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August 02, 2005

How Can We Fix the Mess?

Many of us spend a lot of time kicking the Forest Service around for what it gets wrong. Maybe we’d be more helpful if we would spend more time suggesting what the agency might do to make things right.

Let’s start things off with a very good suggestion from Independent Forester. If we did nothing more than take this suggestion to heart and couple it with my pleas for “A Simpler Way” to manage, to plan, to budget, and so on, we’d be well on our way to recovery and renewal.

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.
So have at it! The thread is open. Ideas are welcome

Posted by Dave on August 2, 2005 at 03:53 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Martin Nie

Dave, I am very interested in seeing how this discussion unfolds. I don’t have the answer, but I have tried to organize a few different paths that might be taken. I believe that a lot of the difficulties stem from the nature of forest and public land law, and have organized my analysis accordingly (a link to the article is on my webpage, "Statutory Detail and Administrative Discretion in Public Lands Governance: Arguments and Alternatives"). Perhaps we could talk about the possibilities and risks associated with: (1) statutory reform, and the possibility of convening another public lands law review commission, (2) administrative reform (including NEPA-based planning reform),(3) decentralization and collaboration, and (4) a period of policy experimentation.

Before we do, however, we should note that there is often an inverse relationship between political feasibility and potential effectiveness. An overhaul of public lands law would certainly change things, for instance, but I am not willing to wager that such an undertaking is going to happen anytime soon.

Nonetheless, clarified legislation, one way or another, would fundamentally change the nature of the problems and processes often discussed here. This is not a revelation. The General Accounting Office (GAO), among others, has provided an in-depth analysis of FS decision making, finding that many conflicts and management problems are rooted in disagreement over the agency’s mission, mandate, and long-term strategic goals. It returns time and again to this central issue, declaring that “[w]ithout agreement on the Forest Service’s mission priorities, GAO sees distrust and gridlock prevailing in any effort to streamline the agency’s statutory framework.” A Society of American Foresters’ report also focuses on the statutory mission of the FS. It is based, perhaps surprisingly, on the belief that “[t]he purposes of the national forests and public lands are no longer clear” and that “the problems cannot be resolved through regulatory reform or through the appropriations process” and that “new legislation is warranted.”

Convening another public lands law review commission is one way to advance this alternative. Some believe that the current statutory and regulatory framework has become impractical and that it is time to embark on a systematic review of our public land laws and what might be done about them. Perhaps it is time to jettison the idea of multiple use and formally embrace what some consider to be the de facto governing principle of ecosystem and biodiversity-based management? Or perhaps we should retain the multiple use mandate and instead figure out ways to streamline cumbersome or redundant decision making and analytical processes? Should a compatibility standard and tiered use framework, as found in the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, be applied elsewhere? Might these and a host of other questions be ripe for comprehensive and careful review.

A “diversified policy portfolio” is one way of thinking about possible ways to move forward. Daniel Kemmis uses this term to capture the sort of approach that might be needed at the moment:

“Investors dealing with similar complexity in the financial arena keep some money in stocks, some in bonds, and some in real estate to maximize the chances of substantial gains while diminishing the risk of losing all their investments. By a similar logic, a public lands policy portfolio should probably now include at least three simultaneous elements: comprehensive review of the entire public lands system, incremental reform of the system, and a deliberate period of experimentation.”

Regarding the latter, Kemmis reviews a number of proposals calling “for legislatively authorized experiments or pilot projects that are to be implemented, monitored and evaluated through various forms of collaborative governance.”

It’s definitely worth consideration.

Hope all have been enjoying the summer.

Martin Nie

Martin Nie | Aug 5, 2005 4:04:20 PM

Posted by: independent Forester

Martin is absolutely right that the USFS planning Process needs to be fixed. He is correct in pointing out the possible venues for fixing the Process, such as a public lands law review commission. These potential venues need planning, too.

Forest planners and policy makers are best positioned to plan for, instigate, and manage the fix-it process. In fact, FP’s and PM’s may be the only group that can repair the USFS and save our forests. You have the power. This may not be obvious at first glance. After all, FP’s and PM’s are in a perennial one-down position in a failing bureaucracy. The workload is huge, the work conditions unpleasant, and the work is discarded as a final insult. However, FP’s and PM’s are the operators of the Process, and nothing happens without the Process. You are the gatekeepers, the bell hops, the trolls under the bridge. Nothing can happen without your operating the Process.

The power you hold now is limited. As a group holding a job action, you can impede the Process, but that’s not a successful strategy in and by itself. Howvever, if FP’s and PM’s as a group develop an outline of necessary changes to the Process, and then as a group request official attention to your recommendations, then you could possibly move the elephant. No outsider, not the Chief, no Congressperson, not even the President, has the leverage you have to fix the Process.

The better the outline, the more chance of capturing attention. The better the ideas, the more chance they will be taken seriously and actually implemented. The more creative and innovative the ideas, the more likely they will work.

