Twenty Years of Forest Blogging

It was 1989 and the “timber wars” were raging. Having failed to gain voice on any important issues in the Forest Service via traditional channels, a few of us joined with Jeff Debonis to form a non-profit called the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE, later FSEEE). We adopted a three-part mission: to speak up as concerned citizens, to organize, and to protect whistleblowers. Not long thereafter, I began to blog as a Forest Service employee on government time. Not a blog, really, but an email list, that I later named Eco-Watch. I simply passed along forest policy-relevant materials to a rather large email list. By 1992 I began to compile a feedback list of comments and “comments on comments,” that I passed along via my mailing list. The list caused quite a stir in the Forest Service Intermountain Region leadership team, and maybe “higher up.”

Eco-Watch and I somehow managed to be a topic of conversation at many a Regional Leadership Team meeting. Interestingly, the “leadership team” was pretty much split, with a lot of the members supporting my attempt to open up communication via email. Deputy Regional Forester Bob Joslin once told me, paraphrasing: “If [the Regional Forester] mentions your stuff once more time, the next message is going to come from my inbox. … I don’t agree with all you write, but do believe that we [the Forest Service] need to discuss these things.”

I remember numerous tense meetings with my boss, the Regional Planning Director, about feathers that were being ruffled, not only by my emails, but also by my being on the board of that nonprofit organization FSEEE. It got worse once I became president of FSEEE’s board. I once told our Planning Director that if the Regional Forester had a problem with my being a part of FSEEE, I would gladly have lunch with him to discuss it—but that I did not talk about my FSEEE role at work since it was an exercise in free speech as a citizen, not as a public employee. As FSEEE board members and Forest Service employees we knew we were walking a fine line with the FSEEE stuff. Another time I was asked to talk to our Director of Information Systems about the email list. So I did, and he told me that the Forest Service email system had been set up for multi-way communications (after a proposal for top-down communications had been batted about, then batted down by either the Department of Ag or the Forest Service). He also told me he was not going to be a “DG cop” [the DG was then the Forest Service’s computing platform]. He also wanted to know more about FSEEE. He was curious about our daring venture.

By 1992, I began to send out follow-up comments and “comments on comments” to my email lists. Eco-Watch was born. The rough and rocky road that connected me to both the Forest Service and FSEEE was paved, in part by my Listserv. And finally near the end of the FSEEE-friendly Clinton Administration, I got approval to take Eco-Watch to the next phase, making it into a Forest Service-blessed Policy Dialogues Forum, via Hypernews. With Mark Garland’s help we put all my email listings on the internet, along with emergent policy dialogue threads. The tracks of this era still reside on the Forest Service servers, here, with numerous broken hyperlinks. Sadly, all the policy dialogue threads are lost, although I did manage to salvage most of them and have them on my own Forest Policy site as Eco-Watch [retaining much of the character of the old site, but linking to “discussion threads” of the past, rather than to ongoing discussion forums]. During this same era we tried to get Mark Garland’s Forest Service in the News to be a partnership between FSEEE and the Forest Service, even a three-way partnership adding in a timber industry group. That discussion was a non-starter. Mark continues to this day with his Forest Service in the News, hosted by FSEEE.

Eco-Watch Policy Dialogues Forum ran from 1999 until its demise in the Spring of 2005—right in the middle of the Bush/Cheney Administration War Games /Homeland Security—when the chant was “If you are not with us. You are against us.”

Why did the Forest Service drop its love affair with Hypernews? I don’t know, but suspect it had to do more with Homeland Security paranoia, than with FS internal politics. But maybe it was simple paranoia over Internet viruses, etc. All I know is that one day the forums were dead, and so too with all other forums that were being hosted on Forest Service Hypernews software. My inquiries into the matter led me to an odd dead end—something like, “It was just too hard to maintain the software.” I still believe that similar software powers many internet forums today, and maybe even Wiki sites. But I let it go. After all, we were at war in the wake of the Sept. 2001 World Trade Center bombings.

