July 28, 2005
What Does the Forest Service Get Right?
In a recent comment on another post, Independent Forester asks this intriguing question, after laying out a case to the contrary:
Let’s evaluate USFS planning and policy-making. The Legislative Branch doesn’t like you, and passes laws intended to circumvent your efforts. USFS planning budgets are cut every year. The Executive Branch concurs, and the Chief blames you for what he calls “analysis paralysis”. The Judicial Branch puts the kibosh on everything you do. The Far Right thinks you are anti-American commies. The Far Left sues you chronically, in a knee-jerk fashion. The Vast Middle doesn’t know you exist. Your own field personnel despise you. Your “union” has abandoned you, and also sues the agency constantly.As one of the agency’s most outspoken internal critics I have asked myself that question a hundred times. In part my answer comes down to this, “Although we are a bureaucratic mess, at least we serve a role in keeping the public forests intact and in keeping developers at bay -- somewhat, but don’t get me started on 'running the government like a business' and the slippery slopes to privatization, commercialization, etc.”
Your numbers are dwindling. Ranger Stations are closing all over. SO’s are rented out to other agencies. Last time I was in the R6 RO it was a hollow cavern of empty cubicles.
The National Forests are burning at a rate greater than ever. Record-sized fires have occurred in every western state in the last decade. You burned down much of Los Alamos, and your fires have nipped the edges of Los Angeles, San Diego, Bend, Grants Pass, Wenatchee, and numerous other western cities and towns.
It seems like a cascade of failures to me, but I want to be fair. What is it, exactly, that you are doing right?
We have had dark moments in our stewardship, e.g. our “timber beast” days. We’ve had a hard time dealing with the politics of the West, and grazing, mining, timbering, road building, etc. issues. We struggle with contemporary issues: fire issues (both on suppression and vegetative management and other pre-suppression issues), noxious weed and other “invasive species” issues, recreation issues of various stripes, devolution issues (as to who ought to manage what public lands), etc.
But at least we keep trying. And part of the “trying” is trying to reform our bureaucratic ways toward what Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot call “The End of Bureaucracy & The Rise of the Intelligent Organization.” Here too we aren’t doing very good, or at least we don’t seem to be progressing all that rapidly. But at least we haven’t given up entirely.
Perhaps there is a more fundamental question in play: “What good are we?” In this I defer to a backdrop developed by Mark Sagoff in ”Zuckerman's dilemma. A plea for environmental ethics.” Hastings Cent Rep. 1991 Sep-Oct;21(5):32-40, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park. Here’s an abstract:
E.B. White's Charlotte's Web serves as an environmental parable for our time. As we reflect on our relationship with nature, we might consider the three ways in which Wilbur the pig was valued in White's story. His instrumental value cashes out in ham hocks and sausage. His aesthetic value earns him a ribbon at the county fair. His moral value is the value he has in and of himself, and Charlotte the spider loves him for it. We can value nature the way Charlotte valued Wilbur, or we can, as the farmer Zuckerman did at first, see the natural world only in terms of the pork chops it provides.It all gets very complex and wicked. On the one hand we can grapple with Zuckerman’s dilemma regarding public forests and Nature in general, as per Sagoff’s article. But we also have to grapple with the dilemma regarding those, like us.charged with Nature’s stewardship. And we have to grapple with what roles other members of our democracy play, e.g. the Congress, the Administration, the press, members of the public (individuals and collectives).
Still, I don’t see us making much headway on the former question of “What does the Forest Service do right?” without also entertaining the question, “What Good is the Forest Service?” as keepers of the public trust, as participants in and inciters of the public debate over forests and forestry, etc.
An old friend of mine one told me that the essence of “the public interest” is the struggle. The journey is what's important, the destination changes through time. So too with contemporary focus on sustainability, but that is a subject for another time. Right now we are grappling with “What does the Forest Service get right?” and “What good is the Forest Service?” So let the discussion continue.
