The Forest Service’s Fatal Flaw?

Road removal in Redwood State Park (CA). Adam Switalski 2004c.

Guest Post by Bethanie Walder, Wildlands CPR.  (as requested by Martin Nie)

Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, Willy Loman, Tony Soprano, and … the Forest Service? A diverse group with a common theme – tragic or fatal flaws. From ancient literature to modern times, people have written about, read about and dissected the concept of the fatal flaw. High school and college classes abound with papers about tragic heroes, fatal flaws, and what can be learned from them. While it’s been a long time since I’ve taken such a class, and my metaphorical synapses are a little rusty, it seems to me that the Forest Service may have a fatal flaw when it comes to implementing their new restoration vision: accountability.

One word may be too simplistic to describe the whole problem – which is really an issue of infrastructure-deficiency. Basically, the Forest Service has no staff, program, or office dedicated to implementing restoration at either the policy or on-the-ground levels, yet they have adopted restoration as their new vision for the 21st Century. The problem is, you can’t have a 21st Century vision without a commensurate infrastructure to enable you to implement that vision. To adapt a well known metaphor, “if all the Forest Service has is a chainsaw, then every restoration opportunity will be a tree.” The infrastructure and accountability issue is deep-seated and emblematic of how hard it is for the Forest Service to adapt to changing conditions – both politically and on-the-ground. To get a sense of whether this really is a tragic flaw, here are a few quick internet definitions of the concept (emphasis added in all definitions below):

“A tragic flaw is a literary term that refers to a personality trait of a main character that leads to his or her downfall. In other words, a character with a tragic flaw is in need of some kind of attitude adjustment.”

“The tragic hero is a longstanding literary concept, a character with a Fatal Flaw like Pride who is doomed to fail in search of their Tragic Dream despite their best efforts or good intentions.” 

While many people within the agency really do have the best of intentions when it comes to restoration, I am concerned that the Forest Service, without an “attitude adjustment,” is doomed to fail.

For more than a century, the Forest Service has operated largely as a provider of natural resources like timber, oil, gas, grazing, and even recreation. But supplying timber is what the agency is most known for. They’ve created an infrastructure that enables them to do this – though environmental accountability has long been a problem. In 2009, however, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined a new vision for the Forest Service: restoration. While creative agency staff have been implementing restoration projects for years, Vilsack defined a new guiding restoration vision with an emphasis on clean water.

The new vision however, still encompasses plenty of resource extraction. The agency’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget combines three major budgetary programs (timber, fisheries and wildlife, vegetation and watersheds) into one large pool to promote and hasten restoration activities on national forests. The proposed Integrated Resource Restoration Program or “IRR” (see RIPorter 15:1) would funnel nearly $700 million into a single funding bucket for “restoration.” The result is likely to be that every new timber sale will be a “restoration sale.” Again, if allyou have is a chainsaw, then every problem is most certainly a tree.

Accountability for how this funding would be spent, and whether or not it would result in real watershed restoration on-the-ground, is nowhere to be found. Similarly, the budget has no recommendations for the type of infrastructure changes (as opposed to simply changing funding mechanisms) that would enable them to implement such a program effectively and with accountability.

But this lack of accountability and capacity is not solely related to the IRR. The agency as a whole does NOT currently have the infrastructure needed to implement a robust, comprehensive, effective and viable restoration effort, yet they are asking for an enormous pot of funding to be dedicated to “restoration.” Their tragic flaw, therefore, may be their failure to create a new infrastructure to develop, promote, direct and implement their watershed restoration plans. While only the Forest Service can determine the exact infrastructure needed, we have some preliminary recommendations. For example, we think they should develop a national Watershed Restoration Program, led by a national Director of Watershed Restoration, with regional Restoration Directors, and we have proposed this to the agency. These staff should be trained in hydrology and/or aquatic/fisheries ecology, and they should be tasked with developing and implementing clear, science-based, ecoregion-specific restoration agendas for the agency that put resource needs over economic returns.

Lest this seem somewhat trivial, here’s a first-hand example of why Wildlands CPR thinks it so important for the Forest Service to create a proper structure to achieve their vision. The agency has received $180 million over the last three years to implement Legacy Roads and Trails specifically to restore and protect clean drinking water and other aquatic and fisheries resources impacted by roads. Many fisheries,  hydrology, and soils staff we’ve spoken with love this initiative, and it provides an incredible opportunity to move towards Vilsack’s vision. But because of their infrastructure, Legacy Roads and Trails, a potentially brilliant watershed restoration effort, is largely run by engineers. That’s not bad in and of itself (there are some enlightened engineers working on it), but quite frankly, most engineers love roads and have been trained to construct things. Few people like to remove their creations, yet road reclamation is a key purpose of Legacy Roads and Trails.

Initially, not recognizing their tragic flaw, we pushed the agency both to implement Legacy Roads and Trails immediately based on pressing needs, and to undertake a long-overdue national analysis of their road system to determine which roads they still need, and which they can reclaim or close. Way back in 2001, the Forest Service adopted a long-term roads policy that provided guidance for identifying a smaller, more affordable, and less ecologically damaging “minimum road system” that would meet recreational and resource management needs. Their 2001 policy envisioned the reclamation of 80-120,000 miles of system roads. To date, they have largely failed to identify that minimum system, even though doing so would provide the blueprint for how to spend Legacy Roads and Trails money.

