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June 30, 2005

Catch-22 and Maladaptive Organizations

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 should be required reading for both incoming and seasoned professionals in government service. It lays out some of the most fundamentally challenging dilemmas of organizational life. For example, How does one get anything useful done? How does one hope to effect any organizational betterment? How does one even survive?

Whenever reflective practitioners work to get something done that transcends “the rules,” or seek to make the rules themselves better, they are faced with a variety of Catch-22s. {For the uninitiated, here is a definition, drawn from Dictionary.com: Catch-22: A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.}

Sometimes it seems hopeless. Yet amid the absurdities and contradictions of bureaucracy, there is still a ray of hope. There are those ‘small wins’ when a few people get together to inquire into better methods, better “whatever,” often done just outside formal organizational perimeters. And there are folks in academia who offer help and advice to do what often seems impossible, given the absurdities our organizations.

To illustrate the extent of the Catch-22 phenomenon at work in the Forest Service, let’s explore my personal work environment. My Forest Service work falls generally into three areas: collaboration, economics, and monitoring and evaluation. Let’s look at each, in turn.

In the Forest Service we have been admonished, particularly by the last two Administrations, to “work collaboratively with the public.” It makes so much sense that we should have thought of it ourselves. In fact we did. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot advocated collaboration from the get-go. But there is a catch, Catch-22.

Every form of collaboration seems to be so encumbered with rules and regulations, procedures and protocols—written and unwritten—that the very spark of energy required for effective collaboration dies a bureaucratic death.

Even if sparks of energy remain in any of us, would-be “outside collaborators” have to live within the confines of our rules and regulations, procedures and protocols. So even if we have sparks of life, our collaborators will not, at least not in the longer term if our rules and procedures prove too complex and cumbersome. Judge for yourself. How would you like to be an outsider, asked to collaborate the federal level, Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA, etc, as well as the state level department of natural resources, bureau of parks and recreation, etc., as well as regional and local level government and private organizations? Remember that each entity is comes with its unique rules and regulations.

We all deal with economics every day—for better or worse, richer or poorer... What we do each day isn’t rocket science, as they say. In fact it’s pretty simple stuff, albeit staged in a world filled with complex and politically wicked problems.

What needs to be done with economics in the Forest Service is, arguably, not much different than what we do in our families. The same adaptive management economics we do at home would suffice for much of what the Forest Service needs to make decisions on projects, plans, programs, etc. But there is a catch, Catch-22.

Forest Service, like other government bureaus, has procedures and protocols for, say, economic or financial efficiency apart from those of adaptive management. Why? Someone who had studied W. Edwards Deming’s The New Economics or Peter Drucker’s writings would likely be scratching their head wondering why the government would be so foolish as to think that the two were not one in the same. Me too. See, my earlier post, Cost Benefit Analysis: Wonder Tool or Mirage, for example.

Monitoring and Evaluation
What could be easier more natural than monitoring and evaluation? Every child practices it as part of the adaptive management of self, to learn to function within family, community, and broader realms of society and culture.

It seems so simple to keep track of what you do, what it accomplishes, and how it interrelates with recent updates in accepted (or standard) practice and theory. Any responsible professional, or group of professionals, would naturally gravitate to routine monitoring and evaluation—as part of reflective practice—in order to not be an embarrassment to the profession or to the organizations for whom they work.

In fact, however, there are whole bunches of Catch-22s associated with monitoring and evaluation, as there are with most functions in bureaucracy. First, there are the “rules,” that range from the RPA/Forest Planning Rule and a host of other Rules (which extend law through regulation), to various Manuals & Handbooks, and other guidance that have the internal cultural status of requirements. These rules and regulations are impressive to the casual observer—and perhaps only to the casual observer. Until recently they have proven to be a dead weight to practitioners, too cumbersome and complex to be less harmful than helpful. Any bets on whether they continue to be?

Second, there are the courts and “case law” that largely reflect both the promises made by the government (legislative and administrative) in the past, and the gap between those promises as interpreted by the courts and the realities of performance by government agencies as brought up by complainants. In many cases, but certainly in not all cases, interpretation by the courts tends more to confuse than to clarify. Such tendency is heightened by some administrators (often cheer-led by some legislators) who believe the courts to have over-stepped their rightful bounds as interpreters of legislative will. So, add mountains of case law to the mountains of directives.

