U.S. Forest Service Collaboration Process: Solution or Sham?

According to the Forest Service, the collaborative process has been a success and our forests are receiving much needed treatments. Is this the truth?

Jim Petersen -
U.S. Forest Service Collaboration Process: Solution or Sham?

By: Barry Wynsma, USFS, Retired Member, National Association of Forest Service Retirees

For those of you who have been following Forest Service land management issues, the term “collaboration” should be familiar.

For approximately 10 years now, since the Forest Service began the Healthy Forests Initiative and Congress passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in 2003, the agency has been promoting the collaborative process in the hopes that it would reduce analysis paralysis, reduce appeals and litigation and increase fuels reduction and forest restoration work on the National Forests.

According to the latest press releases from Forest Service leadership, the collaborative process has been a success and our forests are receiving the much needed fuels reduction and restoration treatments at a significant level.

Is this the truth or is it merely the Forest Service putting on a happy face for the public?

For the past ten years since the passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA), the national timber sales sold volumes being reported averaged 2.4 billion board feet per year as follows1:

2003: 1.6 billion2004: 2.2 billion2005: 2.4 billion2006: 2.8 billion
2007: 2.5 billion2008: 2.4 billion2009: 2.5 billion2010: 2.6 billion
2011: 2.5 billion2012: 2.2 billion

For comparison the previous 10-year period from 1993 to 2002 had average timber sales sold volumes of around 2.7 billion bd ft per year and the 10-year period 1983 to 1992 averaged 9.4 billion bdft per year (see Forest Service report info in footnote).

Building on the Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act, Congress passed the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act (CFLRA) in 2009. The purpose of this act was to encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes.

Excerpted from the Forest Service website on CFLRA:

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack articulated his vision for America’s Forests in a speech given in Seattle in August 2009. The Secretary underscored the overriding importance of forest restoration by calling for “complete commitment to restoration”. In this same speech, the Secretary highlighted the need for pursuing an “all lands approach to forest restoration” and called for close coordination with other landowners to encourage collaborative solutions through landscape-scale operations. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program provides a means to achieve these aims and to also:

  • encourage ecological, economic, and social sustainability;
  • leverage local resources with national and private resources;
  • facilitate the reduction of wildfire management costs, including through re-establishing natural fire regimes and reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire;
  • demonstrate the degree to which various ecological restoration techniques achieve ecological and watershed health objectives; and,
  • encourage utilization of forest restoration by-products to offset treatment costs, to benefit local rural economies, to and improve forest health.

Title IV of the CFLRA establishes the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Fund providing funding authority for:

  • requests by the Secretary of up to $40,000,000 annually for fiscal years 2009 through 2019;
  • up to 50 percent of the cost of carrying out and monitoring ecological restoration treatments on National Forest System (NFS) land for each proposal selected;
  • up to $4 million annually for any one project;
  • up to two projects per year in any one FS region; and,
  • up to 10 projects per year nationally.

Currently, there are 23 CFLRA approved projects being funded nationally. Also note that Congress is authorized to provide up to $40 million per year for these projects, yet they only funded $10 million in 2010 and $25 million in 2011 and only funded at the full $40 million in 2012. Future funding levels are at the mercy of potential budget cuts. The success of these projects through 2019 hinges on dubious continued funding.

The 2012 Annual Report on the CFLRA program discloses that the 23 projects combined have sold 94 million cubic feet of timber to date2. At first blush that sounds like a lot, but if you convert that to board feet you have about 37 million. Averaged across 23 projects the result is about 1.6 million board feet per project. Not much to crow about really, as some forests sell close to 1 million board feet-worth of personal use firewood permits every year.

For the record, prior to my retirement from the Forest Service I had the experience of being the project leader for a couple of small HFRA projects that involved the collaborative process. Since retirement I have been a member of the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative collaborative group’s subcommittee on forestry in my hometown of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Also through my Forest Service career involvement with small tree and biomass utilization efforts on a national level as a member of the national Woody Biomass Utilization Group and Woody Biomass Utilization Team, I have closely monitored the efforts over the years of many of the other collaborative groups located around the western states.

Out of curiosity I sent an inquiry to the Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. on January 16, 2013. I was seeking the answers to the following questions that pertained to each of the 23 CFLRA projects:

  1. How many NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) decisions (i.e. Decision Memos, Decision Notices and Record of Decisions) involving commercial harvest of forest products have been signed under the CFLRA project?
  2. How many of the above decisions have been appealed or objected to?
  3. Of the decisions that have been appealed or objected to, how many have also been litigated or have received a Notice of Intent to Suit?
  4. What is the name of the individual or group that appealed, objected to, and/or litigated the above decisions?
  5. Were the appellants, objectors and/or litigants active members of the collaborative group?

The reason I chose to find out the answers to these questions is because the bulk of the needed work to reduce fuels and restore our national forests revolves around the need to salvage dead and dying trees and to reduce the stocking levels of densely-stocked stagnating forests, which means commercial harvesting of forest products is key to the success of this work.