Another old friend used to manage a very large private ranch in Northern Utah (almost 300,000 acres). When visiting the ranch in the early 1980s, along with the Director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, a naturalist botany professor from a local university, and several Soil Conservation Service people, all of us were awestruck with the condition and trend of the vegetation on the ranch. The naturalist commented, “I can’t find any annuals here. They must be doing something right.” The Wildlife director said, in essence, “I always used to denigrate ranchers for abuses of the land. But now I see this, I’m glad the State didn’t get this property when it was offered to them. This bunch does a better job than we could in managing the land.”
The ranch manager, on the other hand said that while they were proud of what they were doing and the land ethics they employ in operating a working ranch, the abuses in the private sector were legendary. All one had to do was to visit a bunch of neighboring properties to see first hand the abuses. He said that although the job of public land managers was different and difficult, he noted that most of the public lands were in pretty good shape, relative to the private sector.
So it goes..
July 19, 2005
The Poet and The Scientist: A confluence of values
Peter Schoonmaker, from the Illahee Society, tells me that the Forest Service’s Fred Swanson’s “Long Term Ecological Reflections Project” has teamed up with Kathleen Dean Moore’s (Philosophy Dept. Oregon State University) “The Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word” to provide week-long residencies at the Andrews Forest for essayists, poets, and other writers. (introduction here)
Recently the two invited poet Gary Synder and ecologist Jerry Franklin to Mt. Saint Helens for a May 17th hike. On May 18th Snyder and Franklin reported out in “Reflections, Report on the Mountain” in Portland. What a wonderful concept. Would that we could always see scientists and humanities practitioners working side by side in dealing with what scientist Franklin calls “social science,” the art of managing forests and natural resources. (See also, “Whither the Humanites in FS Policy Making?” ) Here is Schoonmakers’s summary:
Snyder / Franklin Summary
Twenty five years ago yesterday morning Mount Saint Helens blew 1.4 billion cubic yards of debris up into the air and another 2.3 billion cubic yards sideways, and into Spirit Lake and the North Fork Toutle River. Two hundred and thirty square miles of forest were knocked flat by the force of the explosion. Fifty seven people were killed, suffocated by searing hot ash in their lungs. Cities to the northeast of the mountain were covered in an ash twilight.
For the past few days, the media has covered the 25th anniversary of the eruption with stories of survivors, science coverage and flashy graphics. But what have we really learned from the mountain? Or what should we have learned?
Last night a poet Gary Snyder and ecologist Jerry Franklin shared some of the lessons they each have learned in their combined 100-plus-year relationship with the mountain. The evening was really the culmination of two days that Snyder and Franklin spent with a few scientists and writers on Mount Saint Helens and in Portland, organized by Oregon State University's Spring Creek Project and their Long Term Ecological Reflections program.
Snyder began by reading selections of his prose and poetry from his latest book, Danger on Peaks. It's always illuminating to hear poetry the way it sounds to its author. But Snyder revealed earlier that it's illuminating to him as well. He often uncovers new meaning in his work when he reads it aloud. Danger on Peaks itself had to be a learning experience for him, as he wrote it after being invited by USFS geologist Fred Swanson to visit Mount Saint Helens 56 years after he last stood on its snowy summit as a teenager. Snyder accepted, got reacquainted with the mountain, and wrote Danger on Peaks. The book and his readings last night arc from the perfect cone of the mountain sixty years ago to the 1980 cataclysm, which delighted him (finally, it's done it!) and saddened him (America's Fuji-san is gone). And then of course to its surprising transformation today. These changes mirror Snyder's geographic and personal peregrinations, always informed by lucid observations, whether he's watching a bunch of kids wash a truck or recounting his sister being killed by one.
Jerry Franklin picked up the theme of transformations and cataclysms with a blunt statement: the 1980 eruption was not a catastrophe! It was business as usual. The natural world is used to this stuff, does it all the time. Just not on our puny time scale. And another surprise: the hoards of environmental scientists who rushed up to Mount Saint Helens started out with the wrong assumptions. They assumed the apparent devastation meant they wouldn't see significant recovery for decades. Instead, when they stepped out of the helicopter on to the mudflows and pumice plains ten days after the eruption, residual plants had already poked up through the ash. Invasive species soon followed, and not just working their way in from the edges, but from thousands of remnant refuges that had escaped the full force of the blast - places that had been covered by snow patches, underground burrows, nurse logs riding the debris flow. And today it's a riot of recovery: patchy, messy, diverse, teaming with life. Franklin's take-home lesson from his Mount Saint Helens experience: humility. He and the best ecologists in the region got their scientific butts kicked by this mountain. He suggested we take this lesson to heart in how we approach the natural world, as scientists, managers and citizens. Don't be so sure you know what you're talking about. Shut up and observe. (Sound like a poet?)
