32 Comments

  1. Interesting article if you can get your hands on it.
    Looking for efficiencies in wildland fire is mentioned multiple times in the article.

    I’d like to see some probing into why the Interior dept. per acre suppression costs, in both the BLM and NPS, are much lower than what the USFS spends on suppression. That’d be worthwhile regardless of which dept. the FS is in.

    • Quick take on per-acre suppression costs: BLM handles range fires, which may cost less to fight. NPS has a very different approach to fire: as a natural process within its parks boundaries, and outside the parks it’s up to the USFS.

    • Hypothesis —
      the difference in per acre cost is related to the fact that BLM mostly manages remote, low-value rangeland (and remote Alaska), while the FS mostly manages higher-value forest lands that have far more fuel and more WUI interface.

  2. i am guessing one reason zinke supports putting the forest service “back” under the department of interior might have something to do with HR 621. HR 621, disposal of excess federal lands act, is chaffetz’s proposal to liquidate lands under the department of interior. IF HR 621 were to pass and IF USFS is under interior – congress would have authority to liquidate forest service lands in addition to blm and park land. i personally see this as not only bad management, but not feasible given state budgets. in addition, these lands, once relinquished from federal ownership could be sold to private billionaires. it’s time to call your congresspeople. tell them to keep federal land in federal hands. also HR 622 is a sister bill proposed by chaffetz. it proposes to eliminate all federal law enforcement positions in the BLM and the USFS. then to give states federal money to enforce federal laws on federal lands – how does this make sense? please call your congressional representatives. both of these bills are in committee now (house committee on natural resources).

  3. I think it makes some sense to have all land management agencies under one umbrella or at least reinvigorate ServiceFirst. For a while we had dual delegation on the San Juan Public Lands Center and the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center, which the public and the employees seemed to support. One morning we all came into work, there was a phone call from an individual and it was gone. We never understood what political pressures or personal vagaries caused that to happen.?? Still a Forest Service Policy Mystery.

    If I were Zinke, I would get some retirees with experience with Service First (not me, I didn’t except from afar, but I could give names) and talk to them and see what lessons they learned. When I worked on the idea of getting the FS and BLM together during the Reagan Administration, there was a lot of political flack. Service First had a lot of support. Hopefully we could learn something from our experience!

  4. My guess is that Zinke wants the Forest Service within the DOI because he is power hungry.

    I have heard people say they don’t like the Forest Service being within the USDA because the Forests have outgrown (no pun intended) their original purpose of being tree farms. Whether they want to transfer the Forest Service to Zinke’s control is an open question.

    Public opinion has not caught up with the science that does not support many proposed timber sales, for economic, biological, or safety purposes. As science calls into question logging to protect homes, the Forest Service is caught in a bit of an existential quandry. I want to emphasize that there is a place for the Forest Service to manage the land. I can think of one place that could use a prescribed burn or timber sale to restore bighorn sheep habitat.

    There is no denying that more and more people are living out West. They want to recreate on our public lands. Do others see an opportunity for the Forest Service to begin transitioning out of timber management and into recreation management? Maybe the agency already has, if so, can it transition away from what I perceive as an adversarial position? Granted, I take adversarial positions with the agency when I believe it is wrong for biological and legal reasons.

    • John, historically the Forest Service was not about “tree farms”. I don’t agree that “science” has called into question “logging to protect homes” (I don’t agree that there’s such a thing as “science”- there is scientific information). But if it is a such a bad idea, why do homeowners’ associations, county parks, etc. do fuel treatments without selling the logs?

      Also there are many (land of many uses) uses besides “logging”- firewood, oil and gas, grazing, mines, powerline and pipeline rights of way, and so on. Recreation is very important to the FS. Also BLM has logging also in fact the same laundry list of uses pretty much (others can catch me if this is wrong) so to some, including me, it makes some sense to either get serious about Service First or do something else. At one time when the centralization of business services wasn’t going well, our Regional Forester was trying to figure out a way to use BLM’s hiring office instead. The basic facts are that they do the same kind of stuff, and it might make sense to consciously figure out which ways work best and get everyone to do it that way (think FOIA regs, or hiring minerals people or ….).

