Book Review: “Toward a Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition” by Jim Furnish

toward a natural forest

Many thanks to Teri Cleland for her contribution!

Review by Teri Cleeland, who retired from the US Forest Service in 2013 after a nearly 30 year career with assignments in Arizona, Washington DC, and Florida.

After seven years working as a seasonal archeologist for the Forest Service and Park Service, I finally landed a permanent job in 1989 on the Kaibab National Forest in northern Arizona. The job only came about because of a consent decree the Forest Service had signed to settle a lawsuit based on careless destruction of significant southwestern cultural sites during logging operations. “Save the Jemez” brought together a coalition of Tribes, environmental groups, even the State of New Mexico, against the Forest Service. The Agency bowed to legal pressure and instituted reforms that were a boon to my career and began a sustained period of protection and interpretation of many archeological and historic sites, as well as improved relations with Tribal governments. I got a ground floor view of the beginning of change in the Forest Service, change that has come fitfully through the years and continues today.

So it was fascinating to read Jim Furnish’s memoir about his career in the Forest Service, “Toward a Natural Forest” (Oregon State University Press, 2015). Furnish started as a company man in the “timber is king” era of the 1960s and slowly evolved a new land ethic, ending his career at the pinnacle of the agency as an iconoclast—and outcast—for his unconventional ideas and style, pushing for the embrace of ecosystem management.

This is a personal account that traces Furnish’s career and how certain experiences through the years changed his view on Forest Service management practices and his own land ethic. Only 200 pages long, it is well-written and engaging, short on details but with an unflinching viewpoint. It focuses primarily on timber issues, which keeps the book at a manageable length; although I found myself wishing he had included more about other issues such as recreation and tribal relations.

Anyone who worked for the agency (or against the agency) in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s will be interested to read Furnish’s accounts of some of the great controversies of the times. I found myself reflecting on my own perspective as a field staff officer hearing the buzz about how politicized the agency had become. I wanted to find out how Washington ticked, and so became an idealistic newbie in the Washington Office, where I briefly worked with Furnish on the Recreation Fee Demonstration program. From the fights over unrealistic timber targets to the Spotted Owl controversy and Chief Dombeck’s race to institute a Planning Rule and Roadless Rule in the waning years of the Clinton administration, Furnish provides his unique perspective.

The book also includes frank acknowledgement of Furnish’s own shortcomings and a fascinating account of how he vaulted from the supervisor of a relatively small national forest (the Suislaw) to the Deputy Chief for the National Forest System. Many names in the book will be familiar Forest Service followers. Furnish heaps praise on some and scorn on others, but never gets too personal. And he doesn’t spare himself from scrutiny.

Of his first ranger job on the Tensleep District on the Bighorn National Forest, Furnish said “. . . I came to sense I hadn’t made the grade as a district ranger, certainly not in the eyes of many of my peers, nor, to a degree, in my own eyes.” Later, as acting Forest Supervisor on the Suislaw National Forest, a clash of viewpoints on logging brought many personnel changes. “When presented with opportunities to bring careers to an end, I seized each chance. I had been ruthless in ways I thought myself incapable of.” That statement might have come back to haunt Furnish when the end of his own career came with the Bush administration: “I clearly had no legitimacy . . . I was marginalized, irrelevant. . . . Though the treatment was not unexpected, the rapidity with which it happened surprised me.” For Furnish, the end came not with a bang but a whimper, eased out with little fanfare.

But he continued to advocate for change in the Forest Service, and felt “sweet vindication” when a court ruling in 2012 supported his Roadless Area Conservation Rule. And he approves the latest Planning Rule as an improvement on the 2001 version he helped craft. Although the Forest Service has left many of the old timber battles behind, according to Furnish, it has a long way to go toward both restoring trust in the agency and restoring the National Forests. I think Furnish might be underestimating how far the agency has advanced a restoration ethic in the 13 years since he left the agency. But there is no doubt in his assessment that bold leadership is needed to achieve the goal of restoring and sustaining our nation’s forests.

