MICHAEL RAINS: “THE FOREST SERVICE IS AT A TIPPING POINT.”
RAINS: “...It is an honor to work for the Department of Agriculture and I work for the greatest organization in the world.” So, I am in no way being critical of the fire responders; never.
15 MINUTE READ
Editor’s note: This is the last 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: We hear lots of grumbling about the complete absence of performance standards in the Forest Service. Would you agree that all employees should undergo annual review, and should be dismissed if they have not met the performance standards associated with their jobs? If you disagree, why?
RAINS: Frankly, this is news to me. In my 48 years with the Forest Service, never once did my supervisors miss my performance rating. Performance standards were an aggressive part of that process.
During the last 30 years of my career as a Senior Executive, I had mid and final year reviews; always. I did the same for all the employees that reported to me. During the last several years while leading the Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory, there was a continuous count on all employees and the requirement that a mid and final year review was completed.
Again, customized Performance Standards and Management Contracts were part of the process. At the final review, the next year’s Performance Elements were approved. Before each review, employees would document their accomplishments for me to consider during their ratings. I have to say, we took a lot of time for a very important time of the year. I simply cannot relate to employees not having Performance Standards and Reviews.
EVERGREEN: It’s possible we’re dealing in semantics. Performance reviews being the first part of the question and dismissal the second part.
RAINS: The issue of dismissal for poor performance is something different. I do think the rules can be arduous. But, I also appreciate the checks and balances that preclude arbitrary and capricious decisions. I was blessed to have some great bosses and I tried to do my personal best every day. That was and remains my standard. I may not have been the best at a given assignment, but I gave my best. Some feel that is not enough. I do.
I was also blessed to have so many great, truly dedicated employees working for me. No doubt, this is one on the reasons why the current situation concerning discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation is so disturbing.
At the end of the day, the recipe for success is simple. Happy, vision-driven employees that respect their leaders are the elixir for effective, contemporary mission attainment. We all know this. Getting back to or reconfirming a set of core values that enable all employees to enjoy their jobs and know their contributions are part of the overall solution cannot come soon enough.
EVERGREEN: Back to the future.
RAINS: In a manner of speaking, yes. I recall when F. Dale Robertson was Forest Service Chief. We devoted a Regional Forester and Director’s meeting to developing the “Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles” for the agency. Chief Robertson was a brilliant tactician. His ability to clearly describe core values and his leadership instincts to link these values to mission attainment was awesome. Of the 124 leadership team meetings that I had the privilege to attend, that was one of the best.
EVERGREEN: We first met Dale at a small meeting at Farragut State Park in northern Idaho in 1988. He had a remarkable talent for drawing you into his ideas. He exuded a lot of confidence. You couldn’t help but like him.
RAINS: Very true.
EVERGREEN: By the Forest Service’s own estimate, some 90 million National Forest acres in the West are in Condition Class 3 [ready to burn] or Condition Class 2 [soon will be ready to burn. Three related questions come to mind. Let’s take them one at a time. There are lots of horror stories about USFS personnel allowing fires to burn that could be quickly extinguished. Chetco Bar comes immediately to mind. The agency seems to be surrendering to wildfire. As Chief, what will be your standing order as it concerns wildfire starts?
RAINS: Again, not as Chief, but as a very concerned former employee, I would strive to apply a minimalist - just enough - high efficiency approach to the control of wildfires. Allow me to explain. My approach is shaped by the fact that consistently escalating short-term operational opposition to wildfires, which endanger societal values, has contributed to wildfire becoming more damaging to societal values. Unintentionally and unknowingly over a century of past practice, we have created a Wildfire Paradox. That is, current fire suppression practices lead to wildfires with higher intensities and rapid growth causing future fires to be even larger and more difficult to control for fire responders.
EVERGREEN: The road to hell is generally paved with good intentions.