      • I agree, historically the Forest Service was about logging, regardless of whether sustained-yield timber management was financially sustainable, i.e., tree farming. NFMA was supposed to change that pre-occupation:

        “The days have ended when the forest may be viewed only as trees and trees viewed only as timber. The soil and the water, the grasses and the shrubs, the fish and the wildlife, and the beauty of the forest must become integral parts of the resource manager’s thinking and actions.”
        -Senator Hubert Humphrey, 1976

        Nonetheless, logging levels continued unabated until the late 1980s when citizen NGOs won a series of lawsuits enforcing NFMA’s logging restrictions.

      • Sharon,

        The Forest Service is within the Department of Agriculture. Read: tree farms.

        Can you provide science that says logging helps protect homes miles away from the nearest structure?

        Politicians have been trying to sell the public on the idea that the environmentalists are obstructing logging projects designed to protect homes. I recently spoke with a Forest Service employee that told me the Rocky Mountain Research Station is putting out science about the Home Ignition Zone, which is much closer to a home than the Wildland Urban Interface.

        But if it is a such a bad idea, why do homeowners’ associations, county parks, etc. do fuel
        treatments without selling the logs?

        I would argue there is a large difference in the efficacy of logging projects in National Forests miles away from the nearest structure and a Homeowners’ Association cutting trees within the Home Ignition Zone.

            • John

              You will be repeating past mistakes if you continue to buy false science as you stated two comments above: “As science calls into question logging to protect homes, the Forest Service is caught in a bit of an existential quandry.”

              The two things that you don’t seem to recognize are:
              1) Logging must be done appropriately in accord with each individual situation. Failure due to poor planning and or execution does not invalidate the fundamental science.
              2) When people don’t take all factors into account the result is supposition not science. Forestry is all about probabilities. There are very few absolutes in operational forestry. The established scientific principles of ignition, spread and fuel conditions (moisture content, structural arrangement and proximity/density) are as sure as gravity. As a result, the probability of catastrophic loss to homes, forest and infrastructure is inversely proportional to fuel moisture content and directly proportional to fuel: proximity, continuity and density of ground and ladder fuels. So even a perfectly designed and executed fuels management effort will fail when abnormally high winds and dry air exist for a significant time prior to and at the time of ignition. – I’ll bet that you’d take the advice of a panel of all of the doctors licensed to practice medicine in that area, if they all agreed, even if there was only a 40% chance that their recommended treatment would save your life.
              Forestry is no different – The resistance, by some, to stand density management as an effective means of risk reduction for catastrophic loss from forest wildfire, insects and disease comes from those who only look at the cases where preventative efforts failed either because of an improper prescription, poor execution or where the weather conditions were on the right tail of the probability bell curve or where the fire was deliberately set.
              So those who object to stand density management, in effect, chose not to take the advice of the doctors or, in this case, trained and licensed foresters because the cure doesn’t always work. What’s worse is that they either don’t know or understand the fundamental science involved and they don’t seem to be interested in hearing about the cases to the left of the right tail of the bell probability curve where the treatment/cure worked.

        • (1) As Jim Furnish points out below in the comments, the location of the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture has a rich and complex history, well worth examining if you’re interested. People here could recommend books- biographies of Gifford Pinchot might be a place to start.
          (2) I think part of our disagreement is a definition of “tree farm.” If you mean “a place where trees are cut and used for lumber” that would make the ancient near east a “tree farm.” If you mean “a place where trees are planted and managed for timber” why then, we are talking specific forest management practices. When I started my career in south Central Oregon in 1979, we were still using the “pick and pluck” system of silviculture (the hunter-gatherer version and not the agricultural version) and I suspect that’s what most of the FS is doing today..
          (3) as to “fuels treatment” justifications “miles away from the nearest structure” could you please indicate some specific projects that use that justification? We’ve had this discussion on the blog (many times) before and we came to the conclusion that it is best to be specific about the project and the “purpose and need” to engage meaningfully.
          (4) As I said previously ” it’s not about the structures- it’s about the fact that people don’t want fire running through their communities. It is about all kinds of community infrastructure, stop signs and power poles, landscaping, fences, gardens, trees and benches in parks, people and pets and livestock having safe exits from encroaching fires. It is about firefighter safety and about conditions for different suppression tactics. That’s why fire breaks of some kinds around communities (not just structures) will always be popular in the real world. ” http://forestpolicypub.com/2010/03/01/science-or-scienciness-situations-that-shout-watch-out-1-3/

