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November 13, 2007


The Big Green Fire Machine is Hungry
Dave

If you've ever wondered why the Forest Service is so interested in Carbon Trading, and "Global Climate Change Initiative" — e.g. FS Strategic Plan or Chief Kimbell's Oct. speech on "Globalization" — simply follow the money trail. Last week Dan Berman noted that the Forest Service is in line to receive up to a Billion Dollars a year from sale of carbon credits:

Senate cap-and-trade bill could mean billions for firefighting, Dan Berman, E&E Daily, Nov 2: Federal fire suppression efforts stand to benefit greatly from a cap-and-trade auction for carbon credits, thanks to a provision added to a Senate bill late last week.

The bill could mean $1.1 billion per year for Forest Service and Interior Department firefighting costs between 2012 and 2050, relieving the annual strain on agency budgets. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) added the provision to a substitute amendment from Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) before a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee approved the underlying legislation last week. …

Some argue that this will spell relief for budget taps the Big Green Fire Machine, or the Fire-Military-Industrial-Complex as Wildfire called it, has on agency budgets. But in another way "free money" will add more incentives for extant fire fighting procedures to become even more entrenched and resistant to change. This "dark side" suggests that we ought to be wary of this and any other pot of "free money".

Posted by Dave on November 13, 2007 at 09:52 AM | Permalink

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Posted by: Ex-FS NEPA nerd

I guess you don't see the glass as half empty, you see it as sucking up all the light in the room and turning it towards the "dark side."

How about looking at the glass as just half empty -- i.e. that the dedicated funding for firefighting would just displace the current appropriations for firefighting, so that there would be little change to the agency.

You could even look at the glass as half full -- i.e. that if the firefighting was funded outside of the agency budget, that natural resource work could go on without funding being withdrawn in a bad fire year.

I also have a hard time seeing any relationship between the Forest Service getting dedicated funding from the selling of cap and trade carbon emission credits for firefighting and the Chief's program to use Forest Service rehabilitation to sequester carbon. There is no indication in the article, and the only relationship seems to be that they both involve carbon.

Do you see the Forest Service as just so evil that everything it does must have a dark ulterior motive?

Ex-FS NEPA nerd | Nov 13, 2007 1:06:22 PM


Posted by: Dave Iverson

Ex: "I ... have a hard time seeing any relationship between the Forest Service getting dedicated funding from the selling of cap and trade carbon emission credits for firefighting and the Chief's program to use Forest Service rehabilitation to sequester carbon."

There is no relationship at all short of "connecting dots", the stuff each of us ought to think about, and the stuff each ought to expect to be challenged on. You can think of my negativism as a simple counterweight to the "happy talk" that is legendary in the USFS.

As per "evil": I never think of the Forest Service as evil. Instead I think of the FS as bureaucratic, short-sighted, and overly encumbered by rules. The rules are in turn mostly developed by committees (or by high-level staff or "line") that are too far removed from the working of the FS to be able to "direct" activities in such minute detail. Such is by no means a problem unique to the USFS. See, my "Effective Organizations" for a glimpse of a better way for both private and public organizations: http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/am/effective_organizations.html

Note that the management/leadership philosophies and practices embedded in "Effective Organizations" cannot operate with cumbersome manuals and handbooks. Instead they are the stuff of Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot's dream in "The End of Bureaucracy--and the Rise of the Intelligent Organization"

Dave Iverson | Nov 13, 2007 3:56:27 PM


Posted by: Ex-FS NEPA nerd

I can understand frustration with "happy talk" by the Forest Service senior leadership. But the leaders of every large organization make such aspirational statements. At least aspirational statements show support for positive and higher goals, even if the leaders decisions compromise on the higher goals. And almost all leadership decisions involve compromises. Gifford Pinchot did not always live up to his aspirational "rules" you see posted around people's offices, but by making such pronouncements he was leading the organizational in a very positive manner. Happy talk or good leadership?

I don't understand how alleging that Forest Service leaders are just corrupt empire builders does anything helpful. It doesn't lead to a higher cause. It is either a personal attack on Gail Kimbell or an argument to abolish the Forest Service, and I don't think that is what you want to argue for.