Gary Snyder then rejoined Franklin out on stage and they talked for half an hour, starting with Snyder asking the scientist questions about the mountain, about old-growth forests, about what he's learned in the last forty years. Again, the big lesson was humility, and an insatiable curiosity and delight in discovery - as Franklin said of Saint Helens "we were like kids in a candy store." The media didn't quite get it at first. It was a catastrophe story to them. It was a recovery story to ecologists. Franklin also emphasized the importance of legacies, the things left behind - logs, snags, seeds, burrowing mammals and insects. What lessons apply from Mount Saint Helens to other landscapes? Sometimes the best management option is to leave it alone.
Franklin then asked Snyder his impressions and observations from walking around the mountain the previous day. Snyder replied with a word-picture of a landscape bursting with life: hundreds of little pools and ponds on the ash plains, amphibians, grasses, sedges, ferns, birds from the east-side and Puget Sound, beaver, deer, elk, predators, forty-foot-tall alder forests pushing up against gravel and ash plains.
Then came questions from the audience, some quick and pithy, with long, thoughtful answers, some long manifestos with appropriately abrupt answers. Both Franklin and Snyder seemed to arrive at a consensus that "leave it alone" was not the only answer to managing natural resources. For example, east-side pine forests carry huge fuel loads, and need to be thinned or they risk un-characteristically severe fire.
One question alluded to how one reacts to "natural" catastrophe (volcanic eruption, tsunami, fire) versus human-caused catastrophe (Hiroshima, 911, Rwanda). Snyder's observations on his reaction to Hiroshima and the current political scene clearly drew a line between the two.
Franklin emphasized that forestry - and by extension all resource management - is a social science. His job is to make sure that decision makers are well enough informed that they know when they're making a decision that bucks the science. Both were asked about the effect of global warming on Mount Saint Helens, and both poet and scientist circled back to humility: "We don't know."
Peter K. Schoonmaker
Caution: Work up longer responses as “word processing” documents
I just got a note from a colleague who wrote: “I wrote a message I really liked in reply to … but when I clicked on preview it disappeared . Should have put it in a separate word file?”
The short answer is, YES!
There are too many ways for blogs to defeat you, when trying to work through their input routines. If you are working up something more than a couple of paragraphs as a response, use a word processing document as a base. Cut and paste from there to avoid the heartache our colleague just experienced.
July 13, 2005
California Court says Sequoia National Forest Fire Plan Fails to Comply with NEPA
On July 11, 2005 the United States District Court for the Northern District of California sent the Forest Service packing on its claim that the Sequoia National Forest Fire Management Plan is a non-decisional documents not required to undergo National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. This is the second such loss for the Forest Service. The Forest Service lost similarly, arguably, on the Six Rivers National Forest Fire Management Plan (Environmental Protection Information Center, et al. v. US Forest Service, C-02-2708 JCS, Sept. 5, 2003).
It will prove interesting to see whether the Forest Service will this time agree to comply with NEPA and how it will do so. Christine Ambrose of the Environmental Protection Information Center argued in September 2003, that
"Every other federal land management agency complies with the nation's environmental laws in developing their fire management plans because they recognize the value of public input; why should the Forest Service be exempt? It's time we had a higher level of agency accountability….”Ambrose’s dream didn’t happen. For whatever reasons the Forest Service chose not to effect NEPA compliance at the national forest fire plan level in the wake of the unfavorable Six Rivers National Forest Fire Management Plan decision. What will follow in the wake of this decision is anyone’s guess. But it may prove telling to watch the legislative arena as well. See, this , From the July 7, 2005 LA Times for example, which includes,
“Now, however, NEPA is facing strong challenges from the Bush administration, Congress and business interests who say the law has been holding up progress on a number of fronts, among them building highways, preventing forest fires and drilling for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains.”For the recent Sequoia National Forest Fire Management Plan loss, see the recent US District Court, Northern District of California decision in: People of the State of California et al., v. US FOREST SERVICE, et al. No. C 04-02588 CRB [pdf]
Here are a few snippets:
Defendant [US Forest Service, et al.] claims that the Fire Plan is exempt from NEPA because it is not a decisional document.... [T]he Fire Plan merely implements programmatic-level policy decisions that were made in earlier, NEPA-compliant documents and postpones ground-level decisions until site-specific projects are initiated and so, as a non-decisional document, the Fire Plan was not required to undergo NEPA review.... (p.3)
ANALYSIS I.B. Statutory Standing under NEPA and the APA ...