Thanks to the assistance of the Washington Office staff and CFLRA project coordinators around the country, I was provided with the answers to my questions in a relatively short amount of time from all but a few projects.

The answers to my questions are interesting. Below are the individual project answers by Region:

Region 1

  1. Southwest Crown of the Continent - Four NEPA decisions involving commercial harvest of forest products have been signed since 8/2010, including two decision memos and two decision notices. Of those, one decision notice was appealed and then litigated.Appellants included Friends of the Wild Swan; Montana Ecosystems Defense Council signed by Arlene Montgomery for Steve Kelly; Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council signed by Michael T. Garrity; Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies signed by Sara Jane Johnson.Litigants included the Friends of the Wild Swan; Alliance for the Wild Rockies; Montana Ecosystem Defense Council and; Native Ecosystems Council.NONE OF THE APPELLANTS OR LITIGANTS ARE ACTIVE MEMBERS OF THE SOUTHWEST CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COLLABORATIVE GROUP.
  2. Selway-Middle Fork Clearwater - One decision signed prior to acceptance of CFLRP proposal but was afterwards incorporated into the project and one decision signed after acceptance of CFLRP. One decision was appealed and the other was objected to. Neither were litigated. Appellants/objectors were the Friends of the Clearwater.THE APPELLANTS AND OBJECTORS WERE NOT ACTIVE MEMBERS OF THE COLLABORATIVE GROUP.
  3. Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative - No decisions involving commercial harvest of forest products have been signed under the CFLRA program as of the date of the inquiry. Decisions are pending.

Region 2

  1. Uncompahgre - Three decisions have been signed. No appeals or litigation arecurrently being reported.
  2. Colorado Front Range - Since the approval of the CFLRA project in August 2010, four NEPA decisions have been made. No appeals or litigation are currently being reported.

Region 3

  1. Four Forests Initiative (4 FRI) - Five decisions have been signed since it became a CFLRA project. All have been objected to and none have been litigated. Objectors include The Center for Biological Diversity, which objected to all five decisions and; Dick Artley objected to one decision.The Center of Biological Diversity has been a 4FRI collaborative member since it was established. Dick Artley is not a member of the collaborative group.
  2. Southwest Jemez Mountains - No decisions including commercial harvest of forest products has been made at this time.
  3. Zuni Mountain CFLRP - No decisions including commercial harvest of forest products have been signed at this time.

Region 4

  1. Weiser-Little Salmon Headwaters CFLRP - Pre-CFLRP acceptance, claiming CFLRP targets from 12 decisions and three decisions following acceptance into the CFLR program. Six of the pre-CFLRP decisions and 2 of the post-acceptance decisions were appealed or objected to. None of these decisions have been litigated. Appellants and objectors for the pre-CFLRP decisions included the Idaho Sporting Congress, Wild West Institute, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Jim Swanson, Dick Artley, Ben White and Idaho Conservation League. Appellants and objectors for the post-acceptance decisions include Dick Artley and the Back Country Horsemen. Prior to acceptance into the CFLRP the Payette Forest Collaboration group was in place. Based on how my question was answered it is unclear how many of these appellants or objectors were active members of either collaborative group.

Region 5

  1. 10. Dinkey - There have been five decisions, 2 of which were objected to. Neither has been litigated. The project had one objector, Chad Hanson representing the John Muir Society. He is an active member of the collaborative group and the Forest Service was able to resolve Chad’s concerns and he has remained an active member of the group and supported the subsequent decisions.
  2. Cornerstone Amador Calavarous - There have been no decisions signed at this time since the project was selected for the CFLRA program. However, one project on the Amador Ranger District has been applied to the Cornerstone match. The decision was signed before the CFLRA award. The decision was appealed by the John Muir Project and Erik Holst, both of which are not members of ACCG. No litigation followed.
  3. Burney-Hat Creek Basins Project - Has not responded to my inquiry.

Region 6

  1. Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative - One decision, no appeals or litigation currently being reported.
  2. Deschutes Collaborative Forest - No decisions have been issued.
  3. Southern Blues Restoration Coalition - Three decisions have been signed. One called the Soda Bear HFRA EA was objected to. Not currently litigated. Objectors included the League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project; Oregon Wild and; American Forest Resource Council. One objection was filed by a person that pulled out of the collaborative group, but still has been attending meetings. The other objectors are members of the collaborative but may have only filed objections so that they would have standing to participate if others objected.
  4. Lakeview Stewardship Landscape - No decisions have been signed.
  5. Northwest Washington Forest Vision 2020 - Five decisions have been signed, two of which have been objected to. No litigation at this time. Objectors included Mitchell Smith, Tricounty Motorized Association and North East Washington Coalition. Mitchell Smith is not a member, Tricounty Motorized Assoc. is not a member but was invited to sit at the table, and North East Washington Coalition are members of the collaborative.

