Do we need national ‘forests?’

Things seem a little quiet out there, so here is my response to Sharon’s asking what I  think about “disappearing districts” on June 12.  The problem I see with the approach of consolidating districts (and national forests) is that is an ad hoc and opportunistic response, and I haven’t seen much of an effort at long-term strategic planning for what the current and future agency should look like.

I think there are some good arguments for maintaining a local ‘face’ of the Forest Service responsible for implementing policies and programs.  I think that could be done with many staff specialists located elsewhere and in different places.  Something close to a “one person ranger district” might make sense again.

On the other hand, what purpose do national forest administrative units serve?  There is a need for someone at a higher level and with a broader view to develop policies and programs.  But is there really a need for a hundred-and-how-many different sets of policies?  There is a historic and legislative basis for national forest boundaries, but I think that the decentralization of authority that has been tied to that works hard against the need to reduce government costs (as well as creating artificial cross-jurisdictional management problems).

 

I think that the Clinton Administration had the right idea that the Forest Service can’t afford four layers of bureaucracy.  What would happen if we eliminated national forest supervisor offices?  Or if that’s too many districts for a regional office to handle, a more reasonable alternative might be to reorganize based on states or multi-state units (like the BLM, which would make it easier to eventually merge with the BLM).  This might even improve working relationships with the states.

 

 

8 Comments

  1. The rub here is that these lands are national resources, which are owned by every citizen. Jon, your point is well taken about the BLM example. I wonder if some of the BLM’s difficulties are tied to the complexities of managing national resources in the context of a state’s interests.

    Maybe managing national forest land is not meant to be cost efficient Government business? Especially with the number of public interests that need to be, or should be, considered?

  2. Ah Jon,
    Spoken from a true regional office perspective . The true redundancy in my view might be addressed by eliminating all regional offices;)
    Of course I spent 31 years working on four national forests so I might be a bit biased;)
    State wide offices might make sense but nothing can replace that face on the ground providing direct service;)

  3. I agree philosophically that cost efficiency is not a good way to measure success of conservation, but budget cuts are real and require a response.

    I also strongly agree that national forests should not be managed for state purposes, but there needs to be ongoing ‘government to government’ coordination, and I think it is more manageable at a state level than at a county level (counties can participate through state government channels). And like it or not, a state’s federal congressional representatives play a major role in FS operations.

    I worked at all four levels of the Forest Service. When I was on the forests, I sometimes wondered why there should be differences in how adjacent units approached planning (I did feel stronger about that when looking at it from the RO, multiple-region, interagency and WO perspectives).

    I’ve always understood that the ‘face on the ground’ (after a few collaborative drinks?) is the district ranger, and I think having 3 faces behind the curtain is one too many. The regional office is an easier target to shoot at (aren’t as many of them and less of a public constituency), but they provide a unified approach at the state level (and might be at a reasonable scale to justify policy differences). I guess I am asking what the individual forests provide that couldn’t be done by either the region or districts.

  4. We have lost slightly more than 50% of the worlds forest cover and our population now exceeds 7 billion and is increasing by more then 75 million annually. Most scientists agree that population expansion is the number one environmental issue we face today and deforestation is number three. Disposing of 193 million acres of National Forest lands under public management, would be devastating to the future of the human species. I do support the fact that management of our forests has been seriously lacking and major change needs to be made. Transferring these valuable lands to local government or private ownership is certainly not the answer! Our very survival depends upon improved management of these valuable assets. The “Report on Abuse”, July 2007, indicates a single tree over a 50 year life cycle, contributes $162,000.00 to the human environment. The by-product of proper management will provide valuable goods and services from the forests, however these valuable assets must remain the property of the American citizens and be manged to provide healthy and diverse forest communities, or if you prefer ecosystems. Past management efforts have been on what we can take from the forests, so called conservation, rather than on how to improve the health and diversity of our remaining forests. Preservation may have been okay 100 to 150 years ago, but today Mother Nature requires our assistance through proper management. Maintaining forest health and improving diversity is the solution we must strive for! Transferring ownership of these valuable lands to state and local governments or private institutions will only exacerbate the problem!

  5. My other concern has to do with consolidation for efficiency purposes. If one studies quality management principles, it is obvious that quality customer service is achieved by resolving issues at the ground level of the company. Consolidation elevates and prolongs services demanded by our customers. It may save a few dollars but normally results in reduced customer support for the company. The Forest Service’s establishment of a central purchasing office, under the Clinton Administration, is a good example. We have lost much of our local support due to reduced contact with local business people, businesses have experienced long delays in processing payment and now charge late fees or refuse to do business with the Districts, and I am told the Agency now pays substantial monthly late fees. If one is truly interested in improved efficiency and customer service, the best approach is to reduce the size of the overhead bureaucracy at the Regional and National level. The greatest gift Pinchot gave the Forest Service was not the concept of “Conservation” but the 4 level LINE organization which maximizes the concept of Customer Service!

  6. It’s good to get the perspective a former forest supervisor – thanks.
    I’m agreeing with the principle of providing customer service at the ground level, but asking whether that requires forest supervisors. (Couldn’t they also be considered ‘overhead?’)
    I think it is also fair to ask if customer service should be sacrosanct when considering how to allocate the dwindling dollars.

  7. Supervisors can be considered over head, however when used effectively a Forest Supervisor is responsible for supporting the District programs of work and developing the State-wide contacts, public and political, to support the on-the-ground programs. I do have a concern that the overhead bureaucracy is utilizing far to much of the available resources and significantly reducing our ability to provide the much needed management of the remaining forested lands. My biggest concern at the forest level is the continued effort to organize and drive the work programs on individual resources we can take from the forests rather than what is needed to maintain healthy diverse forest communities! These valuable forested lands are public and therefore customer service is vital and the primary responsibility of the Supervisor is to develop the public trust and support and Agency resources, the District Ranger’s need to do an effective job of management.

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