Place-based Bills & Agreements: Defining Characteristic #2: Landscape-Scale Restoration and Its Relationship to Rural Communities

By Martin Nie, University of Montana

(This is another post that tries to make some sense of the following place-based forest bills and agreements)

Nearly every place-based bill and initiative examined thus far focuses on the need for “landscape-scale” restoration.  From a collaboration standpoint, restoration is a common zone of agreement among several of these groups.  The scale is sometimes defined by reference to (sub)watersheds or acreage (e.g., 25,000 to 50,000 acres) for which restoration projects should be planned and implemented. 

Though the term “landscape-scale” is now fashionable, it is often used with some imprecision. (Just how, for example, does this differ from yesterday’s focus on ecosystem management?).  These cases give the term additional meaning, by occasionally making reference to other ownerships and by focusing on restoration goals that are transboundary in nature (e.g., water flow, wildlife, natural disturbances, etc.). 

The place-based bills and initiatives also adopt a more ecologically-centered definition of restoration than has sometimes been used by lawmakers and the agency in the past.  To be sure, all identify a clear need to mechanically treat some forests in order to reduce risks associated with uncharacteristic wildfire effects.  But these initiatives go beyond this limited view and focus on additional restoration needs, such as habitat improvement, water quality, management of exotics, and road decommissioning. 

Sideboards for restoration are also provided in most of these initiatives.  This most often takes the form of prohibitions on new road building and road density standards.  As discussed in an earlier post, these groups have also worked hard to identify areas in which restoration projects should be prioritized and areas that should be more or less left alone in some protected (roadless) status. 

Many of these initiatives also adopt a landscape-level view of restoration because of economics and agency budgets.  Almost all make linkages between restoration and rural economies.  They operate on the principal that  a viable wood products industry is necessary for the attainment and financing of various restoration goals.  This explains why most of them rely so heavily upon stewardship contracting authority.  Some are also premised on the economic use of restoration byproducts.  Take, for example, the interest in biomass and small wood utilization: in some cases “landscape-scale” is defined by accessibility to wood products infrastructure that is at an appropriate scale to use woody biomass. 

So What?

On a more general level, we should recognize that the term “restoration” is obviously open to multiple political interpretations.  And that is certainly one reason why it is so popular.  As a policy professor, my level of suspicion raises in proportion to the amount of agreement about something.  That skepticism is warranted in cases where the agreement centers on rather ill-defined, malleable concepts like “restoration,” “forest health,” “collaboration,” “resilience,” etc.  Like Congress, interest groups and the agency compromise and/or postpone future conflict by using vagueness—the ultimate political lubricant. 

So what I find potentially useful about all these place-based bills and agreements is how they have negotiated the term—they have moved from the abstract and malleable to the concrete and more specific.

3 Comments

  1. I am intrigued with the message place-based bill sponsors are sending. First, it’s unlikely that any of the pending place-based bills will become law. None of the bills gives the Forest Service additional authority it does not now enjoy. None of the bills relieves the Forest Service from existing legal responsibilities, e.g., environmental disclosure, planning, ESA consultation.

    So what are these bills trying to do? They are legislative shouts of acute frustration directed at a dysfunctional agency. The bills’ sponsors are irate that the Forest Service is incapable of cutting trees in which no one is sitting in protest. The bills’ sponsors want more of the Forest Service’s budget spent in rural areas and much less spent inside the Beltway and urban regional offices. The bills’ sponsors want someone to answer the phone when their staffs call — no one does because the agency’s workers are in endless, pointless meetings.

    Forest Service employees share these frustrations. They ranked the Forest Service 206th among 216 federal agency employers. Employees’ low ranking of Washington Office leadership depressed the agency’s overall score.

    The best planning rule in the world won’t save an agency with incompetent leadership. That’s the message place-based bill sponsors ought to be sending to USDA and the White House.

  2. Collaboration is certainly no guarantee of no litigation. The Quincy Library Group is a perfect example of that. I believe that Tester’s Bill has no chance of passing. Both eastern Democrats AND Republicans will vote against it, boosting their “green creds” by saying that they voted against “Wilderness logging”. This works perfectly for their re-election campaigns, as a vote against the bill will have zero adverse political impacts in their constituency. In the west, politicians will also probably decline to vote for it, especially after seeing Sherman’s scathing testimony. In the end, Tester will be able to say, “Well, I tried!”

  3. Andy- I’m not sure what the sponsors of the bill “really” want. I guess we would have to talk to them and ask. It sounds like they want the same thing that many others want from the FS – “accountability.” If we put in a plan that we are going to do something, be it timber targets or standards, people want to know that we are going to do what we say. But we are legally liable for standards and not for other targets. Maybe they feel that it’s not fair that some folks’ opinions (those who pay lawyers to fight in court) count so much more than others. Maybe they are frustrated by some 9th Circuit decisions and are trying to achieve a balance of powers exactly as designed by the Founders.

    I think the survey probably has many important things to say if we were to delve into it. Certainly endless pointless meetings on a district where people are not answering the phone are not caused (directly) by WO leadership. Having listened to folks on a number of reviews, they tell us they are very frustrated by 1) dealing with the aftermath of implemented ideologies of past administrations (centralizing is great and so is outsourcing), 2) not enough money to do what needs to be done, 3) too many initiatives and legislated requirements and court orders (iniatives from the administration, legislated requirements from Congress and court orders from the judiciary), 4) too much proponent generated business and not enough funding, 5) difficult supervisors and coworkers, and 6) tools that don’t work, (which often is a result of 1).

    What some people might not realize, who haven’t worked in DC, is that the entire FS (including leadership) is a relatively small piece of the larger action. It would be interesting to ask the surveyed again the question “What do you want them (WO leadership) to do?” and see what the answers are.

    But I have not been following this, perhaps that’s already happened.

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