Third, monitoring and evaluation practice is embedded in the over-arching frame of adaptive management, including adaptive planning, adaptive assessment, etc. all working under the guiding light of organizational learning. If other parts of the adaptive management scheme prove to be maladaptive, then monitoring and evaluation tends toward absurdity as a result. In such a circumstance, the highest importance must be given to monitoring and evaluation of the adaptive management process itself. But there is a catch, Catch-22—as we will see shortly.

Fourth, if the organizational culture is itself maladaptive, it will prevent adaptivity in any part. Defensive reasoning and organizational defense mechanisms provide a self-sealing maladaptive cocoon around whatever organization tends to be in place at any time. {Note: Here is a definition for Defensive reasoning: Whenever individuals or organizations are free to act as they wish and yet choose to act in ways contrary to their own interests. Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses, p. 10 }

There are no doubt other Catch-22s that might be highlighted. The list goes on and on. But this should be enough to see generally the character of the problem at hand for would-be reflective practitioners.

Where to from here?
We are left with a variant of Ghandi’s advice: “Nothing you do in life will make a difference. Do it anyway.” Plant some seeds for individual and organizational betterment. Plant idea-seeds that at once champion relationships and information. Find a way to deal the complexities of life that is at once simple and life-nurturing. Find a way that honors people and others who live on Earth.

A recurring theme of my blogging is to find “a simpler way.” Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Roger A Simpler Way provides a very useful portal into this way of organizing—this way out of the Catch 22 trap. In general, Meg Wheatley’s writings provide interesting first-steps along the path.

But we cannot even begin the journey if we remain silent, steadfast supporter of the status quo. In the conclusion to one of the chapters of Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, Chris Argyris says, in part:

Organizational defensive routines make it highly likely that individuals, groups, intergroups, and organizations will not detect and correct the errors that are embarrassing or threatening because the fundamental rules are to (1) bypass the errors and act as if that were not being done, (2) make the bypass undiscussable, and (3) make its undiscussability undiscussable.

These conditions, in turn, make it difficult to engage the organizational defense routines in order to interrupt them and reduce them. Indeed, the very attempt to engage them will lead to the defensive routines’ being activated and strengthened. This, in turn, reinforces and proliferates the defensive routines.

Individuals feel helpless about changing organizational defensive routines for at least two reasons. One, they feel the change is hopeless because the cure appears to be one that will make the illness worse. Two, they do not wish to be seen as deliberately making the situation worse by opening up a can of worms

.The result is something equivalent to an underground economy—namely, a gray organization that is alive and flourishing yet officially considered dead or nonexistent. This, of course, makes it possible for the gray organization to remain alive and to flourish. We now have the underground management managing the aboveground…. (p. 43)
We each play a bit part in the social drama of organizational and cultural life. We choose to play as we will. What role do you choose?

Posted by Dave on June 30, 2005 at 10:55 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 21, 2005

Revenue Enhancement: Good v. Evil

I hear a lot of internal Forest Service chatter about revenue enhancement these days. I guess I just don’t get it. My management training led me to believe that we ought not to try to run public service institutions like a business.

Even if for some reason we decide (or have decided) that revenue enhancement is the order of the day, we must remember that “revenue,” like profit in a business, is not something your maximize or “enhance.” Rather revenue would be a measure of performance, to see if, say, a certain level of revenue might cover a certain proportion of cost. Revenue is then just one more thing to consider, among many, in devising plans, programs, and projects on public land. And it would only be such if we explicitly set up policy goals to cover some costs with revenues.

Also, there are important reasons beyond, “Let’s not run public service organizations like a business,” why we might want to think twice about revenue enhancement on the public lands in particular.

To begin, it might prove useful to think about why we are even talking about revenue enhancement. There seem to be two main threads of thought. First, people are talking about enhancing revenues to cover shortfall in budgets, relative to traditional budget levels. We might call this the “necessary evil” thread. Second, people are talking about enhancing revenues in order to be more businesslike in running government agencies.

Following the “necessary evil” thread, we have to think about lesser and greater evils. In particular we have to think about what evil lurks in setting up marketing institutions for the public lands. Following the “businesslike” thread, we have to think hard about why we have service institutions (public and private) and how and why we manage them differently from business organizations. We will look at each thread in turn. In between the two, we will sandwich a third, which we will call the “unnecessary evil” thread.