RAINS: When I worked for the Forest Service and was asked about the agency, I always and easily said, “It is an honor to work for the Department of Agriculture and I work for the greatest organization in the world.” So, I am in no way being critical of the fire responders; never. But, I am convinced the Forest Service needs to become much more contemporary for the 21st Century – especially in the way it manages wildfire.
The best available science strongly concludes that striving to extinguish all forest fires quickly with “overwhelming mass” applied to every fire inevitably leads to ecologically significant wildfires with higher intensities and rapid growth that are unable to be suppressed. The Forest Service needs to more fully understand what true fire management really means and leaders must be able to change attitudes and behavior to reflect a more corporate doctrine. Restoring managed and planned fire to the landscape does not mean we embrace a “let burn” policy. Absolutely not. It does mean that the Forest Service begins to deploy a fire management philosophy that encompasses restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes; creating fire-adapted communities; and, responding to wildfires. It’s the right kind of fire, in the right place and the right time.
EVERGREEN: Easy to say, hard to do.
RAINS: Tactically, in wildland fire, it is generally accepted that more assets are inherently less efficient. Still, assets are accumulated for a variety of reasons, including the traditionally conservative nature of the Forest Service. That conservative nature has failed to see the prudence associated with “just enough exposure, no more”.
EVERGREEN: You are echoing our concern for the rapid evolution of a fire culture at the expense of a much-needed forestry culture.
RAINS: The Forest Service does not celebrate the value of “just enough” and “high efficiency” in the wildland fire profession. The agency has nurtured a wildland fire culture which accepts and forgives “too much” but finds fault with “too little”. Cost is largely a secondary concern. The challenge for the future is determining what is “just right”. Strategically, we have not convinced enough of the right people that short-term application of the “precautionary principle” is having long-term harmful implications, and thus the Wildfire Paradox.
EVERGREEN: The public does not understand allowing big fires to burn. The losses are enormous. Worst, millions of acres of late succession reserves, created at the expense of thousands of woods jobs, have been lost over the last decade. I think the agency will have a very difficult time justifying a major shift in fire policy.
RAINS: The experiences of many in the Forest Service affirm what you are saying.
During my Forest Service career, I was not in the formal “fire fraternity.” But, I often “intersected” with wildland fire. For example, in 1999, while Director of the Northeastern Area, I was asked to lead an analysis of the “Kirk and Big Bar Fire Complexes.” At that time, $178 million and 227,000 acres were consumed. The alarmingly high costs represented then 30 percent of the total Forest Service fire suppression expenditures. People were concerned.
In 2001, my career intersected again with wildland fire as the USDA author for the report entitled, “Managing the Impacts of Wildfires on Communities and the Environment” — the National Fire Plan. A critical feature of the National Fire Plan was “hazardous fuels reduction improves forest health and its resiliency to fire.”
As Deputy Chief for the State and Private Forestry mission area, detailed discussions about “improved fire management” were commonplace. As a member of the Forest Service leadership team for 30 years, the notion that the agency needed to create cost-effective ways to enable enough hazardous fuels to be removed from America’s forests, so wildfires could be more manageable and become a tool for improved forest health was often debated. No one disagreed. However, real change was, and continues to be, marginal.
EVERGREEN: There are a lot of moving parts to the wildfire discussion, not least a political resistance to active management – thinning and stand tending work – on physical scales that are ecologically meaningful.
RAINS: Over the past 20 years especially, the Forest Service has talked about the concept of improved fire management incessantly. The agency has planned, and policies have been reviewed and reconstructed. All the Forest Service Chief’s that I have worked for talk about the need for restoration and enabling the forests to be more resistant to fires. Some have spoken about it with great passion. The issue of excessive fire suppression costs and the shifting of funds – “fire borrowing” – is old news and most hate when it happens year after year. The unheard-of amounts of $178 million spent and 227,000 acres burned that were associated with the “Kirk and Big Bar Complexes” in California not that long ago, now barely get a nod.