With an excellent forward by historian Char Miller, I recommend this book as a contribution toward understanding a tumultuous period of land management in the United States with unique insights into the Forest Service organization and some of its key players.

18 Comments

  1. I’ve worked around the edges of the Siuslaw National Forest for over 40 years. During that time, I can count 15 sawmills that have gone out of business (virtually all of them in the 90’s) in just Benton County. All of these were small, local, family-owned mills who relied almost entirely on log purchases on the open market; the bulk of these logs were from federal land.

    When the Siuslaw quit producing logs in the early 90’s, to stay in business, these mills had to compete for logs and were paying astronomically high log prices. While great (in the short run) for the private landowner, this was not a sustainable business model and most went broke. Then, with fewer mills, the competition for logs crashed and prices went back down to more realistic levels.

    A couple of these mills did have some forest land. In an effort to stay in business, some were harvesting a lot of acres of 30-35 year old timber! This led to the Oregon Forest Practices Act enacting a rule that limited final harvest units to 120 acres.

    Today, Benton County has just three mills left. One cuts nothing but western red cedar (much of it brought down from Washington); and one that cuts mid to large-sized logs. Both of these are small, local, family-owned mills. The third is part of a very large, nation-wide conglomerate and cuts mid-sized logs. All those other mills – they exist only in history books.

    At a book signing and the viewing of an AFSEEE video, there were some who seemed proud of all the good work the Siuslaw is doing and that all those mills no longer exist.

  2. I am far from proud that those mills no longer exist. I am in fact saddened by that outcome. But the Siuslaw NF was handed a 7 million bd foot program by the NW Forest Plan, after decades of harvesting 250-350 million. Thus, the harsh reality was not unexpected. Many would argue (like me) that the former harvest levels were excessive, in light of other values at risk (wildlife, fish, water quality, etc). I am proud that the Siuslaw NF is reliably, sustainably producing about 40 mmbf every year. And local mills and operators are glad to have the work and the product.

  3. I’d like to ask you a few questions Mr. Furnish.
    #1…Do you think there should be more timber harvest on national forest lands?
    #2…Do you regret that timber harvest has been half of what was planned in the NWFP?
    #3…Do you have any concerns with the lack of early seral habitat on the Siuslaw NF? Especially in light that the whole forest was early seral in the late 1800’s. Lack of early seral is becoming, “a growing concern” in recent USFS monitoring reports. According to the 2013 monitoring report, early seral has declined by almost 4% in the last 20 years…far below amounts in a 1930 inventory. From what I’ve read in EA’s and EIS’s on the Siuslaw, “early seral” treatments are limited in size to no more than 3 acres as “any larger openings would attract the barred owl.” Therefore, in all of the “plantation thinning” projects, only 10% of the acreage is being converted to early seral in “patch cuts” no larger than 1 acre. At the current rate of harvest, the Siuslaw will create only 1% early seral habitat….every 20 years. Any concerns there? Why isn’t any of Franklins “variable retention” clearcut harvests being done on some of these plantations? Especially in light of the fact that the 2013 monitoring found that the amount of >80year old forest is within the range of variability and the amount of >200 year old is well above that which was found in a 1933 inventory. Isn’t it obvious that the Siuslaw is currently under a monospecies management plan? What about all the hoopla about species diversity? I see the temperature was 103 in Portland the other day…with any luck a butterfly will flap it’s wings somewhere and you’ll get your early seral (sorry, that’s my alter ego speaking).
    #4…I think your contention in another post that all is well in affected counties because “130,000 jobs in the recreation industry has been created” is dubious. If the “recreation industry jobs” was such an adequate replacement, wouldn’t these counties be enjoying the same financial boom they were in the 80’s? Doesn’t appear to be so. The idea that you can only have one (timber harvest) or the other (recreation) is faulty. Recreation and logging can co-exist together quite nicely….isn’t that what management areas (MA) is all about?
    #5…I think your contention that “40 MMBF of timber is a lot and the loggers are damn glad to get it,” is dubious. My little semi-arid NF harvests 2.5 times that…with 1/4 the rainfall.
    #6…Isn’t your contention in another post that “since mechanization has already replaced half the logging workforce it is justified that we eliminate the other half”… analogous to saying that’s “its OK to let half the passengers on a plane burn to death because the other half died on impact?”
    #7…Finally, How the hell do you pronounce “Siuslaw” ? LOL.