Revenue Enhancement as a Necessary Evil
Some believe that revenues need to be collected because people get goods and services from the public lands and they ought to pay a fair or just price for what they get. In essence this is a private good or service argument and carries a good deal of sway in our culture. People who believe this way are easily drawn into the argument that we have for too long subsidized the private gain of the few from the public lands. People ought to be required to pay-up and reduce of eliminate the subsidy they have for too long received at the expense of others in society.

[Personal disclosure: I do not believe the “necessary evil” argument, neither the “outright good” argument captured in enhancing revenues to run government more like a business. So I don’t devote as much text space to them in this post as to the “unnecessary evil” argument. I welcome a follow-up post, or might even redo this one with a coauthor to offer up a more balanced approach, if people step up to the challenge of portraying the other two positions in a better light.]

Revenue Enhancement as an Unnecessary Evil
Some people disagree with the “necessary evil” argument. Those who disagree on a basis other than, “It’s traditional not to charge,” usually end up arguing something like, “We deserve a space apart from the crass commercialization of everything in our culture.” They continue with, “It is a small price paid by all for this opportunity afforded to all—particularly if we keep facilities and infrastructure primitive.” People who argue this way often represent the public lands as a res publica, a public thing that ought not to be reduced to a bunch of private things.

Jack Turner in The Abstract Wild followed in the footsteps of both Thoreau and Leopold in decrying what Turner labels "Economic Nature." Turner says,

Instead of seeing modern economics as part of the problem, they see it as the solution. .... [M]oral, aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual orders are then merely subjective tastes of no social importance. It is thus no wonder that civility has declined. For me this new economic conservation" ethic" reeks of cynicism--as though having failed to persuade and woo your love, you suddenly switched to cash. The new economic conservationists think they are being rational; I think they treat Mother Nature like a whorehouse. (p. 58)

Turner suggests an alternative path:

Imagine extending the common in "common good" to what is common to all life—the air, the atmosphere, the water, the process of evolution and diversity, the community of all organisms in their common heritage. Imagine extending "community" to include all the life forms of the place that is your home. Imagine "accounting" in its original sense: to be accountable. What does it mean to be accountable, and to whom and to what purpose? What's "a good deal" with the Universe? Imagine an economics of need. Instead of asking "What is this worth?" ask "What does this forest need?'' "What does this river need?" (p.67)
Following Turner's path we might then compare costs of alternative means toward socially and culturally desired ends, but there is arguably little place or no place for concepts like “revenue enhancement.” We use economics only to appraise alternative means toward stated, chosen ends. We would not use ecomics to maximize or enhance anything.

We might also look at Richard Behan's book, Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands. Like Turner, Behan is not fond of what we've done in the name of economics and efficiency regarding the public lands and other "commons." Behan believes that American capitalism has been corrupted and American politics has become predatory--preying on the assets and wealth of the public at large by bestowing the benefits on the few, particularly politicians and bureaucrats themselves and the corporate "few" that help keep the politicians in office, and by dispersing the costs broadly.

Behan notes that in America, unfortunately, "We have deliberately chosen to dedicate the federal lands not to public purposes but to the production of private wealth." He notes that despite a hundred years of cultural evolution and change, "the production of private wealth [from our public lands] has continued without challenge or even serious question. .... The idea of seeking public benefits from our public asset simply never took hold." (pp. 3-4)

Neither Behan nor Turner believes it is too late for us to mend our cultural ways. Like Turner and Behan, I too ask that we rethink our frame, when dealing with the public lands. Quoting Behan,

Because of the peculiarities in the U.S. Constitution .... there is no national and enduring res pubica, a "public thing" to bind Americans together in a tangible sense of community. .... [T]he federal lands hold great promise as a res publica for the American people. .... The barriers to realizing this promise, and the root causes of our overuse of the federal lands, lie in the nature of what our economic and political institutions have become. They have become the agents of plunder. (pp. 5-6)
Oversimplifying, it might boil down to this line from a country western song, "When it comes to love, you don't count the costs." At least we ought not to count the costs as we might in running a business enterprise. And if we resort to crass commercialization of the public lands we ought to think hard as to Turner’s whorehouse allegation.