          • 2. As to tree farms, I mean growing trees with the intention of then cutting them down. Sure, the MUSYA requires the Forest Service to manage for multiple uses, including timber, but since the act breathes discretion at every pore, we now have the NFMA and other laws.
            3. As to fuels treatment justifications, does anyone have a copy of the internal Forest Service Policies regarding fuels treatments? I don’t want to argue over agency deference and the nitty gritty of one project, I want to argue over the agency’s policies in general.
            4. My fiance was a firefighter and I was a timber technician for the Forest Service so we have plenty of conversations regarding whether logging should happen on National Forests to protect firefighters. If a home is protected within the HIZ, then we don’t have to send firefighters into the National Forests. Should we ask communities and private individuals to take any personal responsibility when they choose to live next to our National Forests?

            • That is a very interesting point, especially when the adjacent Forest Service land below you is not overstocked with ‘logs’. Other times, the land is just not agreeable to an economically-effective style of logging. The private land owner needs to accept that some lands are going to burn, especially with more and more humans causing fires. There is really nothing the Feds can do about thick manzanita on a 40% slope. If your house is at the top of a obvious fire ‘chimney’, then that’s not very smart.

              However, here in California, we really should be establishing (and maintaining!) strategic fuelbreaks, even away from private homes. Those would have to be the shaded variety. The chances to compartmentalize wildfires are worth it, for me. Within those compartments, it would be a goal to re-build and restore forests, and their resilience to drought, bark beetles and wildfires.

              It remains to be seen what Trump will do, and won’t do. I expect his Administration to lose many court battles, because of overconfidence.

  5. In spite of many similarities between FS and BLM (most similar among Interior agencies), there are also important differences. BLM was the old land office, and when opportunities for selling these “least valuable” govt lands were pretty much exhausted, their mission changed from disposal to mgmt of the residual federal estate. BLM lands can still be sold today, FS lands cannot (X/C? Yes). Western NFs were created from the federal estate, eastern NFs were purchased.

    The roots of the FS in USDA were political and pragmatic. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 resulted in 40 million acres of forest reserves in Interior prior to TR. Pinchot became Interior’s chief forester after TR became President. Several years passed before the transition to NFs, creation of FS and the move to USDA. Several presidents have tried moving FS to Interior, but usually started late and came to the conclusion it wasn’t worth the effort when political headwinds mounted.

    If it happens, it needs to be done early and with executive action (something Trump is fond of), keeping BLM and FS as unique agencies.

    • During the Reagan administration, I remember that ranchers in my area (south Central Oregon) seemed to have figured out that they had achieved “getting along” with their own agency and did not want to trade for another, unknown agency. Gosh I forgot what that effort was called. .. I’m sure someone here remembers…

      Whatever the concerns and fears are, of permittees, recreationists and so on, the public could be consulted through public involvement and their concerns addressed. In fact, it might be fun and enlightening for employees to work on something apart from Things That Are Prone to Partisanization.

  6. Would it be such a bad idea to combine the agencies? The share offices and have land in close proximity in Southwestern Oregon. I have seen the FS sell land also, though I am a strong believer in public lands.
    We just need to manage them more realistically. If you have ever been around a forest long enough you learn that the trees are always growing and dying. To me it only makes sense to harvest that resource.

