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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.

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?
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.”

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..

Posted by Dave on July 28, 2005 at 10:41 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Independent Forester

Excellent points, Dave. Now we are getting somewhere. I suggest, though, another thread called “How to Fix the Mess” or “Innovative Forest Planning” or “Let’s Try Something New”. I have some concrete recommendations in that regard. They are out of the ordinary, non-traditional, innovative ways to approach forest planning and policy-making. They deserve rational consideration and open debate, by a wide audience within and outside the agency.

BUT, I don’t want to just heave them against the wall. If planners think everything is hunky-dory right now, that scientific fact is whatever the politically-minded want it to be, that there are no faults in the current process, and that if there are, they lie elsewhere, then what’s the use of casting pearls?

I’m looking for open-minded planners who recognize that there is a big problem and want to figure out how to fix it. I do not wish to spar with tiny minds that think, for instance, that lodgepole pine is revegetating the Kalmiopsis just because some Earth Firster said so in some obscure blog. There’s no lodgepole pine in the Kalmiopsis. If we can face facts, and not shy away from hard truths, then I’m ready to make some worthy suggestions.

At the risk I just described, here’s the first one anyway:

1. Go See The Forest

Forest planners and policy-makers need to see the thing they are planning and policy-making about. Turn off the computer, put on your boots, get in the rig, and go out there. And don’t just look at the forest; get squiggy with it. Develop a feeling for the organism. Spend some quality time in the forest.

Try to see the whole, the parts, what’s there, and what’s not there. The indecipherable code on the map is not the thing itself. The lines on the map do not exist in the real world. Be in the forest. Study it, count it, measure it, walk all over it, and be observant. You just might see something you didn’t expect to see. You just might experience something new and wonderful.

I recommend a full six-month field season, or a minimum of 1,000 field hours over the course of a year, for every able-bodied USFS employee, especially those assigned the task of making policies and plans.

Independent Forester | Jul 28, 2005 6:09:23 PM

Posted by: Dave Iverson


We'll work up at least one follow-up post on "How to Fix the Mess" or somesuch -- likely next week.

We (a few of us) are also setting up another blog that is provisionally titled "Adaptive Forest Mangement" that will discuss the confluence and contradicitions among things like assessments (broad scale and "watershed"), planning, evaluation and monitoring, change (or none if the organization is maladaptive), learning, etc.

So there should be ample time and places to talk. Now if only we can take your advice and get out into the forest. I always admired Jerry Franklin's "Walk in the Woods" as a useful way to teach, learn, and experience. I have believed for a long time that we needed much more of it.

I concluded an older Eco-Watch forum comment this way:

"The Forest Service today, in bunker mentality for the most part, now routinely retreats to flurries of conference calls (mostly internal) and meetings rather than site visits, field trips, etc. I know of one Forest Supervisor who routinely takes folks into the field to talk through ecology, industry, and social values. I hope there are others as well. It would be nice to see all forest managers taking people into the forest to discuss the future. Only by using all our senses is there any hope to move beyond impasse."

Dave Iverson | Jul 29, 2005 11:55:29 AM

Posted by: Travis Cork

Actually, it has nothing to do with good intentions or whether or not USFS personnel are good people. If you really want to understand why USFS has problems getting "it right," read Mises and Hayek on the calculation and knowledge problem.

Travis Cork

Travis Cork | Jul 29, 2005 2:47:51 PM

Posted by: CP

I'm new to this blog, but I have to say in response to the first comment above that being a gov't worker is hard in that you can never please everyone... or anyone. Disparaging government seems to be the cool thing to do these days (even the President is trying to outsource us.).

In response to the first comment by Dave Iverson, my question is whether the Forest Service really in worse shape compared to other government agencies? Has its budget tanked disproportionately? Have objections by environmental groups really increased? Compared to historical or natural range of variability, are the recent fires really so out of whack, given that some ecosystems are naturally fire-prone? If part of the reason the agency is downsizing is because it's not cutting all the trees it used to, and therefore doesn't need the workforce, is that so bad? I'm guessing that most or all of these questions lead to the answer of "no."

Not to say that there isn't room for vast improvements, but I think that the political system's way of demonizing the other party (or government under its control), the inherent conflict that exists in the agency's "multiple use" charter, the essence of government checks (bureaucracy), and the legacy of agency history/"sins of our fathers" (constant suspicion by enviros that we're still out to rape and pillage) makes it hard to be other than it is.

And in a diverse society, someone will always disagree. In that light, someone at EPA once told me that if both sides sue you, then you know you've done a good job. I, personally, enjoy working in the Forest Service, in part, because of all of the challenges and complexities inherent in managing public land.

But, I want to see us talk about things in a more positive light and try to acknowledge the limitations of reality while doing so. I find the titles "What does the Forest Service Get Right?" and even "How Can We Fix the Mess?" negative and unproductive. I prefer the other titles proposed above -- “Innovative Forest Planning” and “Let’s Try Something New”. We need to look forward at what we want the agency to become, rather than look back and complain.

So, my suggestion is not only require FS employees to spend time in the woods, but make every American do the same. They are the voters who, as a whole through Congress, etc., ultimately influence the agency's direction and funding. Why would they care for the forest if they've never visited it?

CP | Aug 5, 2005 6:15:12 PM

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