions to this policy.
EVERGREEN: Congress has now fixed the fire borrowing mess that was undermining the Forest Service’s ability to reduce the risk of wildfires in National Forests that hold too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land. Care to comment on where we go from here?
RAINS: In my view, allocating more money to fighting wildfires is not the answer. Nothing will change until the Forest Service and the public embrace the notion that aggressive forest management is the elixir for effective fire management. We do not have a cohesive and comprehensive forest management strategy. As a result, we face a wildfire paradox in the form of a decades-long 95-98 percent wildfire suppression success rate – the paradox being that in our success we have only made our wildfire problem worse by delaying the inevitable.
EVERGREEN: The paradox being that in racing to the scene of every wildfire, we have delayed the inevitability of fire on the land, thus creating larger, more frequent and deadly stand-replacing wildfires.
RAINS: Correct. As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work—including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat. Since 2001, there has been a 24 percent reduction in vegetation and watershed management programs — vital to the restoration of natural resiliency of National Forest System lands. Innovative uses of biomass, especially lower value wood, including hazardous fuels, is another example now the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” principle is jeopardizing the stewardship of America’s public lands.
EVERGREEN: How do we break this cycle of well-intended effort gone wrong?
RAINS: The Forest Service can choose to work more with fire on the landscape. or it can prepare for a larger, more expensive campaign, confronting fires like it does now. This campaign will be influenced by escalating costs, unreasonable risk and exposure to our fire responders and factors outside of our control, like climate change. The Forest Service can’t win unless it chooses to work with fire.
EVERGREEN: The wildfire paradox you reference looks increasingly like a bottomless money pit.
RAINS: Additional forest management funding will be required until fire suppression costs can be significantly reduced, and overall funds can be redirected in a more balanced, land conservation strategy. In the short-term, some of the new investments to support accelerated forest management programs will be offset by the revenues generated through the goods and services provided by the improved utilization of natural resources. Even in the short-term, an aggressive forest management strategy will reduce the costs to control wildland fires and the restoration of related damages. Current practices in wildland fire, influenced at times by conflicting laws, congressional intent, and even executive direction, have led to an untenable and unstable situation. Change must occur, and soon. The “status quo” is a prescription for failure. It insures the continuing loss of National Forests at an unprecedented rate.
EVERGREEN: How would you tackle this beast?
RAINS: I’d concentrate our efforts in four areas: Convene a Commission on the Stewardship of America’s Forests, institute a long-term campaign of aggressive forest management, corporately deploy the existing National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, and work with the Administration and Congress to increase the Forest Service’s budget.
EVERGREEN: Tell us about your stewardship commission. What’s its role?
RAINS: The commission would be co-led by the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, so we have cabinet-level engagement. The secretaries would determine the makeup, but it would include the Chief of the Forest Service, the Director of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service Director and the President of the National Association of State Foresters. The Commission’s role would be to harness its collective wisdom and influence to engage the widest possible group of forest stakeholders in the development and implementation of programs that significantly and measurably improve the health, sustainability and resilience of our National Forests.
EVERGREEN: How about your campaign improve fire management by first improving forest management? Your use of the term “aggressive” is sure to raise eyebrows in some quarters.
RAINS: Possibly, but we need to steer a significant course correction as quickly as possible. Agriculture and Interior need to immediately and publicly acknowledge that aggressive forest management improves fire management and reduces high intensity, catastrophic wildfire. We to allow more of the right kind of fire in the right places and the right time – prescribed fire and wildfire itself. Our nation is losing up to $350 billion annually in wildfire-related damage to public health, buildings, homes, natural resources and the wood processing facilities that manufacture and market fiber removed from National Forests.
EVERGREEN: The relationship between efficient and effective forest management and fire management is symbiotic.
RAINS: Absolutely. Cost-effective fire management can only be accomplished with a concurrent and equally aggressive forest management strategy that includes well-planned vegetation removals, including at least the doubling of the current timber harvest program on public lands.
EVERGREEN: What do you mean when you say you would “corporately” deploy the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy?
RAINS: The Cohesive Strategy has been a very effective tool for restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes, but it is not yet mainstream; nor is it deployed consistently. It’s understood internally in some quarters, but there is no public understanding of the program, its core principles or its goals and objectives. It is vital that we engage the public in the entire campaign. Public understanding and support are essential to our success – and to funding.
EVERGREEN: Speaking of funding, we have long believed the Forest Service’s budget is too small given the challenges association with conserving and managing 190 million acres for forest and rangeland.
RAINS: Nothing I have described here is possible without additional funding from Congress. We will not see a decline in fire suppression costs until our more aggressive forest management program bears tangible results.
EVERGREEN: When would you expect to see tangible results and how much must the Forest Service’s annual appropriation be increased to get there?
RAINS: Assuming a budget increase of $1.3 to $2.2 billion, we should see tangible improvement in three to five years. In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget. In 2017, more than one-half of the Forest Service’s annual budget was dedicated to wildfire. If we don’t reverse course, fire will soon consume 70 percent of the agency’s budget.
EVERGREEN: The fire funding fix in this year’s Omnibus budget bill should help
RAINS: It will, but again, we need to reverse our priorities. Let’s manage our forests before wildfire strikes. Let’s do the thinning and standing tending work necessary to reduce the risk of wildfire. And bear in mind that as suppression costs have skyrocketed, there has been a corresponding a corresponding shift in staff, with about a 40 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel. We must understand that the fire fix is just the first step toward a forest fix. Over a very long-time span, there was a tremendous decline in forest management work. Everything was being shifted to the fire effort. The “fire fix” enables this shift to stop. And, the percentage of the Forest Service budget for fire control will not increase. All of this is great news — at least in two years when the authorities are scheduled to be deployed. However, it must be clear, the “fire fix” certainly does not backfill the gap that was created in lost non-fire skills and forest management actions foregone, as examples, especially during the last two decades. Accordingly, it is critical that this be recognized and new momentum be established for the next step. That is, to deploy a comprehensive forest management strategy so effective fire management can be achieved and sustained. Unless this is done, the “fire fix” will have little to do with helping fire become the conservation tool America’s landscapes require – perhaps especially the 80 million acres of National Forests that are now considered to be at high-risk from destructive wildfires.
EVERGREEN: We’ll guess that you would use some of the increased budget to increase staffing on the forest management side.
RAINS: It’s vital that we increase on-the-ground forest management skill sets and programs, including the augmentation of current forest cooperatives. The Forest Service has a compelling case for the cost-effective use of this additional funding. It just needs to make the case.
Postscript: Coming up next, Mr. Rains explains why he opposes moving the Forest Service’s fire-fighting apparatus to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the need to shrink the size of the Washington Office while deploying more “boots on the ground” at the Supervisor and District Ranger levels.