  4. Am I to assume there is no older growth on the Siuslaw, no Red Cedar or Sitka Spruce that could be salvaged? I almost live next door to it but I have never seen any timber sales that would be of interests to our mill come from the Siuslaw. A small mill needs something different from thinning of Douglas fir. There is no way to compete with large mills turning out millions of board feet a day. Strange to be traveling 100 of miles to the South and not to venture 50 miles north to a Coastal rain forest looking for wood.

    • Bob: memory is fading, but as best I can recall one big change in the NW Forest Plan was to leave most windthrow/bug kill in place rather than salvage it. I recall trying to secure some Siuslaw red cedar for a Siletz Tribal ceremonial slab house and couldn’t get it done. They did get some from the Willamette, however. Don’t remember all the reasons why. You could still approach forest supv Jerry Ingersoll, though.

  5. Derek: one more thing… don’t put words in my mouth, please. I never said 40mmbf/yr is “a lot”. It’s WAY below annual growth, but it’s much more than 7mmbf, and I do think 250mmbf was too much. The real benefit is that 40mmbf is reliable and has been for 20 years with no timber sale appeals. I do feel good about that. I did not say loggers are “damn glad”, but they do appreciate the work and the product and have really stepped up as FS partners to adapt to new reality. They also still want more and bigger wood. But job #1 on the Siuslaw at present is to grow OG asap, thus most annual growth goes toward that end. Thinning old plantations will end in about another 20 years. Where Siuslaw goes from there is an open and challenging question.

  6. Just finished the book, and looked forward to commenting on Jim’s experiences. I am surprised to see the comments to date relate exclusively to that one forest, and complaints about the cut level. There was a lot more meat in this book than that.
    I joined the outfit in 1957 on the Kootenai NF, when the call to “get the cut out” in R-1 was loud and strong. And being totally green and from the mid-west, I openly accepted the policies and goals we had for log output. Who was I, with a degree in wildlife mgt. from Purdue, to question or challenge anything the first few years? I toed the line, and thought the agency at that time could do no wrong. They had hired me, hadn’t they?
    In 1960 a transfer and promotion to Asst. Ranger on a Helena NF continental divide ranger district started to open my eyes. This was not a timber district, but the leaders were trying hard to cut anything green that might go through a head-rig. My responsibilities were almost all the functions except timber, and as I gained experience and my eyes opened to happenings on the district and nationally, I too started a transformation towards forest uses/values other than logs.
    My one unique experience was in the mid 1970s, on the Colville NF, when the forest was administratively transferred from R-1 to R-6. This was an eye-opening period when the forest budget largely doubled in a year. Funds from the timber-beast region were generous beyond belief for the small Colville; plus attitudes and outlook so forward thinking and refreshing. (At least among the R-6 staff I met and exchanged views with.)
    These two years in R-6 opened my eyes to the totally new idea of “old-growth” as a resource value that went beyond fat logs and big money. Region Six was actively exploring the role of old-growth in forest management, a concept that was totally unheard of (or considered) in Region One at that time. Later in 1976 after a move back to R-1 as the forest planner on the Idaho Panhandle NF, I had the opportunity to promote “old-growth” and it’s values to other staff and other planner on other forests. If there is one thing I still value from my 25 years wearing green underwear, it is my efforts to give old-growth a dominant place in the forest plans we began in the early 1980s.
    Jim learned as I did that the old “timber is king” culture that dominated the West after WWII was harmful and destructive in the manner that many silviculturalists prescribed. I too found myself secretly cheering as the Wilderness Act and NFMA was passed…couldn’t cheer too loudly at first. Because it might hurt your career.
    Jim was able to work with (for a while) the politics from Washington and tried to accomplish good, needed changes. But I, after Reagan and his timber industry henchmen took the reins in 1980, was beat down and discouraged to see what pressure groups could do to circumvent the legislative directions from Congress. My efforts, along with the IDT on our forest and with the Clearwater and Nez Perce planners, were regularly dismissed and negated by the regional planner in Missoula who was clearly getting his marching orders from the pols. Without support from my supervisor, I could see the battle for a balanced IPNF Forest Plan was lost. It was a sad, early-out retirement for me.
    I could write reams about our early efforts with FORPLAN and the “monster” computer in Ft. Collins which dominated early forest planning efforts, and our inability to have useful GIS mapping ability. Needless to say to those of you who went through those same days awaiting overnight printouts, it was like trying to develop a moon landing module using hammers and hand-saws.