I don't see much interesting about vague allegations about a "Fire-Military-Industrial-Complex" and the "Big Green Fire Machine." Like grassy knoll theories, it is entertaining to think about a grand conspiracy of evil corrupt people manipulating public knowledge. But if all these people in the Forest Service are so evil and corrupt, why even debate forest policy? And if they aren't so evil and corrupt, why impune them so haphazardly?

What would make an interesting discussion is how best to pay for firefighting activity in the U.S. The current system greatly disrupts FS activities when funds are withdrawn from all sorts of programs to pay for firefighting in a bad year. But moving firefighting out of the FS would also gut a lot of FS natural resource programs because all the other programs would have to pick up a lot of overhead. Any ideas on that?

Ex-FS NEPA nerd | Nov 13, 2007 6:37:35 PM


Posted by: Dave Iverson

Ex,

Using terms like "Fire Military Industrial Complex" does not necessarily mean that Forest Service admistrators are "evil". Instead, such terms may be used to suggest to top level administrators that they need to be aware of "machine bureaucracy" tendencies in the organizations they are entrusted with. And, of course, to make them aware that contractors have their own self-interest in mind and must be mangaged (regulated) closely. I use the terms in this way, as did Dwight Eisenhower in the more-traditional context.

If administrators fail to effectively manage the centralized government organizations they oversee, the organizations will naturally become machine-like in their behavior.

"Machine bureaucracies" are what they are. (To better understand such in a Forest Service NEPA context, and to understand inherent dangers of allowing machine bureaucraies to operate in inappropriate contexts see, e.g. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/about/programs/fsd/NEPA/New%20Institutional%20Economic%20in%20FS%20NEPA.pdf -- particularly at p. 25+)

If administrators have been corrupted into thinking "machine bureaucracy" tendencies to be something other than what they are, then they should be made aware of this corruption. Corruption in this sense cannot be assumed to be evil by any standard. It is corruption nevertheless.

P.S. My posts are admittedly sometimes schrill. Remember that this is a blog after all, and part of blogging is about getting peoples' attention -- about waking them up. Blogging is also about information sharing, dialogue, knowledge building, etc.

Ex: "What would make an interesting discussion is how best to pay for firefighting activity in the U.S. The current system greatly disrupts FS activities when funds are withdrawn from all sorts of programs to pay for firefighting in a bad year. But moving firefighting out of the FS would also gut a lot of FS natural resource programs because all the other programs would have to pick up a lot of overhead. Any ideas on that?"

Yes... At minimum Congressional oversight hearings and Congressional appropriations for whatever organizational forms arize from there. Beyong that folks like the Pinchot Institute ought to be talking about it. So should we here.

Dave Iverson | Nov 14, 2007 9:47:49 AM


Posted by: Ex-FS NEPA nerd

Thank you for the link to the NEPA External Contracting document. It clearly understands the current NEPA process because: (1) it can't help but take 50 pages to say what could be said in 5 pages; (2) it is all over the map with general analyses and no specific analyses; and (3) its final conclusions do not conclude anything useful.


Ex-FS NEPA nerd | Nov 14, 2007 12:24:25 PM


Posted by: Dave Iverson

Ex,

I agree that the 'FS NEPA in Context' paper is a bit, let's say, stuffy and academic. Still I found its insights and conclusions refreshing, once I dug into it. Remember that the paper is simply a working paper, not a finished product. Here is a hyperlink again, for those not wanting to retrace our conversation threads: http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/about/programs/fsd/NEPA/New%20Institutional%20Economic%20in%20FS%20NEPA.pdf

As to your conclusion that the paper's "final conclusions do not conclude anything useful", you will not be surprised that I disagree. Here is how the paper's conclusions begin (p. 48):

"The NEPA process currently suffers from goal ambiguity. Within the Forest Service, and among the constellation of actors who partner with or who challenge the Forest Service, there are differing views on the primary purpose of NEPA. These differing views are frequently incompatible. The differing views of NEPA's purpose are: a) to improve the decision-making process and to use NEPA as a planning tool; b) to inform and engage the public; and c) to tackle and overcome a legal hurdle (that is, NEPA is perceived as neither a planning nor communicative tool).