Still, we ought not to just throw money at problems hoping that somehow we will effect common good. We have to look deeply into the mirror, at ourselves and our institutions, including what it means to be accountable—to whom and for what purpose? An answer might be found, in part, by adopting simpler ways to manage, and smaller ecological footprints on the land.

Revenue Enhancement to be More Businesslike
Many people advocate that we make government and public service more businesslike. When such talk is meant to admonish us to make government more accountable, recognizing the rightful differences between for-profit and for-service organizations, I find few things to quibble about.

But when talk degenerates into, “Businesses do it better,” I have a whole library of venerable sources to draw from to refute such nonsense. For example, in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, (1973) Peter Drucker outlines “three popular explanations for the common failure of service institutions to perform [up to expectations in the private sector]:”

  • Their managers aren’t businesslike
  • They need better people
  • Their objectives and results are intangible
Drucker explains why all three are alibis, not explanations. On being businesslike and efficient Drucker says,
The belief that the service institution will perform if only it is put on a businesslike basis underlies the many attempts to set up such services as separate public corporations…. There may be beneficial side effects such as freedom from petty civil-service regulation. But the intended main effect, performance, is seldom achieved. Services essential to the fulfillment of the institution’s purpose may be slighted or lopped off in the name of efficiency.
On needing better people, Drucker says,
There is no reason to believe that people who staff the managerial and professional positions in our service institutions are any less qualified, and less competent or honest, or any less hard-working than [those] who manage businesses. Conversely, there is no reason to believe that business managers, put in control of service institutions, would do better than “bureaucrats.” Indeed we know that they immediately become bureaucrats themselves.
Drucker says that belief that service institutions objectives and results are intangible is at best a half-truth. He says, “Achievement is never possible except against specific, limited, clearly defined targets, in business as well as in a service institutions. … But the starting point for effective work is a definition of the purpose and mission of the institution, which is almost always intangible.” (pp. 137-140)

Where To from Here
It proves difficult to imagine the public lands without “fees.” Fees have been a part of Forest Service management from early days. But that doesn't mean they have to play an increasing larger role. It also proves difficult to imagine that the politics of our culture will not continue to cry out for “revenue enhancement.” So be it. I do not need to like it. And all of us have a responsility to advocate for betterment as we see it. We must all continue to challenge our institutions, our values, our very being as a culture. If we do not, we deserve the culture we get as a byproduct of our silence.

Posted by Dave on June 21, 2005 at 05:37 PM Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 13, 2005

Forest Recreation Fees: Wars of Ideology and more

In the libertarian blog The Commons, Randal O’Toole comments on recent moves by the Forest Service to whittle down recreation fee areas. Randal seldom misses an opportunity these days to take a jab at “environmentalists” and doesn’t disappoint here. Randal accuses environmentalists of being dumb for not learning to play the fees game to their advantage:

The Forest Service Ends Some Recreation Fees
Randal O'Toole

Environmentalists, elected officials, and the Bush administration just haven't figured out the point behind charging fees for public land recreation. The point is incentives: If the agency is allowed to keep a share of the fees, it will have an incentive to do things that the people paying the fees care about.

For decades, the Forest Service charged fees for timber and kept the fees, but it wasn't allowed to charge or, if it could charge, to keep the fees for recreation, wildlife, or most other resources. So the Forest Service naturally became a timber-dominant agency: what was good for timber was good for its budget and therefore must be a good thing.

Congress made a tentative correction a decade ago when it allowed the Forest Service and other federal agencies to charge recreation fees and keep those fees. But some wilderness advocates and other environmentalists have protested those fees. Even as they complain about "below-cost timber sales," they promote below-cost recreation. They even convinced the Oregon legislature to unanimously pass a resolution asking that the fees be repealed.

The Bush administration responded by issuing rules that the fees could only be charged for improved sites. This will give the Forest Service an incentive to promote developed recreation and a disincentive to promote wildland recreation -- exactly the opposite of what the environmentalists say they want.

The simple reality is that, given a choice between a policy or program that will increase its revenues and one that won't, the Forest Service or any agency will usually choose the one that boosts its budget. The off-road-vehicle people figured this out years ago and they gladly pay recreation fees to get access to the public lands. Why are wilderness advocates so dumb?