    • Thoughtful comments, Ed. And thanks for actually reading the book, the whole book. I think there’s much in it worth considering. I don’t yearn for people agreeing with everything I think or say, so much as weighing my views while making up their own mind about how our priceless NFs are to be managed.

      • Yep, the problem with being in the middle-of-the-road is that you get attacked from both sides. There will always be the extreme preservationists who think all public forests should be Wilderness or National Parks (anything less is not enough “protection”). Also, there are still some “dinosaurs” in the Forest service who want to cut as much as possible, too. Enlightened people want site-specific science and conditions to guide the way. My experience in 29 National Forests and 11 States has shown me that. We still need more forest resilience, in the face of overstocked and unhealthy forests, with so many impacts from drought, bark beetles and firestorms.

    • Ed, thanks for your comments.. and history. It is difficult because the Forest Service is an executive branch agency and the political leaders change over time based on elections. Sometimes you agree more with one group than the other. Sometimes one group likes you more than the other, or decides they don’t like you for whatever reason. And your own outfit (to which you have been loyal) can’t be loyal to you, because they have to serve the political leadership as per the Constitution.

      I agree it can be sad, painful and difficult.

    • Good summary Ed. I too had to live and work with the USFS employees who would take extraordinary measures to “get-out-the-cut” if I wanted to keep my job. I tried changing things on the Nez Perce NF from within the agency. I stopped when my supervisor told me “there are lots of people out there who would do forest planning work for your GS-12 salary and they would be ‘team players.’ ” Even now, employees who question whether the economic advantages of timber harvest to the locals is justified when considering the adverse effects to amenity natural resources so important to the recreating public.

      I expected too much from Mr. Furnish’s book. I was excited to learn how the USFS was now Transitioning toward a Natural Forest. I read his book and scanned it again but I was unable to find information explaining how the USFS was now Transitioning toward a Natural Forest. Was this just a catchy title for his book? I don’t know but my disappointment in the book cannot be overemphasized.

      • I think it largely depends upon a person’s definition of “natural forest”. Some continue to push for a “pre-man” forest, which is absolutely impossible. Some merely would like to see clearcutting minimized, with more selective thinning projects. That would qualify as “Transitioning Towards a Natural Forest”, “in my book”. I tend to think that “Towards” is a very key word, here. Many also think that expert American Indian management practices would result in “natural” forests, too, on some pieces of ground. Indeed, some prefer a forest where no logging would ever occur, replaced by those burning practices. And some want purely unmanaged forests, where “Whatever Happens”, happens, usually to the detriment of our unnatural forests, overstocked and unhealthy, impacted by man for decades.

  7. I developed the main title “Toward a Natural Forest” while OSU Press suggested the sub-title “The FS in Transition” to which I agreed, a bit reluctantly. Although I think the FS has changed, some for the better (less dogmatic about timber harvest being the end-all of mgmt), some for the worse (loss of passion and coherence), I believe the FS has a long ways to go yet to secure a better future. I tried to speak to the tumult and challenge of change, without implying that it was fully and beneficially accomplished. If anything, I was disappointed in the degree to which the FS “returned to form” (happily?) during the Bush years. I agree that there is no way we can return forests to some ideal state, thus the term “toward” is used. I also tried to describe “natural” as lying toward the ecologically sustainable end of a spectrum, with humans actively engaged in cautious, responsible use of forest resources.

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