Editor’s note: This is the third 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 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: Would you favor or oppose moving the Forest Service’s firefighting apparatus to the Federal Emergency Management Administration [FEMA], so the Forest Service can concentrate on managing the National Forests?
RAINS: I would strongly oppose moving the Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management program to FEMA. Your question touches on much more than the management of National Forests.
EVERGREEN: How so?
RAINS: The Forest Service is one of the best organizations when it comes to wildfire suppression. It has a long, storied tradition of excellence in this program and it would be a travesty to change. I would fight this move with all my power.
The Chief of the Forest Service is often called, “America’s Chief Forester.” As Chief, he or she should aggressively deploy the agency’s conservation mission across all lands along a complex rural to urban land gradient.
Forests cover about one-third of the United States – some 885 million acres — including the 138 million acres of urban forests. The Forest Service has some type of stewardship role – direct on public lands and indirect on non-federal lands – on about 80 percent of these forests. It thus plays a unique role and a legally mandated responsibility to help ensure we have a legacy of healthy, sustainable forests so the linkage between environmental health and community stability can be more fully realized.
EVERGREEN: We don’t disagree with you as to the Forest Service’s legendary contribution to the nation’s public and privately-owned forests, but the agency has – how shall we say this – soiled its own mess kit.
RAINS: These aren’t happy times inside the Forest Service, but our history of cooperation and contribution are unassailable. I think America still looks to the Forest Service for help. The new Chief needs to lead the charge. Internal and external moral needs a big boost.
EVERGREEN: You reference the agency’s history and legacy. Our sense is that many younger people in the Forest Service know little to nothing about its history of contribution to our nation.
RAINS: Sad but true. It’s vital that the Chief and all agency personnel be able and willing to recognize, appreciate and articulate the vast scope and purpose of the Forest Service. While active management of the National Forests is essential, the role of the Forest Service is much more far reaching than just the public lands.
EVERGREEN: You touched on this a moment ago. Care to elaborate?
RAINS: About 83 percent of America lives in urban areas. The remaining 17 percent live in rural areas. The same 83-17 breakdown hold in Congress. Imagine the groundswell of public support the Forest Service if it aggressively deployed its direct and indirect roles throughout the rural to urban gradient, across all landscapes, in a collaborative spirt with so many public and private partners. Clearly, the Forest Service has been the leader for conservation in America. It’s time to exercise its full range of authorities, building a support base that enable all lands across all ownerships to be managed more aggressively. This is not an “either-or” proposition. The mantra of the Forest Service must be, “conservation of all lands across all ownerships.” This, of course, includes the National Forests.
EVERGREEN: We have long favored moving the management decision-making process out of the Chief’s office and back to the Forest Supervisor’s level. Do you agree or disagree, and if you disagree, why?
RAINS; The roles of the National Office should be policy development, broad oversight of policy deployment and providing linkage to opportunities for strengthening the Forest Service mission.
Over the years, this role has given way to directing – or, as you say, “making decisions.” I was in the National Office in four different assignments – from staff to Deputy Chief. When I was most effective, I avoided duplication, banding together to achieve a corporate common cause. I was most ineffective when I dabbled in local implementation decisions.
During my first tour in the National Office, I worked in Cooperative Forestry, State and Private Forestry. Tony Dorrell was my boss. Our staff was about nine people. Each of us performed a wide range of tasks, striving to stay within the top three mentioned above. That was 1980. Before I retired from the Forest Service in 2016, I ran a quick check on the staff size of Cooperative Forestry. I think it had at least tripled. Now, I know things in 2016 were more complex than in 1980 but I am not sure it was that much more complex.
EVERGREEN: Too many people in the wrong places and too few people in the right places.
RAINS: The National Office is much too large for the role it should be playing. Hardline controls do provide incentives to avoid job creep. When I was Director of the Northeastern Area, State and Private Forestry, a benchmark was established that at least 80 percent of all available funds would go to the states. I believed then, as I do now, that we were helping deploy “federally-assisted state programs.” Thus, the on-the-ground work was at the state level, not in the Area headquarters. The “80-percent rule” allowed us to stay small.
Years later, I tried a similar tactic as Director of the Northern Research Station. I called it “50/50 by 2010.” The notion was, one-half of all available funds would go to our university partners to help carryout discovery and technology development and transfer. By nature, fixed expenses in research are higher. Almost all inside the unit rebelled. Essentially, I was totally unsuccessful when it came to attaining that benchmark. I still think my instincts were right.
I will always believe that the closer the corporate organization gets to the ground with leaders having adequate funds and the ability and willingness to make decisions, the outcomes for the public are so much better.
EVERGREEN: Likewise, we think the Chief’s office needs a staff of no more than 100 – and that their primary job is to communicate with Congress and make certain field offices have the tools they need to manage our National Forests. Do you agree and, if not, why not?
RAINS: A with your earlier question, a key role of the National Office is “linking pin functions.” This includes working with people that make decisions, Congress for example. A small number of people that are skilled in linking-pin functions can break a lot of windows- do lots of good work.
EVERGREEN: So how many people in the Washington office?
RAINS: I don’t know the exact number required to work on policy, make sure policies are implemented correctly; and, discover opportunities and resources to enhance and extend the Forest Service mission. That said, my experience and my gut tell me a great many people could be redeployed to field assignments.
EVERGREEN: We don’t believe Regional Offices are necessary. What’s needed are more boots on the ground at the District Ranger and Forest Supervisor levels, a robust research division under the aegis of the Forest Inventory and Analysis group [FIA] and the existing research stations.
RAINS: I do not agree with a couple of your premises. The Regional Offices are necessary. And Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) may not need to be part of a typical research mission area. It functions very well as its own entity. I agree that more resources on the ground is essential, but I think we should address optimal organizational structure head on as opposed to jumping to the tactics of reducing the size of specific staffs.
Without doubt, Ranger Districts and science projects have suffered from declining resources. To address this, role clarification at each organizational level must be defined, agreed to and followed. This will help eliminate duplication that is characterized by today’s agency.
Postscript: Coming up next, Mr. Rains discusses the need for a major top-to-bottom reorganization of the Forest Service, serial litigation and its solution and the need for the Forest Service to strongly support forest collaboration and the work forest collaboratives are doing in western National Forests.