Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

If I were a visitor from another planet, who having read some of the recent posts to this blog, wanted to understand what all the fuss about things like “viability” is about, I might look to the Forest Service homepage for guidance.  There I would learn that “The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Pretty straightforward so far.  Looking for more of what these things called “national forests” are all about, I would learn that the agency’s “Motto” “Caring for the Land and Serving People” means, among other things, “Protecting and managing the National Forests and Grasslands so they best demonstrate the sustainable multiple-use management concept.” I would get confused though because I read that the mission also includes things like “Listening to people and responding to their diverse needs in making decisions.” And although I would agree that that is an absolutely essential thing to do, I wouldn’t be able to find anything in any law that says that is part of the agency’s mission.  You might say that I was nit-picking, but fortunately we don’t have nits on my home planet.

Reading on through the Forest Service “Vision” wouldn’t help either.  I might find lots of nice statements about “a caring and nurturing environment” where “employees are respected, accepted, and appreciated”, but I wouldn’t find anything about how the agency thinks the national forests should look in the future if it did a good job at carrying out its mission.

If I did a bit of Googling, I could learn that some pretty smart scientists have been thinking about new and better ways to plan and monitor and that they presented some of these ideas at the Forest Service Science Forum. [Full disclosure– I wouldn’t actually have to Google it since I was the principle author of the final report for the forum]. Some of these scientists pointed out, however, that “. . . while science can help inform decision-making processes, it is most appropriately applied first in a context of shared agreement on the agency goals that will drive management decisions.”

In the absence of shared agreement in the form of a clearly articulated and widely shared vision for the future of the national forests, even an alien can see why a number of conservation organizations insist that the proposed rule doesn’t go far enough to require actions to ensure important things like species viability.

Despite the trees, that forest is evident even to a visitor from outer space.

4 thoughts on “Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees”

  1. Jim says,

    I read that the [Forest Service] mission also includes things like “Listening to people and responding to their diverse needs in making decisions.” And although I would agree that that is an absolutely essential thing to do, I wouldn’t be able to find anything in any law that says that is part of the agency’s mission.

    Let’s see, the National Forest Management Act of 1976 says,

    Sec 6(d) The Secretary shall provide for public participation in the development, review, and revision of land management plans including, but not limited to, making the plans or revisions available to the public at convenient locations in the vicinity of the affected unit for a period of at least three months before final adoption, during which period the Secretary shall publicize and hold public meetings or comparable processes at locations that foster public participation in the review of such plans or revisions.

    I admit that the two are not identical, but are they close enough for government work? I think they are.

  2. Dave said: “I admit that the two are not identical, but are they close enough for government work? I think they are.”

    It seems like a quibble but actually the distinction is important. My point was that this is HOW to accomplish the mission, not that it’s not required. If the agency is confused about what is mission, what is vision, and what are guiding principles, then so must be the rest of us.

    • I see the two as intertwined. Maybe your point is better stated that, “this is HOW to accomplish the mission, not that it IS the mission.” The mission statement itself, might be better understood/followed if Forest Service managers and staff were to keep Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot’s words in mind as they pursue it:

      National Forests are made for and owned by the people. They should also be managed by the people. They are made, not to give the officers in charge of them a chance to work out theories, but to give the people who use them, and those affected by their use, a chance to work out their own best profit.

      In the early 1900s that made sense. In today’s world we might change the word “profit” to “interest”, where interest would be defined to be a mix of conservation, preservation, and use.

      In Pinchot’s day, the mandate was “use” and “conservation.” Today, it is conservation, preservation, and use. Maybe the FS mission ought to be re-written to reflect that.

      • You’re right Dave, they are absolutely intertwined. When Region Eight was crafting mission and vision statements, the leadership team argued vehemently with the expert hired to help with the process that in addition to the three basic mission areas of “Restore, Protect and Respond” there should be a fourth one regarding “Connecting” with the public. After a lot of hard work she convinced us that connecting with stakeholders, while essential to the future of the Region, was a WAY of doing business, not the business (mission) itself.

        The Region settled on a mission of “We conserve the lands of the Southern Region in partnership with the people we serve.” Our expert thought it would have been cleaner to leave off the last part but we wore her down.

        The vision statement reads “The Southern Region is a dynamic collection of lands, cared for by people as a legacy for future generations.” This, taken with the Core Beliefs: “We believe that: benefits to people flow from healthy land, healthy land is conserved through wise management, and management is most effective when shared.” and specific goals and objectives give a reader a pretty good idea of what the Region is committed to working towards.

        Area of Focus 1: Restore
        * Goal: Ecological systems are returned to their natural resilience and sustained.
        * Objectives:
        1. Condition of watersheds is improved.
        2. Native vegetation identified in Forest or state plans is restored.
        3. Rare species are restored.

        Area of Focus 2: Protect
        * Goal: Human, natural, cultural, and physical resources are secure from degradation and harm.
        * Objectives:
        1. People and resources are protected from catastrophic wildfires.
        2. The basic structure, function, and resilience of ecosystems are protected.
        3. People and resources are protected from unmanaged and/or unlawful activities.
        4. Private inholdings and lands adjacent to forests and grasslands are not threatened by fragmentation.

        Area of Focus 3: Respond
        * Goal: Social needs are met in an environmentally sensitive manner.
        * Objectives:
        1. Biomass availability is emphasized to respond to anticipated needs and demands.
        2. Administrative facilities and managed outdoor recreation opportunities are environmentally sustainable.
        3. Special Uses are managed to minimize the environmental footprint through compliance with terms and conditions.


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