EVERGREEN: We’ve heard it said that the Forest Service is like a very large aircraft carrier. Turning it around takes a lot of water. In this case, the agency is dealing with a clash of cultures and memories of the era when putting out new fires by 10 o’clock in the morning was a point of great pride.
RAINS: I think you are right. But my sense is that the Forest Service is at a tipping point. 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.
The Forest Service is working at cross purposes. By applying the appropriate level of engagement (no more, no less), we can begin to more fully use fire to improve forest health. Change is coming, either through conflagration or organizational upheaval or both. The “status quo” will not succeed.
EVERGREEN: We have said much the same many, many times. Here’s the second part of our wildfire question: Some in the Forest Service for whom we have great respect are advocating for “managed fire,” allowing wildfires fires to continue burning where it can be safely done, essentially herding these fires across large landscapes. We understand the intellectual argument but think this is terribly wasteful. We thus favor improved forest management [for aggressive use of thinning and prescribed fire] as the best means of improving fire management. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
RAINS; The great Tom Harbour, former Director of fire and Aviation Management, told me a long time ago, “Do not be afraid to go to the next best ridge.” The notion being, if it is determined that this minimalist - just enough - high efficiency approach makes sense to let the fire go to the next logical point of containment, then do it. But I would never advocate “herding fires across large landscape.” As you say, that is wasteful and the collateral damage – the loss of timber; loss of soil productivity; reduced air quality; mudslides; flooding - is predictably excessive.
As I noted earlier, aggressive forest management is the elixir to effective fire management. I would institute a long-term campaign to this end. Again - and it is worth repeating - 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: And then there is the separate but equally important matter of thinning and hazardous fuels reduction.
RAINS: A critically important element in the National Fire Plan was “hazardous fuels reduction improves forest health and its resiliency to fire.” In the late 1990’s, the General Accounting Office concluded that “the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of forests in the interior West is the over-accumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires.” In developing the National Fire Plan in 2001, about $850 million annually was thought to be required to more effectively address the issue of hazardous fuels removal. More recently in 2013, the GAO concluded it would take about $69 billion over a 16-year period — $4.3 billion each year. Relying on taxpayer dollars, the Forest Service has managed an average of about $300 million annually for hazardous fuels treatment. Thus, with only a fraction of required funds available, focusing work only on the highest priority areas is fundamental to success. This level of focusing has not happened.
EVEERGREEN: The 90 million acres the Forest Service says are in Condition Class 2 and 3.
RAINS: I’ve heard it said that the figure is as high as 90 million acres. Others say 80 million. Either way, the need is desperate of restoration work of one kind or another. And, by the way, in 2001, this figure was 38 million acres. So, after about $5 billion for hazardous fuel treatment, the areas needing treatment have increased by 200-plus percent. To state the obvious, setting priorities for treatment areas is key. The forest restoration collaboratives will be a huge help in this regard.
EVERGREEN: We believe the restoration scale at which our forest collaboratives are working is much too small – a result of congressional hesitation to tackle the forest density/insect/disease/wildfire crisis at the watershed scale. As Chief, how will you say to Congress to impress upon them the futility of acreage limits on restoration projects?
RAINS: Simply put, the current pace and scale of forest restoration is not making
the kind of difference required to create forests that are healthy, sustainable and more resilient to disturbances. The goal must be some type of restorative action on 7-8 million acres annually on the National Forests, almost doubling the current amount; 19-20 million acres annually on all forestlands. Landscape scale restoration, including entire watersheds, is the only answer. Otherwise, in just a few years, 70 percent of the Forest Service budget will be for fire and the world’s leading conservation agency, will become the United States Fire Service. We can never allow this happen.
EVERGREEN: Loss of wood processing infrastructure is a huge worry in several western states. Mill owners tell us they will not make necessary capital investments unless the Forest Service offers 20-year thinning contracts on projects large enough to be ecologically and economically meaningful. It seems to us that the first thing the Forest Service needs to do is make certain existing mills have sufficient log supplies from restoration projects to hire second shifts. Do you agree and, if yes, how do we get there, and if you disagree, why?