  7. Service First is still alive to some degree – there are many “shared” positions, and many employees move between the two agencies (at least in western Oregon). One thing to remember is that about 80% of the BLM administered land in western Oregon (including southwestern Oregon) is O&C land, which has a very different mandate (and law) than the National Forests. It is primarily a checkerboard ownership pattern with private land alternating with BLM-administered land. Another thing is that the fire protection on BLM-administered land in western Oregon is provided by the Oregon Department of Forestry. That makes some sense given that ODF also provides the Fire Protection for private land as well.
    Most of the employee transfer is from the Forest Service to the BLM – BLM (at least in western Oregon) doesn’t seem to have the budget issues that the FS does, and BLM employees have much less workload and a higher paygrade than their FS counterparts with similar levels of responsibilities – go figure….

  8. GAO did a study in 2009: “…Changes needed to departmental and agency organization in the event of a move could also present challenges. For example, officials and experts said that integrating the Forest Service’s reporting, budgeting, and personnel processes and systems into Interior’s could be time-consuming, disruptive, and costly. Further, complex legal issues, such as differing statutory authorities, may need reconciliation.” http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-223

    I had some experience in the WO exploring Service First with the attorneys back in the 2000s, and they noted that BLM and FS could not legally use the other agency’s authority, so a permit had to reference both BLM and FS authority, and furthermore, line officers were not authorized to sign a permit for a “sister” agency. I think that there were a lot of things going on at Service First sites that were not legal and could have been successfully challenged, but I’m not aware that they were, probably because the service provided was satisfactory. I’ve always felt that once Congress saw how complicated it could be to untie all the legal knots and authorities, they decided it wouldn’t be worth trouble, or opening up all those authorities to mischief. Not sure the Agriculture Committee would want to give up its jurisdiction, for instance.

    But if we could start fresh with management of public lands today, I wonder what it would look like?

  9. Teri, that’s right, but they were making great progress but the people I spoke with on the ground (as opposed to GAO) did not see that it was all that difficult in practice and well worth it!

    Could you write a post giving your idea of what it would “start fresh” would look like? I for one would be very interested in what you think.

  10. Obviously, there would be high front-end cost of integration of personnel and procedures, but the years of potential savings could be substantial (though the 2009 report doesn’t seem to say much about cost-efficiency). The front-end challenge includes reconciling MUSYA/NFMA with FLPMA (and other lesser statutory authorities), but the differences are in the details. True, considering changes in these laws could be risky.

    Politically it’s hard to sell pay me now over pay me later, but I’m surprised the deficit hawks haven’t been pushing more for getting rid of a government agency. While the proposals generally seem to want to preserve the Forest Service as an agency, once they are in the same Department why should BLM and the Forest Service be separate? They are both multiple-use land managers. (State and Private Forestry and probably Research would be a better fit if they stayed in USDA.)

    Nobody has mentioned what I understood to be the main reason the Forest Service has always resisted (and why they have gotten political support). That is the degree of autonomy they get by having a leader who is a career employee rather than a political appointee (as well as by requiring expertise not typically available in the Department outside of the agency). But that leadership distinction may not be as important as it used to be.

    (Sharon, I remember a an earlier BLM/FS sharing strategy being called something like “interchange.”)

  11. The biggest dead weight for the FS in USDA is lack of awareness, advocacy, priority, and distinction. Anyone who thinks “agency autonomy” is a net plus hasn’t been paying close attention for the last 25 years.

  12. On March 1, 2017, the Senate confirmed Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) as Secretary of the Interior in a 68-31 bipartisan vote. He was sworn into the Cabinet later that day by Vice President Mike Pence. Zinke was able to attract 16 Democratic votes, with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Or.) stating that he believes Zinke “will focus on doing his job, which includes protecting our special places and managing the forests already within the Interior Department’s control, instead of engaging in senseless reorganization of bureaucracies.”

    (Any idea what it takes to qualify as a “bipartisan vote?”)

    http://www.endangeredspecieslawandpolicy.com/2017/03/articles/congress/senate-confirms-secretary-of-the-interior-ryan-zinke/?utm_source=Nossaman+LLP+-+Endangered+Species+Law+and+Policy&utm_campaign=2657726f99-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f2072431ce-2657726f99-70705309

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