Place-based Bills & Agreements: Defining Characteristic #3: Frustration with Status Quo and Desire for Change

Martin Nie, University of Montana

Here is my third post focused on the defining characteristics of selected place-based bills and agreements.  I should have started with this one obviously.  But unlike the other posts on the topic, this one doesn’t emerge from just looking at those tables and associated documents—but required some further background, digging, and conversations. 

A third defining characteristic of these initiatives is a widespread sense of frustration with the status quo.  While differences abound, all of these initiatives want to change something in national forest management.  Though not universally agreed upon, there are multiple sources of frustration shared by members of these groups. 

Some group representatives, for example, express frustration with forest planning processes.  For some, the process takes too long, while for others it doesn’t provide enough certainty or predictability (as discussed previously). Compounding things is the fact that forest planning rules have been in a state of regulatory and legal limbo. 

Funding for the USFS is another commonly identified source of frustration.  All of the initiatives have taken shape in the shadow of a deeply problematic Forest Service budget that has been annually upended to pay for associated fire management costs.  Since the 1990s, the average annual acreage burned by wildland fires has increased by roughly 70 percent. At the same time, the Forest Service’s fire-related appropriations have more than doubled, representing about half of the agency’s total annual appropriations.   In order to pay for the costs associated with wildland fire suppression and management, the agency has regularly transferred funds from other Forest Service programs. 

For Senators Tester and Wyden, among other Senators recently writing to President Obama, money going to fire suppression is money not going to restoration and forest management: 

When the Forest Service’s general budget is reduced either by fighting wildfires or inflationary costs, other vital projects such as restoring watersheds, investing in infrastructure, and managing for ecosystem health are put on an indefinite hold.  These programs are critical to protecting our communities, adapting to climate change, maintaining our forest products infrastructure and improving ecosystem health.

Similar complaints have been made by others, and they cross the political spectrum.  For Russell Vaagen, Vice President of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc., and a member of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, the Forest Service’s fire budget “is now squeezing every other non-fire program” and this constitutes a “disaster of epic proportions.” In representing Oregon Wild in favor of Senator Wyden’s bill, Andy Kerr similarly acknowledges the challenges of securing adequate funding to implement S. 2895: 

The best source of funds to pay down this ecological debt—by undertaking the necessary comprehensive forest and watershed restoration—is to reprogram current Forest Service annual appropriations that now go to a fire-industrial complex that wastes billions of dollars attempting to extinguish fires that cannot or should not be extinguished.

This budgetary backdrop adds another dose of uncertainty and frustration into the mix.  And this helps explain why so many initiatives are seeking more secure dollars from alternative funding sources.  Senator Wyden, for example, authorizes $50,000,000 to carry out the purposes of his bill.  Several initiatives are also competing for appropriations already authorized by the Forest Landscape Restoration Act.  And every initiative embraces the use of stewardship contracting authority as a way to pay for restoration and mitigate the problems associated with having to rely upon a highly uncertain Congressional appropriations process. 

Some of the dismay also revolves around the organizational culture of the U.S. Forest Service.  This theme emerged—unprompted—in several discussions with place-based participants.  Some people see the agency as a “paper tiger,” one forced to do more planning and paperwork than active forest management and restoration.  Others emphasize a perceived agency culture that is resistant to change and slow to embrace new ways of doing things.  One person went so far as to compare the agency’s troubles with the history of the U.S. auto industry.  Whatever the reasons, frustrations with the USFS partially explains why place-based initiatives are seeking legislation or formalized agreements, as both approaches ostensibly limit the agency’s discretion and force it to do particular things. 