The Court finds that legal obligations flow from the Fire Plan because it is only the existence of a signed Fire Plan that authorizes on-the-ground fire managers to depart from the default national policy of total fire suppression throughout the entire forest... ... (p.10)
Because the Fire Plan constrains future decisions, the Forest Service’s reliance on statements in the Fire Plan that it is not meant to be a decisional document is also misplaced. … If the Forest Service were able to shield agency actions from rulemaking procedures simply by including a disclaimer on operative documents, meaningful judicial review of such actions provided for under NEPA and the APA would be eliminated. It is the content of the Fire Plan—not a statement of the document’s intended function—that is the basis for the determination of whether it is a decisional document.
In sum, since the Fire Plan makes several decisions beyond the scope of earlier documents—the geographic designation of the FMUs [Fire Management Units], the total suppression in areas assigned to FMU #3, and the annual acreage treatment goals for each FMU—and since at the site specific level—such as the decision to let burn or suppress a wildland fire, once naturally ignited—the Court finds that the Fire Plan constitutes final agency action. Plaintiff [People of the State of California, ex rel. Bill Lockyer, Attorney General] has therefore established a right to review under the APA. (p.14)
II. Motion and Cross-motion for Summary Judjment ...
[T]he Ninth Circuit has found that, in applying the “point of commitment” test, “courts are mindful of the need to avoid creating a ‘catch-22’ situation in which NEPA analysis in not required until a point when environmental review cannot be conducted effectively….” ...(pp.16-17)
Defendant argues that the Fire Plan has no direct environmental impact because it makes no decisions, and so any “significant” environmental impact is traceable to earlier documents. Because the Court finds that the Fire Plan is a decisional document, the environmental impact of the decision to let burn or suppress a major wildland fire is traceable to the Fire Plan. Defendant does not and could not seriously argue that there is no possibility that the decision to let burn or suppress a major wildland fire will have any significant environmental impact. Therefore, the Court finds that the significance requirement is satisfied.
Defendant argues that its decision that the Fire Plan is not a major federal atcion is subject to deference unless unresonable. ... The Court finds that the Fire Plan is a major federal action, and so defendant's decision not to conduct any environmental review was unreasonable. (p.17)
For the reasons set forth herein, the Court herby GRANTS plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and DENIES defendant's motions for summary judgment and judment on the pleadings.
The Court does not reach the remedy issue today, but rather rules that the Fire Plan in its current iteration is not in compliance with NEPA.... (p.18)
Judge Charles R. Breyer,
United States District Judge
Dated:July 11, 2005
July 08, 2005
Is the Forest Service Destroying America’s Forests?
A couple of days ago a reader sent me this question/allegation: “Why is it your policy to burn down the public’s forests and permanently convert them to tick brush?” Few of us in the Forest Service believe this to be our policy, although some of us wonder whether it is sometimes, perhaps too often, the de facto outcome of our actions.
The allegation proves to be both interesting and troubling, in part because it is somewhat commonly held. In part it is interesting and troubling because variations of that view have haunted the Forest Service for some time. For example, Luna Leopold threw it at us years ago, at the close of the timbering era. Leopold’s allegation was: "The Forest Service has taken on the job of overseeing the destruction and disintegration of the forest empire of the American public."
