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February 27, 2007

A Forest Service 'Perfect Storm'
John Freemuth

The federal lands and the bureaus that manage them may be entering a period from which they may well emerge very different than they are today. At first glance this might surprise people, as the Bush administration, led by the Secretary of Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, has proposed large spending increases for the national parks in a move not seen since days of Mission 66. All must be well.

Well not exactly. The parks are really a small part of the federal estate, some 76 million acres, with both the national forests (Forest Service)and Bureau of Land Management administered land amounting to around 450 million acres, while the national wildlife refuges (Fish and Wildlife Service)add around 87 million. Perhaps the most noticeable change is what is happening to the Forest Service and by implication the national forests. The bureau did have all lot of trouble in the recent past, adjusting to changes in public attitudes about the primary purposes of national forests. Rightly or wrongly, forests became seen more as places for recreation and resource protection, than for the provision of goods and services (notably timber) for society. The Forest Service struggled, but has tried steadily to work its way though adapting to those changes in public expectations. There have been successes and there have been failures. Yet now the agency may be facing a perfect storm of alarming proportions.

That storm has a number of forces within it. Fire costs are eating up higher and higher portions of the agency’s budget. The reasons include increased growth in rural forest interface lands, but also a fire fighting culture that still largely emphasizes suppression, and a Congress that that demands it. Some argue that states counties and localities should pay more of the costs, but that is difficult to imagine being accomplished anytime soon. The agency is also looking at a 25% reduction of its costs (it is unclear whether this is regional and Washington level, or agency-wide)over the next three years, leading to a reduction in personnel, while suggesting that it might have to close some campgrounds and other recreational sites. Some of its other core functions are being subjected to contracting, a process that could lead to a legitimate argument that the agency ought to simply abolished. If this is not enough, the agency has announced that it will no longer link forest plans with the preparation of environmental impacts statements (EISs), while at the same time also giving energy projects categorical exclusions (applications for permits to drill) at a project level, leading some people to assert that this amounts to a “double exemption” from NEPA. While there may very good reasons for some of this, and the agency might, if given time, be able to show that its decisions have actually gotten better and timelier, suspicion is rampant.

The agency is showing increasing signs of being an organization under stress and it knows it. It has begun internal discussions on what might be described as a return to key ideas (foundations) that might allow it to better govern itself, restore morale, and make consistent and principled decisions. We in the public should wish the agency well. We need to do something else. We need to consider what the alternatives really are. There are a hundred things that the Forest Service might do better….but that’s true about any organization, public, private or nonprofit. But what we may be embarking on here is a shrinking of a very visible and many would say cherished part of the public estate and its very public agency. If we want these lands to remain public and open to all then we need to realize that that is what may be ultimately at stake.

Posted by John Freemuth on February 27, 2007 at 12:00 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Martin Nie

I like John’s use of the perfect storm to describe the current state of affairs on the national forests. An impending trainwreck could also be used to describe things. Though the budget situation is key. What happens when the District Court in California rules that the 2005 NFMA regulations are contrary to various laws? Just imagine the mess and clean-up costs. That, along with the interminable roadless rule story, tells us something about bureaucratic dysfunction-by-design.

In my opinion, the situation is ripe for serious outside study and investigation by various forest policy professionals. No magic bullet is forthcoming, but some critical but constructive outside analysis would be beneficial—rather than agency leadership going to the same insiders over and over again. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Research Stations, along with their partners, were able and/or willing to take on these challenging issues of policy and governance. It is here where the problem lies, but how many experts in this area does the agency employ? (and I’m not looking for a job).

I’m a broken record: but the situation also demonstrates why we should convene another systematic comprehensive review of public lands/forest management. Let us examine the big, big, big policy picture.

We need to search for new political alliances that can help the agency during this critical period. Such alliances could provide the USFS with much needed political support, steer the agency away from sure-fire controversies, help expedite the decision making process, and perhaps convince Congress to fund the agency at responsible levels.


Martin Nie | Feb 28, 2007 8:55:36 AM

Posted by: John Freemuth

How about a trainwreck heading into a hurricane? Just ran this by a bunch of good USFS folks..thought it went over pretty well. And Martin's idea of outside study help is a good one..if we can only be timely..academics are often accused of being caught, not in a perfect storm but a perfect nap.

John Freemuth | Mar 1, 2007 12:50:52 PM

Posted by: liquified viscera

The USFS could find plenty of "political support" in those who use the forests for recreation and want to retain access for recreational purposes. As someone who lives in Mr Nie's town of Missoula I can say that my interactions with the USFS regarding mtn bike use and access in the USFS lands of western Montana has left me with the impression that the USFS wants to eliminate all uses that are not related to extraction and profiteering.

If that truly is what the USFS sees as its mission -- supporting the enrichment of the timber industry, at the expense of those who actually OWN the forests -- then I agree that the storm is perfect, and would emphasize that in its perfection, has the makings of a juggernaut of destruction.

There is a lot of inconsistency in the USFS management of lands where recreation is allowed. Horses are given access to trails that deny MTB access, even though horses are the primary engine for conditions that require trail maintenance. Backcountry horsemen would agree with this perspective, if asked off the record and in candor. MTB riders surely would agree with it.

What else is problematic? The appearance that the USFS lands in Missoula are drifting toward clearcut former forest stands, and pavement of wide paths rather than a more primitive experience in the woods.

"Problematic" is a huge understatement.

liquified viscera | May 10, 2007 11:09:59 AM

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