Forest Policy – Forest Practice
Early in 2005 I threw together a real blog, Forest Policy–Forest Practice, subtitled ‘A communities of practice weblog.’ My goal was to emulate what others had done by then, in other fields far from natural resources—to engage practitioners in policy/practice dialogues. I reached out to a few old friends and let it fly, this time on my own dime and on servers that couldn’t be shut down by FS bureaucrats, whether by design or by neglect.

We started out OK, but never got it up to steam—just couldn’t muster the participation needed to make it a strong platform for “voice.” Maybe it was me, being my usual flaky self, not getting anything “real” going. But I think not. I think that it was just too new, and some of the “academic” friends I courted were too busy with traditional meetings, publications, trade associations, etc. to be bothered with blogs. Oddly, there are still very few, maybe only one, active discussion blogs on forest policy.

A few of us did kept the discussion alive for several years, but it just wasn’t the “in your face” immediate gratification that the email list or the Hypernews forums had been. I tried a few other things, like a blog tied to Adaptive Forest Management, a theme I continue talking about today. On another blog I chronicled the rise and fall of what I like to call “Planning cast up as Environmental Management Systems” or “EMS cast up as Planning.” Among other things I unveiled in my Forest Environmental Systems blog was a clever little powerpoint about why bureaucrats don’t want to “mess with anything”. Policy wonk Ron Brunner told me that it was the best example ever of why bureaucracies can’t change. The EMS/Planning love affair was short-lived, and the blog only ran for about a year.

A New Century of Forest Planning
Today a few of us are blogging forestry and forest policy, under the guise of “forest planning” here. It will prove interesting to see if/when the Forest Service joins other agencies that allow/encourage many blogs and wikis, by individuals or groups. But it doesn’t seem likely just now.

I continue to cross-walk to my earlier blogs, but realize that they are pretty much just a place where I store stuff. I also continue to blog matters at the confluence of complex systems, wicked problems, politics, finance, economics, and ecology at Ecology and Economics: a cross-disciplinary conversation and Economic Dreams-Economic Nightmares. Mostly I just dabble at the edges, and continue to hope that more folks will jump in to re-frame politics, science, and public administration in the US and around the world.

7 thoughts on “Twenty Years of Forest Blogging”

  1. Why did the Forest Service drop its love affair with Hypernews? I don’t know, but suspect it had to do more with Homeland Security paranoia, than with FS internal politics. But maybe it was simple paranoia over Internet viruses, etc.

    Maybe, but the Forest Service has long been afraid to share information. In the early days of the Natural Resource Information System (NRIS) I learned enough HTML code to make as much NRIS meta data available via the Internet as I could. Today, the NRIS web page greats “outsiders” with the following “Most of the NRM NRIS products are accessible only within the Forest Service’s computing environment. If you do not have access to the Forest Service Intranet and have questions about NRM NRIS products, please Contact Us.”

    Not the best way to encourage dialog, build trust, and promote collaboration.

    • I agree. I was being as nice as I could—maybe too nice—in framing up my story. But I have never understood/accepted the INTRANET nonsense, and fought diligently to get things vetted more broadly. Still do, just like you. Here is an example from my EMS blog, 2005:

      I also heard talk of setting up an intranet repository for EMS documents, spreadsheets, etc. This brings up an interesting predicament. The Data Quality Act requires that our methods, data, etc. be open to inspection, suggesting internet data and information systems. Why would we have both? Sure we’ll be exposing some half-baked stuff to public spotlights, but that might help the public better understand the complex and emergent nature of our work. It might actually help us tell our story instead of hindering us, as many likely believe. I maintain that personnel records, some archeological records, etc. ought to be the stuff of our intranet and all else ought to live in an open fishbowl of public access and engagement.

      Last week I was discussing our penchant for secrecy … at our EMS training. I noted that public interest groups are always suspicious of our secrecy. Collaboration practitioners often lampoon such secrecy as Jack in the Box public involvement—where a government agency holds a public meeting, plays some music prior to popping out of box to announce something, then gathers information and feedback, only to go back into the box and pop out later to repeat the process. I think that open is better. What do you think?