The first perspective comes from a reader who believes we are willfully, if naively destroying forests by “Let Burn” policies and sometimes by prescribed fire activities. The other perspective, shared by both observers, is that active tree farming (as was practiced not too long ago by the Forest Service, and continuing somewhat today) destroys forests. Some others, incidentally, hold the perspective that active fire suppression in some cases tends to destroy forests.
We should not take these allegations lightly. How do people see us? How do we see ourselves? How often do we take time to seriously discuss who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve become, and where we ought to go?
After a couple of email interchanges, the reader got more specific and more colorful. Here’s a snippet:
For 50 years the Farce Circus ran their lands as if they were tree farmers. You guys practiced Weyerhaeuser clear-cut plantation methods, and managed to annihilate millions of acres of real forest. Then people like me demanded that the … forest annihilation stop. The Farce Circus has responded by burning down whatever forests they had left. Take the Biscuit Fire. Lightning hit, fires were detected. Helicopter crews were dispatched. But the fires were in "roadless" and "wilderness" areas. So the peabrains in charge, following their moronic Let It Burn philosophy, recalled the initial attack crews before they got to tiny, 1/4 acre strike sites. The fires subsequently blew up and burned a half million acres. Of that 224,000 acres (350 square miles) of forest were utterly destroyed. It is a wall-to-wall tickbrush now. There are no conifer seedlings. The "restoration" is limited to less than 10% of the former forest. One these summers lightning will hit again and the botanical gasoline will erupt into holocaust again. Actually, the Biscuit Fire is the second major fire in the area, a reburn, and more are expected. The Let It Burn policy has NOT changed and is still being ADVOCATED BY ARSONISTS in the USFS. The Kalmiopsis forest is extinct.
While trying to run down something on “tickbrush” I found a reply to a similar allegation at the Rogue Valley Independent Media Site. The reply (scroll down) portrayed the Biscuit Fire situation a bit differently:
botanical gasoline and evolutionSo I asked a colleague who has also walked the ground, as have the other two, which perspective seemed closer to the mark. The latter opinion prevailed in my opinion sample, admittedly biased and a sample so small that it would contain zero degrees of freedom if subjected to statistical analysis (something I gave up on years ago after being schooled in how to lie and cheat with statistics).
23.04.2005 - 16:06
The Siskiyous for many thousands of years have comprised the northern edge of the California chaparral and mixed evergreen forest formations.
The "botanical gasoline" (good phrase) in Arctostaphylos and Ceanothus spp. is a key ingredient of that area's mixed-severity fire regime along with its steep, jumbled topography.
Species dependent on high severity fire for regeneration (Pinus attenuata (knobcone pine) and P. contorta (lodgepole)) occupy most of the high-severity patches "killed dead" by Biscuit. They're actively regenerating, just as they have after every severe fire in the Kalmiopsis since the Pleistocene.
Tired's assumption, that Biscuit was an unnatural fire that created an unnatural botanical community that will support an unnatural fire regime in the future, could not be further from the ecological reality of that place.
Half of the Kalmiopsis burned with low-severity effects or not at all. There's conifer seed sources everywhere.
There will high severity fire events in the future. Some will be big in spatial extent. But patch dynamics always will dictate the biological effects of fire at landscape scale. There will be high-, moderate-, and low-severity effects. Just like at Biscuit.
None of this stuff about a "killed dead" forest is a good argument for logging conifer snags, disturbing the soil, and introducing exotic vegetation that poses a real threat to ecosystem function.
Anybody who calls the Kalmiopsis a "moonscape wasteland" is fantasizing and never, ever walked the ground. ...been there
The email interchange triggered a memory. Years ago I remember Luna Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son, make a remarkably similar allegation, but in a timbering context. I wrote it up in an Eco-Watch post. Here, in part.
After acknowledging that there were many forces that drove forest managers to do things that violated their sensibility, [Luna Leopold noted]: "The Forest Service has taken on the job of overseeing the destruction and disintegration of the forest empire of the American public." Leopold’s remedy was that we need to adopt a new and completely different "ethos"--one based on ecology and a love for the land.
The two allegations might be summed up as, 1) through benign neglect (letting fires burn that ought not to) we are destroying the forests, and 2) through active intervention of a wrong kind (e.g. tree farming) we are, or at least were then, destroying the forests. These are just two of many allegations of mismanagement that come our way daily. We also get a few accolades, but American culture and the press tend to play up controversial perspectives.