Meanwhile, from a warring ideological camp Scott Silver continues his daily anti-fee campaign. Here is Silver’s 06/092005 email:

Pasted below is a USFS News Release issued this morning. It announces that hundreds of recreation sites at which fees were charged, will soon be free to the public once more. That is the good news and I personally look forward to once-again enjoying local public lands which have, for 7 long years, been legally off-limits to me.

Hundreds of day-use sites will be removed from the fee program}

Unfortunately, what this News Release does not say, but what I know to be true, is that the USFS has also pulled out a thin air a new concept they are calling "high impact recreation areas." Using this newly invented and legally groundless concept, the USFS will in September of 2005 begin charging for the broadest imaginable range of recreational products, goods and services in places they deem to be "high impact recreation areas" and for recreational pursuits for which fee-based special use permits will soon be required.

So by all means get out and enjoy your public lands in these next few months. But know that starting in September, if you recreate within a National Forest located within a two-hour drive of a million persons (or in a forest designated as a high-impact recreation area for any of a dozen different reasons), you are going to be hit with fees like you've never seen before.


PS... you can read the USFS's fee guidelines at: www.wildwilderness.org/docs/reaguide.doc
You can read the law enacted by Congress at: www.wildwilderness.org/docs/therat.doc

If you read them both, you will see that the law says nothing about high impact recreation areas and preciously little about special use fees.You'll see that the guidelines tell an entirely different story. If you are in the media, please ASK the USFS about the new and unauthorized recreation fees that are currently being planned. If they won't tell you, then ask me.

Scott Silver
Somewhere in the crossfire are the national forests, the public lands. There are some ways that public lands are indeed public playgrounds and those who use them for such likely ought find means to help support the upkeep of those lands, whether or not by fees. There are some ways that public lands are sanctuaries of the human spirit, and ought to allow us a means to get away from the bombardment of commercialism that is the stuff of our every waking hour. And there are real worries in all aspects of our lives that the public sphere is being increasingly commercialized.

How this is interwoven into the recreation fees debate is stuff we ought to be talking a lot about. But there are distractions in every aspect of our overly complex lives. So the space for public conversation and deliberation is itself too-often reduced to soundbites, email spam, and narrowly-framed blogs. What a world!

Personal disclosure: This too is a narrowly framed blog. Aren't they all?

Posted by Dave on June 13, 2005 at 02:43 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 10, 2005

Why Not Direct Everything: An Iverson Family Tale

We are near the end of the comment period for Forest Service Manual and Handbook directives relative to the new National Forest Management Act rule.

For some time my general advice on running organizations has been to follow A Simpler Way (for example see this, this, this, this).

In keeping with A Simpler Way, I recommend that we abandon directives for planning, and revisit the “rule” to find a simpler way to deal with the complexities and wickedness inherent in any strategic planning endeavor.

I also recommend that we devolve all planning guidance to an internet-based knowledge system that is “open source,” allowing many who wish to do so to propose methods and techniques, and allowing many to participate in vetting these. This way we will be able to see who likes what, and who does not, who uses what, etc. There will likely still be a place for some manual and handbook directives for routine things in the Forest Service, but not necessarily any for the art of planning.

I have little faith that we the Forest Service will do this. But at least one can hope. While awaiting FS responses to comments on the so-called Planning Directives, I designed a little tale to keep us mildly amused:

Iverson family Tale: Professional practice directed by manuals and handbooks
On the way to work the other day I thought about manuals and handbooks guiding the professional lives of my brothers and sisters. First I tried to imagine my folk singer brother relying on a manual and handbook for his gigs. Horrible thought! Then I thought about my artist sister relying on a manual and handbook for her landscapes and other works. No better! Then I thought about my investment banker brother relying on a manual and handbook in moving money around the bond markets of the world. Nope! Then I thought of my brother-in-law managing a large county mental health program. No manual and handbook there either. Finally I thought of my small-business-entrepreneur sister and brother. I couldn’t imagine them relying on a manual and handbook either.

So I switched gears. How about my medical practitioners? How about my financial advisors? And so on. The only ones I could imagine following closely a plan would be house and general construction contractors. But here too there is no "manual and handbook."