Several people also expressed frustration with the Forest Service’s small-bore approach to restoration.  A common refrain, heard from conservationists and industry representatives, is that the agency manages and implements projects at too small of scale.  This is probably due in part to the agency’s fear of administrative appeals and litigation.  These challenges apparently get easier as the projects get larger in scope and scale.   The irony here is that the Forest Service, in Pavlonian response to appeals and litigation, are now thinking at too small of scale according to various interests.  Russell Hoeflich, Vice President and Oregon Director of the Nature Conservancy, played a consulting role in Wyden’s Bill and summarized the situation like this:

Controversies surrounding forest management compel federal agencies to plan restoration projects at very small scales.  To meet their action goals, federal agencies have to consider what is doable in addition to considering what is most important.  As a result, they often propose relatively small and narrowly-focused management actions.  On the other hand, ecosystems and the species they support interact in complex ways and at relatively large scales on the landscape.  The magnitude of the forest health problem demands working at vastly larger scales if we are to get ahead of the problem.

When viewed together, these frustrations, among others, help explain why these initiatives are doing what they are doing. 

P.S.  Just a reminder that registration for the upcoming symposium focused on place-based laws and agreements closes this Friday.

6 thoughts on “Place-based Bills & Agreements: Defining Characteristic #3: Frustration with Status Quo and Desire for Change”

  1. Martin- Thanks for taking this from the spreadsheet (which was very useful) on to the next, deeper level.

    I think the agreement among the interests might be that:
    1) if you manage vegetation for ecological reasons, as opposed to simple jobs reasons and if you do it in an enviromentally friendly way, then treatments are OK
    2) if you are going to remove the material anyway, we should develop industries to use it (primarily to reduce costs, but also to reduce pollution from burning, replace fossil fuels, or simply not to waste resources).
    3) to do that you need some certainty to develop those industries
    4) which would argue for guarantees of availability for a specific long time period
    5) but litigation and appeals reduce certainty

    Now, onto where I disagree. I think the Forest Service is fully capable of thinking at a large scale while doing NEPA documents at a small scale.

    Here’s an analogy we used while developing the 2005 Planning Rule. It used to be that a forest plan was a little like a big freighter. It doesn’t leave the harbor too often, so people keep it waiting to pile more and more freight into it. Finally it sinks in the harbor under its own weight, or leaves too late for the cargo to arrive at its destination while still fresh, and is such a large target that predators gather at the mouth of the port to attack it.

    In contrast, the forest plan could be a speedy lead craft that continually senses the environment and sets and adjusts the course for a flotilla of small boats that leave the port whenever they are ready. When a predator attacks, they can take evasive action with the result that at least some of them will reach their final destination in a timely way.

    To say that we have a lot of small boats therefore no one is setting the overall course does not follow. The FS strategy is simply the result of coevolution.

    To change, we simply need to change the selection pressure. We can point fingers- it’s the industry, it’s the enviros, it’s the FS, or we can jointly figure out what needs to change to make it work. I’m looking forward to helping do that next week.

  2. When the Forest Service was cutting 10-12 billion board feet of timber a year (while siphoning much of the timber revenue into its own budget), neither the agency, local governments, the timber industry, nor politicians had any interest in collaboration. Environmentalists were ignored, frozen-out, marginalized and dismissed. With no seat at the table, which was behind a closed and locked door, environmentalists pursued their interests in the one venue with a more level playing field — the courts. They won enough victories to force some of the locked doors open.

    But who was given the new seats at the table? Generally not the folks who brought and won the lawsuits. More commonly, the seats were taken by those who support the agency’s quest for increased spending.

  3. And now, the tables are turned with the eco’s having closed-door sessions, side-stepping established environmental laws, locking out science, as well as loggers. I guess all those dead “forest destroyers” still need punishment that 7 generations of foresters must endure, eh? Yea, we musteth cleanse our forests of all mortal human impacts and cancers by FIRE! Fire, alone, can be the only future for our public lands. Only then can we consider our sacred public lands to be “natural” and worthy of being “wilderness”. Praise Gaia!…Praise Gaia!!

  4. Here’s a link to a study by Donald McGregor and Dave Seesholtz that explores a variety of topics about why the FS chooses to do NEPA the way we do, including scale.

  5. When the FS is spending about half it’s funding on the fire organization and quarter of its funding on NEPA and planning it is no wonder that people are not satisfied with the status quo. Any attempts to do large scale NEPA usually gets bogged down in analysis, and make tempting targets for litigation. If you do anything on a large scale your bound to affect something.


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