Region 8

  1. Accelerating Longleaf Pine Restoration -Four decisions have been signed. No appeals or litigation.
  2. Grandfather Restoration Project - Has not responded to my inquiry.
  3. Shortleaf-Bluestem Community - Has not responded to my inquiry.
  4. Longleaf Pine Ecosystem Restoration and Hazardous Fuels Reduction - Two decisions have been signed. No appeals or litigation.
  5. Ozark Highlands Ecosystem Restoration - Has not responded to my inquiry.

Region 9

  1. Missouri Pine-Oak Woodlands Restoration - No decisions have been signed.

Conclusion: Is collaboration the solution to analysis paralysis, appeals and litigation, or is it a sham?

My short answer is no, collaboration does not solve the problem of analysis paralysis, appeals and litigation for fuels reduction and restoration projects on our National Forests that involve the commercial harvest of forest products.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Truth about Collaboration

Even though I don’t believe the current process for collaboration will solve these problems, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good things about the collaborative process or that the process can’t be improved upon to help solve the problems.

Here’s what I and other current and retired Forest Service acquaintances I contacted think are good things about the collaborative process:

  1. Involving a diverse group of people (I hate the term “stakeholders”) during the project planning process is a good thing. I believe it helps the Forest Service design projects that better meet the desires of the public, even though it’s impossible to meet everybody’s personal opinions on how to best manage the public forests.
  2. With collaboration comes group ownership in projects and support from start to finish.
  3. Joint solutions and commitment means no backing out.
  4. The collaborative program provides assistance with funding to accomplish needed treatments.
  5. Collaboration can help lay people better understand the complexity of forest management.
  6. Collaboration may build community relationships that encourage continuing positive working relationships between Forest Service people and thecommunity.
  7. Collaborative groups police themselves and force extremists on both sides of the spectrum to consider what they are really saying philosophically vs. practically on any given issue.

On the other hand, there are things about collaboration that are not so good, if not bad. Here’s what I and other current and retired Forest Service acquaintances I contacted think are bad things about the collaborative process:

  1. The collaborative process is time consuming and more costly than the traditional process of public scoping and comment gathering for projects. The more people involved in a project, the harder it is to schedule meeting dates and field trips that will maximize the largest group involvement. The results of my inquiry clearly show that projects aren’t moving through the NEPA and appeals process any faster than normal and possibly even taking longer.
  2. The time consuming nature of collaboration can be a major deterrent to people that are not paid to attend meetings during working hours, people who have limited free time or travel. Forest Service people can become weary of after hour meetings, paid or not paid.
  3. Meetings can go on for months, if not years. This consumption of time makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to take part. Poorly managed meetings generate negative emotions and can ruin the entire process.
  4. For individuals or groups with an agenda to limit or eliminate forest management, collaboration can provide an opportunity to wear others down by dragging meetings on and on, then appeal and/or litigate after an extended collaboration process. Collaboration can also usurp the agency’s authority.
  5. The Forest Service may or may not be aware of hidden agendas or games being played by some members in a collaborative group.
  6. Forest Service specialists may feel like they get “cut-out” of project development.
  7. Also considering project specialists: the more days they have to spend in meetings, the less time they have to conduct field work and write reports, which extend the timeline for implementing projects.

The ugly truth is that collaboration won’t reduce analysis paralysis, appeals and litigation. Collaboration also won’t increase the rate at which the Forest Service can reduce fuels and restore unhealthy forests until the appeals process and our current myriad of conflicting environmental laws are reformed.

So what are some possible ways to improve the collaborative process?

Here’s a few:

  1. After all the time and effort put into project development by collaborative groups and the Forest Service, it simply isn’t fair to the collaborative or to the taxpayers of this country to allow an inexpensive process for individuals and groups, whether they were members of the group or not, to stop or delay project implementation through appeals and litigation.Congress should pass a new law that will exempt collaborative projects from the appeal or objection process. They should also include bonding requirements for any individual or group that file suits to stall or stop collaborative projects.
  2. Congress should also reform or eliminate the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows litigants to recuperate court costs from the tax paying public.
  3. The Forest Service should develop a new Categorical Exclusion to replace the Healthy Forests Restoration Act version (CE #10) that allowed for fuels reduction timber harvests less than 1,000 acres in size. The CE #10 was rescinded following a lawsuit filed by environmental groups because in my opinion this CE allowed for expedited implementation of fuels reduction projects.
  4. To get a broader spectrum of public involvement, make more use of the internet to gather input from people who want to participate in collaboration but don’t have the time or money to show up for meetings and field trips. The Forest Service could maintain email mailing lists for projects that people want to be engaged in and could be kept up to date on the progression of projects without having to show up for meetings. For example, with the smart phone technology I could imagine a logger sitting in the woods during a lunch break or a hiker up on a mountain top being able to participate in a collaborative project.

1 According to Forest Service Sold volume records from 1905 to 2011: http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/documents/sold-harvest/documents/1905-2011_Natl_Summary_Graph.pdf and 2012 volume sold report:http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/documents/ptsar/2012/Q4_2012_PTSAR_SW.pdf.

2 Reference: http://www.fs.fed.us/restoration/CFLRP/index.shtml See the 2012 Report on the CFLRP program.