Lastly, I thought about other aspects of my professional life. During the decade and a half I spent in city government I don’t think we ever felt naked without manuals and handbooks, although we did have our share of ordinances, building codes, laws, and what not. During the short time I spend in the corporate offices at Weyerhauser Corp. I don’t remember seeing people consulting manuals and handbooks at every turn.

A question lingers: Why is it that the Forest Service tries to reduce ALL to manual and handbook directives? Why would anyone try to reduce the art of strategic thinking, strategic planning to manual and handbook directives? Have we bought into some fallacies regarding how the world works? Is this ‘normal’ government practice? Maybe. But maybe that’s why there is so much pressure to outsource.

When I first saw the Prototype Plan teams playing with new ideas on planning I said to myself, “Finally, we have escaped our rational planning, control freak mentalities.” But my relief was short-lived. First came the NFMA rule to shatter my hopes and dreams. Then came the Manual and Handbook directives. So now once-again it is likely to be:

Back the inner sanctum of the bureaucracy! Keep your eyes on the manuals and handbooks and try to remember that somewhere ‘out there’ there are forest and trees and birds and fish and other charismatic megafauna (along with the many other creatures great and small). Mark Twain called these other creatures the higher animals. I wonder if he met some government planners who helped him draw that conclusion?

Don’t dwell on what it might take to manage ourselves and other humans and our relationships with what we call “Nature.” Instead, manage the Manuals and the Handbooks and see if there is any time left to think about land, and natural and social systems workings. If there happens to be any time left over, be sure use it to build ever-more-complex manuals and handbooks.

To get a feel for how the FS Manual and Handbook (and the mentality that creates them) tend to work on us, I recommend Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron.”

Posted by Dave on June 10, 2005 at 10:02 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 02, 2005

Pragmatic or Corrupt?

Maybe my rumor mill is faulty. If not, there seem to be more cases recently of Forest Service people cutting legal and ethical corners to clear the way for what they perceive to be “good projects on the ground.”

I hope this is not happening. If it is, is this the latest manifestation of professional arrogance? Is the Forest Service falling into a place where the first order of business is to find creative ways to “categorically exclude” internally blessed projects from public review and due process? Should the first order fail, is the second order of business to try to hide projects from due process? Is this our organization’s response to process predicament, analysis paralysis, process gridlock?

Consider Doug Parker’s allegations in Region 3; as reported May 27th at Azcentral.com

...officials have taken shortcuts when trying to complete projects. For example, they are accused of not preparing environmental risk assessments and failing to get approval from agency officials who have the authority to make decisions about pesticides.

In his complaint, Parker cited an incident on the Cibola National Forest in central New Mexico last year in which a district ranger approved the aerial application of a herbicide to fight salt cedar but did not have the authority to do so.

Could this be the case too in the recent flap over the Biscuit fire recovery project? The May 24th Seattle Times reports,

An environmental group wants a judge to halt further sales of timber burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire unless the U.S. Forest Service restores extra buffer zones along streams intended to protect threatened coho salmon.

The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics sent out a formal notice yesterday to the Forest Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. The group warned that it would file a lawsuit after 60 days, seeking a halt to further timber sales unless the Forest Service consults NOAA Fisheries over the effect that changes in the logging plan will have on salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act. …

The proposed logging plan the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest showed to NOAA Fisheries called for 348 feet of buffer zones on each side of perennial and intermittent streams outside areas considered critical habitat for coho, the notice said.

No trees could be cut in the first 174 feet. Only trees smaller than 24 inches could be cut in the second 174 feet.

After NOAA Fisheries found that the proposed logging plan was not likely to harm coho, the final logging plan dropped the second 174-foot buffer, the notice said.

I hope I’m wrong and we are not seeing an upwelling of a long-standing problem with professional arrogance in the Forest Service.

Posted by Dave on June 2, 2005 at 09:51 AM Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

June 01, 2005

Revenue Enhancement or Selling the Public Estate?

A May 3rd Albuquerque Tribune editorial, "Forest plan like selling off parts of family farm" begins with this warning:

Any time public officials suggest selling off parts of the public estate in order to balance the books, be suspicious.

Last month, in the latest controversy in the lively debate over how to save our national forests, the Bush administration announced plans to seek congressional authorization to sell off hundreds of U.S. Forest Service buildings and acres of land under the guise of shoring up the agency's sinking budget.
The editorial concludes,
The Bush administration idea, which sounds a bit like family farmers who are forced to sell off bits and pieces of land to sustain deficit operations, simply isn't sustainable.