This isn’t all bad. If we don’t hear dissent we are too prone to think that whatever we do is OK, or better than OK. Sometimes we need to hear bad news. We also need to grapple with negative allegations (and also positive allegations) and test them fairly against both intentions and the actualities of policy, plans, programs, and practice.
As we grapple with allegations, each of us would be well advised to dust off our copies of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Gifford Pinchot’s Breaking New Ground.
We should take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves a few questions:
- Have we too often simply substituted one set of targets for another, without adequately considering the need for them relative to the needs for managing both the forests and the people who use them?
- How often do we gravitate to simply being robots of the bureaucratic state?
- How often do we forget our administrative responsibilities to our mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands…?
- How often do we forget our professional ethical responsibilities?
- How often do we forget the words of Gifford Pinchot admonishing us to work first and foremost for the public interest—best determined by dialogue and discussion between managers, professionals, and the lay public.
July 01, 2005
Follow the Money?
It seems as if we are all following the money these days. Dave's "Revenue Enhancement: Good v. Evil" post got me to thinking. What we might be talking about here is the collapse of the public sphere, through the growing use of corporate/market influenced models of appropriate organizational action and governance.
Take the modern public university as an example. Today, the number one priority, I think, is funding. Thus if one is simply a run-of-the-mill academic like myself, I am most rewarded, most praised, and generally just a great guy, if I bring in funded research. The larger the dollar amount, the better. Good teaching, traditional scholarship, public service that makes a difference...who the hell cares. Show me the money. Or so it goes.
I honestly think, to use a hypothetical here, if the Goodgodalmighty Peanut Butter company gave a university 15 million dollars to fund a peanut butter policy center, then guess what would become a top priority of the university...why peanut butter policy of course! Even if it wasn't mentioned in the strategic plan. The reason for this, of course, is because state legislatures are not funding higher education (read the Forest Service in here and you get the point for Congress) at levels as in the past. The other reason is overhead/indirect capture that can be siphoned off to fill whatever is currently on the "leadership/vision" agenda of the current (they often don't stay long)university president.
This trend has profound implications for universities, and thus for agencies like the Forest Service, who will still rely on us for the next generation of employees. If the trend does not have some sort of checks and balances written into it, it is not hard to imagine a class system developing in universities, and an eventually collapse of disciplines that provide, at least, a critical approach to thinking about the world. The link to the Forest Service should be obvious. Nothing is preordained here, but the chase for fees (I am not opposed to fees) and sponsorship can greatly distort what is, for all its flaws, an agency that does having a public regarding mission.
Boots on the Ground
Recently I've heard a number of Forest Service leaders comment on a trend that they find disturbing - that when they visit district offices, they aren't finding employees spending as much time in the forest as they used to. They would prefer employees to get their "boots on the ground" to increase visibility with the public, increase our awareness of what's going on, and generally do what we assume Forest Service employees are paid to do. When pressed to explain why Forest Service field employees aren't in the field, the usual excuses are mentioned - too much paperwork, not enough technical support, too many meetings, etc.
Much attention has recently focused on the trend in the Forest Service for employees to do their own administrative work on the computer - timesheets, travel reservations, training scheduling, budgeting. etc. There are stories of employees taking an hour to make a travel reservation when they were told it should only take five minutes.
Other employees cite planning processes as a culprit - that employees take too much time planning things and not enough time doing things. Taken to an extreme, this attitude may lead to a philosophy of shooting before we aim, but the point is that the execution of a plan needs a greater focus than its original development.
One can also wonder if what we're seeing is a reflection of a Forest Service organization that is in decline, where the biggest cuts are occurring at the field level.
I expect we'll be hearing more about this perceived problem in the future. It will be important to ask the question why we want a greater field presence, because we certainly don't need employees just driving around looking at the scenery. If all we want is to survey what's going on, we could always think about technological solutions (how about a camera along the main roads entering a forest?) But if the Forest Service really wants a customer-focus, the field-presence of its employees is probably an area that needs attention.