But engineers are basically in charge of Legacy Roads and Trails, and thus in charge of implementing the minimum roads system, albeit with help from recreation and watershed staff. In March I asked some of the lead engineers in DC about their plans for this minimum road system. I was dismayed, but not surprised, to learn that they only thought they would have to get rid of about 25,000 miles to achieve it. This reflects the tragic flaw. When I asked the Chief about this and how to provide the accountability needed to ensure that a truly ecologically and fiscally sustainable minimum road system is identified, he said that it wouldn’t just be the responsibility of the engineers, they would engage other departments. But how? And who has final authority?  Where does the buck stop? Why isn’t there someone, a national Watershed Restoration Director for example, who is responsible for ensuring that the final decisions are appropriately balanced?

And this is only for identifying a minimum road system. What happens when you scale that up to $700 million a year or more with the proposed IRR? With no watershed restoration program, no Director of Restoration, and no accountability, it seems impossible for the agency to implement a new restoration vision effectively, or even at all. Unless, that is, they get an attitude adjustment – or as the case may be, an infrastructure adjustment.

Without a new watershed restoration program, the IRR, Legacy Roads and Trails, and any other new restoration efforts are likely to be mere variations on an old theme, as the resource extraction  mentality and structure of the agency butts up against their theoretical 21st Century vision. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The agency can make an attitude adjustment, they can create the necessary infrastructure and accountability, and they can implement the restoration vision that Secretary Vilsack and others have laid out. In typical tragedies, the “hero” is incapable of overcoming their flaw, and thus they fail. But this isn’t a story, it’s real life, and it doesn’t have to be a tragedy.

This essay originally appeared at

5 thoughts on “The Forest Service’s Fatal Flaw?”

  1. This post reminds me of a verse from an old RPA song parody…”Data” (to the tune of Day-o”( (posted under humor)

    We loved ecosystems though we did ignore ‘em
    Give us lotsa bucks and we’ll go restore ‘em

  2. The enviromentalists may be victims of their own success in this case. When CMLG money comes down to the forest level the Regional Offices and the Washington Office want to report results, and in the same year. If the region allocates a forest $100,000 in January of 2010 they expect that the money is spent on the ground that same fiscal year (ending Sept.30) and have results to report back to Washington. They generally won’t pay for analysis, ie NEPA which takes more than the 6 months the FS has to spend the monies and they don’t want to report back to Washington so say the’ve successfully funded another study.

    Road decommissioning is often a hot button for public response to NEPA. Many folks are adamantly against it like enviormentalists are against anything in a roadless area. So to avoid the gridlock of enviormental analysis, the Forests pick spending the CMLG money on replacing a fish barrier culvert with a bridge or open bottom culvert. This is generally considered maintenance and has minimal NEPA requirements and is non-controversial with the public. Fisheries can show an improvement, the public is not up in arms, and the Forest can report back an on the ground accomplishment. If anything is a tragic fatal flaw it is the gridlock.

  3. I think this is an excellent piece Bethanie.

    Part of the problem is with stewardship contracting authority, of which I am a fan. But I, like others, also recognize its timber-centric focus. Notwithstanding its other authorities, the goods-for-services provision is most often used, meaning that stewardship contracting is perceived and used mostly as a funding mechanism and vegetation management tool. (see, for example, recent Pinchot Institute Programmatic Review finding that almost 60 percent of agency personnel view and use stewardship contracting “primarily as a goods-for-services funding mechanism.” It also reports that 67 percent of projects using stewardship contracts were focused on fuels and fire risk reduction).

    What I’d love to see is a watershed-based restoration program structured like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act (CFLRA). I like its collaborative, experimental, and competitive design.

    This could potentially be advanced by using the agency’s new integrated resource restoration program in Priority Watersheds and Job Stabilization (with $50 million proposed in FY 2011). But as currently conceived, this program also has a timber-centric emphasis, with results focused on such things as biomass, the signing of twenty ten-year stewardship contracts, and a “steady supply of forest products.”

    Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that restoration is the Forest Service’s vision of the future, and that “[r]estoration means managing forest lands first and foremost to protect our water resources…” If so, a competitive, experimental framework that is watershed-based appears compatible with where the agency want to go.

  4. If there’s a fatal flaw in the Forest Service, and I don’t believe that there is, it’s the confusion between practice and principle. Even in these posts, there appears an undercurrent of disparagement, criticizing the agency as overly “timber centric.” It’s the FOREST Service, for heaven’s sake, and it better be focused on trees. The problem of forest management hasn’t been all the attention to timber – this one of the principle purposes of the agency, to use trees for public benefit -the problem has consistently been the less-than-ecological practice of timber management. For years we were subsumed by the agricultural model of silviculture, cheered on by efficiency experts, remedial education modellers, and for-profit interests who first wanted all the primary forest’s big trees cheap (remember the allowable cut effect?) and then desirable, early successional stage, predictably grown stands of trees that kept the illusion of the ordered universe humming. Now we see the error of our 40 acre quadractic clearcut ways, and instead of acknowledging that we didn’t have a clue as the to practice of forestry, we demonize the principle of harvest. If we want to restore forests to the the complex, chaotic, marvels that they are, and if we are willing to be honest enough to admit that we intend to use the wood that they produce, then we need to form that “infrastructure” that Bethany correctly identifies as the missing link IN PRACTICE that allow a variety of timber management experiments.

  5. The other problem of course is that funding has been cut repeatedly for years and there isn’t the staff to do these things. So any initiative old or new doesn’t have staff to do proper science or implementation


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