If changes to the Process are made, and if FP’s and PM’s instigated those changes, and if the changes work, then you will have even more power. Then, as now, you should be careful what you ask for, because you are likely to get it.

independent Forester | Aug 10, 2005 9:16:42 PM

Posted by: Independent Forester

I don’t know if anybody reads this site, or when I'm going to be kicked off it, but it doesn’t matter. I have resolved to perform this piece, and art is art, and it makes no difference whether your show is in front of 100,000 screaming fans in the Rose Bowl or four Alzheimer patients in the Whispering Pines Rest Home, an artist should always give his best.

Before I go on to Suggestion #2, though, I’d like to dwell on #1 a bit. Hypothetically speaking, if the USFS put forest planners and policy makers in the field half the year, how would that benefit the FP’s and PM’s? I can think of four ways.

1. Emotional Health. Being in the field is fun and rewarding, whatever you’re doing out there. It is for some people, anyway. I suspect that people who apply for a job in the USFS do so partly because they like being outdoors, or thought they did at the time. Being outdoors, in an uninhabited place, with trees and critters and such, is very pleasant and interesting for certain types of folks. I think you’d like it.

2. Physical Health. Working in a real forest is no walk in the park. There is often (all day every day) serious exercise involved. You won’t need to go to the gym after work. You can also get injured working in a real forest, if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing. But if you’re careful and safety-conscious, you will avoid injury, and your body will thank you for the physical workouts.

3. Authority. Experience in the forest earns FP’s and PM’s credibility. If you have seen it, been there, done that, then your plans will be that much more believable and acceptable. Instead of corralling a herd of outside authorities, who themselves have little local knowledge, your own words will carry the weight of someone who knows the forest personally and intimately. I think FP’s and PM’s lack this kind of credibility at present; accumulated years of field time would go a long ways towards curing that deficiency.

4. Influence. As an authority, you will have more influence than you do at present. Judges, Chiefs, Stakeholders, and everyone else will be less inclined to roundfile your plans. They might even respect you, and go with your judgments out of that respect. Wouldn’t that be something different!

Independent Forester | Aug 17, 2005 9:37:03 PM

Posted by: Independent Forester

Joe Planner: Okay, Indy Forester, I’ll bite. I’d like to get out of the office and into the woods. What’s more, the Chief has said he wants my “boots on the ground”. But what am I supposed to do out there?

IF: Thanks for asking. First, don’t expect to lead activities. Be a generalist. Spend a week or two on every crew, not as the crew boss, but as an observer/trainee. Do some fire fighting, stand exams, campground clean-up, culvert installation, wildlife watching, environmental monitoring, etc. Do a little bit of everything. See how the activities you helped plan get carried out in the field.

Your main job, however, should be this:

2. Develop a Natural History for Each Forest

Forests are dynamic; they change. You can’t have foresight and know how specific forests will change in the future if you don’t where those forests came from, and how they came to be.

Every forest has a history. Forests were not always as they are today. Evidence exists, in growth rings, bog pollen cores, anthropological digs, root systems, fire scars, arrow heads, ancient mortars under ancient acorn orchards, fallen logs, gravel bars, and a hundred other phenomena; evidence that tells a tale. Learn to read the forest, using a forensic approach.

The effort to develop forest histories must include every employee, and as many people from outside the agency as can be cajoled into participating. There must be open and serious debates, where arguments must be backed-up by evidence, and that evidence must be clear and compelling.

3. Jury the Report

The final forest history reports for each forest should be juried and accepted. The jury must include employees and Outsiders who are intimately familiar with the forests in question. The importance of #1 (Go See the Forest) becomes more apparent. Only those people who have spent time in the forest can be relied upon to weigh the evidence and judge the reasonableness of each forest history argument presented. Jurists also must be open-minded and independent of political influence. Deliberations must be public.

The final forests history reports will no doubt be subject to further debate and possibly even litigation, but if the process is as I have outlined, the reports will withstand all challenges. Actually, I doubt anyone will sue over a history report anyway. What is key is the Jury Process. When a panel of experts agree, after open, public deliberation, no judge is likely to throw out the agreement. No advocacy group will be able claim they have evidence not considered, or that the decisions were biased.

Today plans are drawn up behind closed doors, with short and vague “public involvement” periods in which most comments are not considered at all. Then the final plans are signed off by some civil servant whose personal knowledge of the forest in question is extremely limited. This situation is ripe for litigation.

When a selected panel decides openly, with ample opportunity for all to provide evidence and testimony, the outcome is very difficult to successfully appeal. Judges respect jury decisions far more than decisions made by inferior judges or individual civil servants. The weight of open public deliberation is very heavy. Judges who second-guess such juries are unlikely to be upheld by superior courts.

Independent Forester | Aug 23, 2005 10:55:37 PM

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