  2. I don’t believe that an adaptive governance as you frame it can be an open, collaborative, and successful approach without open data and open decision-making processes. That would entail a move of most Forest Service information to the Internet. As a side benefit, response to FOIA requests could be handled simply by directing the requester to the appropriate web page. President Obama made it clear on his first day in office that he expected more openness in the Federal Government. How well is that going???!!

    • Yep.. I’ve never figured out why in this moment pretty much ALL data and information would not be on the internet. But as you have said, I isn’t there and likely won’t be any time soon. Folks in government agencies are too backward for that, and they are fearful that the current Administration (as they were fearful of the last one) isn’t really all that much interested in “open government.” So it goes.

  3. Some of the Forest Service “Ologists” have a fear that their work will fall into the “wrong hands”. I once asked one, “How can I protect your site, when you won’t tell me where it is?!?” They thought about it for a moment and then realized what the situation was, and then put it on a map for me. Cultural resources maps must never be made public, as we have seen thieves rummage through them to pillage old artifacts. Wildlife people are sometimes resistent to tell USFS timber folks where nest trees are. Unlike some of my cohorts, I always pushed to gain trust from the Ologists on my Ranger Districts. During fast-moving insect salvage projects, major surveys had to be done before fallers could begin work. Coordination was essential to keep the loggers moving as fast as they could complete the work.

    Stand exam data should be made available in a form that the public can peruse and understand. Documents and maps should also be accessible. It can’t be all that hard to do.

  4. I like the idea of posting a generic package of info for each project, and I think many forests are moving that way. Maybe someone could send in a good example to share.

    Jim, I like the webpage idea, but responding to FOIAs, as you know, also includes emails. I guess everyone involved in a project could post their email inboxes and folders on the web…it would be exceedingly transparent but also boring as heck, if they’re like mine.

    Dave- I agree that EMS records should have been available to the public- of course everything in them (except training and other personnel stuff) would be FOIA-ble. What I ask folks is “is it better just to tell the public, or have it come out in a FOIA?” I think it’s interesting that many FOIAs we get are looking for stuff to litigate on. So the good side of stuff they see is never exposed to the public.

    Dave- I have a couple of other thoughts on blogging at work. I think it totally makes sense if you are an extension person and are getting paid to give info to the public. But most of us are not paid to do that. So that’s what leads to the silence of practitioners in some of these dialogues.

    Blogs might be handy internally but in some respects talking internally is not what we really need. I think we need to open up the same kinds of discussions we have internally with the public. So there’s the conundrum, we are not paid to talk to the public- yet that’s what the situation calls for. I prefer doing it in my spare time anyway as I don’t have to worry about the official position, if there is one, on any topic.

    So some of us practitioners and retirees may feel called to this as an avocation. It struck me one day that I spend a great deal of time preparing and practicing music for a congregation of 15-20, once a week, and there is also a component of ministry to the 100 or so people who regularly read this blog. But for me, this is a process of ongoing discernment (as we say in Church World); as Frederick Buechner said, to determine where “my greatest gladness meets the world’s greatest sadness.”

    Finally, the board thing. I had an employee that wanted to serve on a board of a local land use/conservation group and had to get permission. We also developed problems with serving on boards of organizations like the Society of American Foresters and other professional groups, due to ethical concerns about conflict of interest where fiduciary duties are concerned. Don’t know if that was a concern at the time, but it would be ironic if you couldn’t serve on a board for an organization concerned about ethics due to concerns about ethics…

    This must still be a problem, as the Scientific Integrity Memo from Holdren to the agency heads last December has a line in it about removing barriers to serving on boards of scientific societies IV 4 here.

    • it would be exceedingly transparent but also boring as heck, if they’re like mine.

      Yes, most of the information would be boring and perhaps confusing but it would be a good way to show that the agency has nothing to hide. Eventually there would be very few FOIA requests.

      we are not paid to talk to the public- yet that’s what the situation calls for.

      If talking to the public is integral to serving the public in your role as steward of the national forests then my expectation as a citizen is that you better do it and you should get paid for it. It’s not just the job of the public affairs officers. A district ranger once told me that he didn’t have time to spend with enviros in the field discussing a proposed project. He finally figured out that since those enviros could very easily sue that project into oblivion, the best use of his time would be talking with them.


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