Forest Service budget officials project potential property sales revenues of $175 million over 10 years by privatizing 40,000 individual federal forest properties. Then what?

There probably is merit in selling off some additional forest surplus properties, but those should be carefully identified and sold only after extensive public review and comment. This is to ensure that the objective really is selling off unnecessary, costly and nonintegral properties - not generating replacement budget revenue by selling off the public commons.

When it comes to the nation's public forests and national parks, Americans have been rather generous, insightful and progressive in funding the acquisition and protection of vast tracts for their beauty, their commercial or recreational value and their ecological importance.

Without an extensive national public debate, no administration or Congress should be allowed to arbitrarily alter that bargain.

A May 31st LA Times article adds this,

Forest Service May Sell Some Staff Facilities
The agency proposes to put 20% or more of its buildings on the auction block to raise funds for new construction and deferred maintenance.
By Bettina Boxall
Times Staff Writer
May 31, 2005

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Wrestling with a long inadequate maintenance budget and facing the prospect of more funding cuts, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing to sell a fifth or more of its staff buildings across the country, including hundreds in California.

A Bush administration plan would allow the Forest Service to go into the real estate business, auctioning staff facilities and the land they sit on to raise cash for upkeep and the construction of new buildings.

Ranger stations, warehouses, residences and remote work centers could be sold under the program, which must be approved by Congress.

Under the heading "Hot Sales!" a government website this spring showcased several Forest Service properties auctioned under a pilot program. Among them were two unused houses in Sierra Madre sold by the Angeles National Forest in Southern California for nearly $1.7 million.

North of Lake Tahoe, Truckee district ranger Joanne Roubique hopes to raise the millions needed for a new ranger complex by selling an old Tahoe National Forest compound that sits on 82 pricey acres next to Truckee's downtown.

Forest Service officials say that nationwide the sales would help them chip away at a $1.2-billion building maintenance backlog by disposing of rundown property and generating cash for new projects. They want to get rid of facilities that are surplus, in bad shape or in the wrong place, but, they stress, forest land itself is not going on the market.

"I think it would be a very bad thing if we were talking about selling national forest lands, and I would be completely against that," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "From my perspective, these are sites — in many places, in towns — that the public doesn't value their national forest for."

Still, some of the properties are in isolated reaches of national forests, and selling them could create pockets of private development, bringing people, pets and noise to wildlife areas.

Outside the agency, some argue that the Forest Service plan is part of a troubling effort to use the sale of public lands to finance basic government operations.

"They all fit into a pattern where we seem to be disposing of public lands indirectly without telling people what we're doing," said UC Berkeley forest policy professor Sally K. Fairfax. "Part of what they're doing is legitimate, but the other half is what scares me."

She cited two other administration proposals.

One would change a congressional spending formula so that billions of dollars from public land auctions in the fast-developing Las Vegas region would go to the U.S. Treasury to offset the federal deficit. Most of the federal money is now used to finance local park projects and to purchase environmentally valuable private holdings in Nevada.

Another plan under consideration would give the U.S. Bureau of Land Management expanded authority to keep a portion of the income from public land sales outside the Las Vegas area, reducing the amount earmarked for federal land purchases.

At the same time, funding is plummeting for the main federal program that finances land conservation acquisitions by the Forest Service and other federal agencies.

The administration has proposed $147 million for federal land acquisition in 2006, down from more than $400 million four years ago. The House recently voted to virtually eliminate it in budget legislation that now goes to the Senate.

Moreover, the Forest Service sales could erode what traditionally has been one of the agency's primary means of acquiring recreation parcels and wildlife habitat — its land exchange program.

If forest managers can amass cash for long-sought building projects by auctioning a surplus town property, "there would be less chance" they would swap it for back-country acreage, Bosworth acknowledged.

The financial squeeze is all too evident in Truckee, where over the years Roubique estimates she has made 30 to 40 pitches to regional and national Forest Service officials to pay for a new district complex.

"We've had this dream for a while," she said this spring, standing beside a large sketch of the planned compound, which would include ranger offices, barracks and a fire station constructed on a Forest Service parcel next to Interstate 80, a few miles away.