"To effectively conduct the NEPA work design, both through internal organization and external contracting, it is necessary to first clarify the Forest Service’s goals for NEPA [footnote omitted]. Increased clarity in goals will allow not only more precise identification of the tasks but performance evaluation. Both are vital for effective organizational and contracting design.

"Once goals are clearly defined, the Forest Service will have to address the degree of decentralization of decision-making. There is an inherent tension between moving decision-making out of the central office to take advantage of field personnel's specific knowledge of local circumstances, and the risk that decentralization of authority can lead to goal incongruity and the pursuit of individual objectives. To decrease the problem of goal incongruity the Forest Service may decide to increase the role of professionalism in the NEPA process or it may choose to accelerate the process of formalization. Alternatively, it may choose to constrain its NEPA personnel with a more formalized process. The important issue is for the Forest Service to make an informed, rational choice regarding the management of NEPA compliance rather than a system that has evolved in response to one disturbance after another. ..."

Dave Iverson | Nov 15, 2007 9:47:04 AM


Posted by: Ex-FS NEPA nerd

I guess I just can't see the wisdom in the conclusion that the Forest Service needs to define everything before the academics can analyze it.

The question presented by OMB is: How much of the current NEPA work can more efficiently be done by the private sector? It is not an academic or theoretical question -- it is a real-world empirical question.

I don't see how demanding up-front definitions is useful or going to accomplish anything. An interesting paper would be one that actually did research on how NEPA is implemented in the real world. But you never see those in the academic world.

Ex-FS NEPA nerd | Nov 16, 2007 12:01:25 PM


Posted by: Dave Iverson

Ex,

I agree that "An interesting paper would be one that actually did research on how NEPA is implemented in the real world."

As to whether we have already seen or "will see those in the academic world" is an interesting one.

Given that we haven't really researched, neither understand how NEPA works in the real world, relative to how it ought to work within legal, political and social frames, I don't understand your allegation that: "How much of the current NEPA work can more efficiently be done by the private sector is ... not an academic or theoretical question -- it is a real-world empirical question."

How can it be "a real-world empirical question" when we don't really know the gap between "is" and "ought" relative to NEPA practice. I think it time for Congressional oversight hearings, academic inquiry, and most importantly internal FS soul-searching -- the latter being, as I recall, the conclusion of the Indiana paper.

Dave Iverson | Nov 16, 2007 12:23:45 PM


Posted by: Ex-FS NEPA nerd

Be careful what you ask for. A congressional hearing would focus on how expensive the Forest Service NEPA process has become. It is hard to justify spending a million dollars to make a decision that has perhaps a million dollars of economic impact. One can make arguments that is a good investment, but they aren't going to be persuasive to the public or to Congress.

The FS soul-searching will be shown by the Transformation....in the hard reality of what gets funded and what does not.

Ex-FS NEPA nerd | Nov 16, 2007 1:00:07 PM


Posted by: Dave Iverson

A congressional hearing SHOULD focus on how expensive the Forest Service NEPA process has become. It should focus too, on how ineffective the Forest Service is in complying with the law, and WHY it is so ineffective. These among other topics.

I fear -- and expect -- that The LACK OF Forest Service soul-searching will be shown by the Transformation.

Dave Iverson | Nov 16, 2007 3:29:02 PM


Posted by: Andy Stahl

Returning to the original post's subject -- the "Big Green Fire Machine," here's one option responding to ex-NEPA's "how best to pay for firefighting activity in the U.S." question. In western Oregon the federal Bureau of Land Management pays the State of Oregon for wildland firefighting services. The per-acre rates are determined regionally by dividing the forest protection district budget by the number of acres protected. In addition there is an emergency firefighting fund that is financed to maintain a balance between $22.5 and $30 million.

The attraction for BLM is that the budget for each region is determined by committees of private landowners who have to balance 1) cost vs. 2) risk. The land being protected is their own land -- the cost of protection comes out of their own pocket. In essence, this is a voluntary tax whose rate is determined by the beneficiaries of the services.

Oregon has a carries a Lloyds of London policy for extraordinarily expensive firefighting years -- the only state to do so.

So why don't Oregon's national forests contract with the state for firefighting services as does the BLM? The State has offered to do so -- the FS regional office has not answered. Could it be FS overhead & administrative jobs would be threatened?

Andy Stahl | Nov 19, 2007 12:06:05 PM


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