RAINS: As I continue to state, my goal is to have healthy, sustainable forests that are more resilient to disturbances. This means a much more aggressive forest management program. In my recent letter to President Trump regarding this matter. Allow me to read from a letter I recently wrote to President Trump:
“In addition to removing hazardous fuels, the removal of merchantable trees must be part of the forest management strategy. There are about 885 million acres of forests across America. About one-half of these forested stands require some type of restorative action. The only way to effectively control wildfires is to ensure the forests are less dense. This means removing biomass. Today, our forests grow about twice as much wood as is harvested; things are getting clogged up.
Continuing, “On the National Forests, for example, current timber harvesting equates to a paltry 3 billion board feet, annually. This figure, from a sustainability viewpoint, could easily be doubled to 6 billion board feet each year. Our goal should be – it must be — to help create healthy, sustainable forests that are more resilient to disturbances so the linkage between environmental health and community stability can be more fully realized. Removing some trees at a more aggressive pace and scale is the only answer to sound fire management. Increasing fire suppression funds will not solve this issue. We spend $1 million an hour on fire suppression without hesitation. Now is the time to change this philosophy and begin investing more in preventative forest management.”
EVERGREEN: Has the President replied to your letter?
RAINS: I wrote the President twice. My first letter stressed the fact that sound fire management necessitates aggressive forest management and, yes, I received a nice response. My second letter called for a ‘forest fix’ to accompany the ‘fire fix’ that was recently signed into law. I didn’t ask for a response but asked that the President please understand that the current ‘fire fix’ is only the beginning.
EVERGREEN: We certainly agree with you. Let’s return to our infrastructure discussion for a moment. It seems to us that private capital needs to find more ways to commercialize biomass. If there are no viable markets for the least valuable material in a forest – biomass – ecologically meaningful forest restoration won’t be possible without taxpayer subsidy.
RAINS: Due to the extreme costs of fire suppression, fewer funds and resources are available to support the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat. A program that emphasizes innovative, cost-effective biomass uses is a prime example.
Biomass uses – for example, wood-based nanotechnology; Green Building Construction, including advanced composites; and, selected aspects of wood for energy, torrefaction for example — offer pragmatic market-based solutions to help our forests become more resilient to disturbances such as wide-spread catastrophic fire loss. Biomass uses are outcomes from restorative actions.
EVERGREEN: Toprrefaction being the thermal process for transforming biomass into a coal-like substance that can be burned easily and efficiently with fewer air quality problems.
RAINS: That’s correct.. A strong, well-established program in cost-effective biomass uses could create high-value markets from low-value wood hazardous fuels that could reasonably help restore up to 19-20 million forested-acres annually across all lands, including 7-8 million acres on the National Forests.
This pace and scale of restoration could reduce future fire suppression costs in the range of 12-15 percent - some suggest as high as 23 percent— about $300 million based on the 2017 fire suppression costs by the Forest Service.
Simply put, it makes good economic sense to aggressively invest in biomass uses to help achieve more resilient forests throughout the rural to urban land gradient. An “aggressive” investment in biomass uses would be about $33 million annually in years 1 through 3, or about two firefighting shifts!
EVERGREEN: This has been a long and most enjoyable conversation, Michael. We thank you for your time and interest.
RAINS: And I thank you for asking for my input. I won’t be the next Chief of the Forest Service, but speaking in the abstract, I would work hard with the Administration and Congress to at least double the current timber harvest program on the National Forests, as well as emphasize innovative biomass uses and the associated market development and expansion requirements. If we do this correctly and begin a “campaign of our campaign” of “aggressive forest management is the elixir to effective fire management”, then the eventual reduction in fire suppression costs can be shifted to on-the-ground forest restoration projects, constituting real change and tangible outcomes.
EVERGREEN: Well said. Thanks again, Michael.
RAINS: You are most welcome.