A cluster of ordinary 1930s buildings, the old complex is tucked among towering pines on a rise above downtown. Modern equipment can't fit in the garage bays. To get to forest blazes, the fire crews and seasonal workers who bunk there have to navigate a main street clogged with tourists drawn to Old West storefronts featuring wine, bistro dinners and $300,000 residential lots.

Around Truckee, the Forest Service sale is not controversial. Local conservationists agree that the ranger district needs new facilities and see no reason for the agency to hold on to the 82-acre town parcel, which is expected to fetch $8 million to $10 million.

"For them to sell the existing site and have development on it … would be pretty much infill," said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

But selling the parcel means the Forest Service won't ever use it in the sort of land swap that the Tahoe National Forest has undertaken in the past, when it traded several tracts it owned near Truckee for 11,000 private acres it needed to establish a recreation area around the Boca and Stampede reservoirs.

There is, if anything, more of a need for such land acquisitions now in the 870,000-acre Tahoe forest, which remains checkered with private tracts originally given to the railroads more than a century ago. Once thought too remote for anything but timber production, the parcels are increasingly vulnerable to development.

"In this part of the Sierra, that is the most looming environmental threat," Norris said. "Once those sections get sold off and broken off, you'll never be able to reconfigure it and you'll have what we call rural sprawl in the Sierra."

Roubique is trying to acquire private parcels around another lake west of the Stampede Reservoir, but she says she didn't have much of a choice between selling the Truckee site or trading it. She could let go of the 82 acres only if she got the money to replace the buildings on the land. And the only way she could get the money was to sell.

She won approval for the sale last year when her project was included in a congressionally authorized pilot program that allows the Forest Service to auction a limited number of staff properties around the country and pocket the proceeds for maintenance and new construction.

It is that approach that the administration wants to permanently adopt for the entire national forest system — a move that the Forest Service estimates could reap $125 million to $175 million over the next decade.

As part of the pilot program, the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana earlier this year offered a bunkhouse complex on 78 acres next to a reservoir near the hamlet of Noxon. The parcels went for $850,000.

Under legislation authorizing similar deals in Arizona, the Coconino National Forest put on the auction block 21 acres and a historic ranger compound consisting of some of the oldest buildings in Sedona. Bidding had reached $8.3 million by last week. As in Truckee, Coconino and Angeles forest managers intend to use the proceeds to build new offices in locations they say would better serve the public.

"Construction money is scarce," said Raina Fulton, recreation officer for the Angeles National Forest, which is planning a new complex in Acton for the Santa Clara/Mojave Rivers Ranger District. "We could ask for it, but we probably wouldn't get it."

It could get even scarcer. The president's 2006 budget proposal slashes the Forest Service's capital improvements and maintenance funding by a quarter, to $381 million. The cut would be offset by income from selling "unneeded" Forest Service facilities, according to budget documents.

The recent House appropriations bill restores some of the reduction, but proposed funding remains less than last year's.

In a related move backed by the administration that could further pressure managers to sell property, the Forest Service wants to start charging for office space.

Every staff program, whether it be firefighting, wildlife biology, timber management or a visitor center, would have to dip into its budget to pay a square foot assessment, which would fund building maintenance.

"We believe it improves personal accountability," said Vaughn Stokes, the agency's engineering director. "If you have to pay for [maintenance] year after year from your project funds, you'll think hard about" whether you need the space.

The maintenance fee and sales program proposals would have to be approved by Congress, which may be hesitant to give the Forest Service such carte blanche.

"I think there is some good to come out of a facility sales program," said Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the House resources forest subcommittee. "There are surplus structures they shouldn't own anymore."

But, he added, "We don't want to see this become a shell game to sell off assets and drive their current service budget."

His Democratic colleague on the subcommittee, Tom Udall of New Mexico, was more skeptical.

"I think it creates an incentive that could have some very adverse consequences," he said. "If you have agencies which are starved for maintenance funds, and you create the incentive to sell assets to get maintenance funds … they might very well be carrying out transactions that are not the best."

The jury is out. How will the Forest Service, the Administration, and the Congress fare when historians judge the worth of these measures from some future time?

Posted by Dave on June 1, 2005 at 11:37 AM Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack