Forest Service Future: Mike’s Big-Picture Questions

We diverged from Mike’s original question in the post here:

It could very well be that we are seeing the end of FS employees actually implementing management plans and, instead, moving into a time where the agency puts together management plans in conjunction with public and then contracts out all implementation (we’re practically there in most cases anyhow). These wold be longer-term contracts with multiple-year objectives. The benefit in doing business this way is that if the FS is legally bound by contract, the funding to fulfill the contract is much more likely to be included within future FS budgets. Another place where this kind of thing might fit well would be in fulfilling the FS mandate to perform adequate monitoring, following project implementation (e.g. forest thinning projects). In this scenario, the FS would still need funding for enforcement of contract terms for whatever the concessionaire (or contractor) is doing, but it could still pencil out as a costs savings to the public. personally think this is a really interesting topic and would enjoy exploring this further… I’m interested in a couple of things… first, do you agree with “we’re practically there?” Second, the idea of legally binding contracts – how could we make them flexible enough to respond to changing needs and also yet solid enough to be meaningful? Other’s thoughts and comments would be appreciated.

into the world of contracting for ecosystem services.. related and worthy of its own discussion, which I hope will continue.

I am posting this to bring us back to Mike’s questions; I am thinking that stewardship contracts may be a preview of this new world, and I wonder what people with experience in stewardship contracting have to say. It seems like it could be easy to build monitoring into a stewardship contract and I assume that it has been done? Here are Mike’s later questions:

That is, whether moving further toward contracted implementation of FS management plans would allow for longer-term management plan implementation on NF, something most everyone agrees is desperately needed instead of the often piece-meal approach that happens today. Sharon raised an interesting question that pertains to whether contracting would/could allow for adaptive management (i.e How would contract terms be written to allow for adaptation but still hold the contractor and FS accountable?). This seems like a really interesting topic for discussion. Personally, I’m just not sure, but would be really interested in hearing of examples where this has been tried before, especially pertaining to National Forest management. As I think about this, though, one example may be found in the recently let 4-FRI contract in the southwest, which is a multiple-year contract to thin tens of thousands of acres of P-pine forest in just the first phase of the project. It seems like there would have to be clauses that account for adaptive management in the there. I’ll check and see.

My other thought on this topic pertained to post-project monitoring required by law on NFs. Here, I think most people agree that the FS has a dismal track record when it comes to longer-term monitoring, and the reason often cited for this is that long-term monitoring requires consistent federal funding, long after a project is completed, and the reality is that the money often just doesn’t come through. I may be wrong here, but my sense is that if post-project monitoring funding was legally obligated through a multi-year contracts tied directly to on-the-ground projects, this could be an effective way of ensuring the motoring actually happens, which would then inform the adaptive management. I’m sure my take is overly simplistic and I welcome other responses. I would guess this has been done already at least on an ad hoc basis, but would like learn more about where and what kind of things resulted. What am I missing?

11 thoughts on “Forest Service Future: Mike’s Big-Picture Questions”

  1. During my time at the National Forest Foundation working with collaboratives across the country, I do recall a few who were successful getting the forest service to use retained receipts to fund multi-party monitoring efforts. I believe both examples were in Region 6 (Oregon and Washington), were on the west-side where timber values are greater and occurred prior to the housing collapse. I believe one example was Clackamas Stewardship Partners ( and the other might have been Pinchot Partners, but I am not positive. A good person to ask would be Cass Moseley of the Ecosystem Workforce Program at the University of Oregon.

    In Region One, where I live and am a member of a local collaborative, I have not heard of any examples of such an arrangement. Of course, we have much lower timber values, especially in recent years, and so retained receipts are not much of a reality, except maybe on the Flathead NF.

    An issue that Mike does not address and concerns me about these longer-term contracts is whether the Forest Service could ever get the public/stakeholder support for work in an uncertain future. I guess it does tie back to your question about working in clauses for adaptive management. We don’t have agreement on what to do in certain (feels like all sometimes) forest types today, let alone 2, 5 or 10 years down the road. Especially when what a collaborative agrees on and what happens on the ground don’t always align.

  2. Thanks for the good information Chelsea. I’ll check into the R6 examples you gave.

    I wonder if post-project monitoring must always be tied to timber receipts. By my recollection, this isn’t laid out in the law but is instead how the FS has chosen to fund monitoring (whether multi-party or otherwise). Am I incorrect in this understanding? If I am correct, then it seems we’re really talking about a larger question that pertains to overall target objectives of the FS, relative to allocated funds. In other words, it could be that the FS is choosing to not adequately fund monitoring, due to pressures imposed by other targets that more directly dictate its funding levels (e.g. timber, watershed restoration, road reclamation, prescribed burning, etc), when it would otherwise be allocating appropriate levels of funding for monitoring up front, notwithstanding the fact that this would reduce the levels of other targets it could meet with appropriated dollars (hope that makes sense). If all of this is true…As an aside, it would be really interesting to see an analysis of what it would cost were the FS to allocate appropriated dollars for post-project monitoring, rather than relying on timber receipts, and compare this total cost to the cost of litigation that results from lack of monitoring data that often results.

    Also, I completely agree with the very real practical challenge Chelsea cites regarding whether/how we come to agreement on longer-term management proposals. Yes, it does seem like it all comes down to how you can build in adaptive management into legally binding implementation agreements, but even then we’ve got to continue to fund ways to build enough trust to move forward with whatever plan is developed. Still, (speaking as a former practicing attorney in Montana) it does seem like we’d be moving the ball down the field at least a little bit if we were talking about how to construct contractual arrangements that speak to how/when, if adaptive management would occur, rather than arguing over whether there has been sufficient analysis ahead of time. The reality is, as you suggest, that we are in an age of uncertainty like never before, which can lead to paralysis or can inspire creative adaptation. Just as an aside, if we were to model ourselves after how nature functions, we would choose the latter course of action. Paralysis has never served nature very well over time…

  3. Mike, I completely agree there exists a practical challenge but not the one you invoke.

    The practical challenge as I see it, involves how to dissociate the (now) overt corporatism from dominating NFS management policy decisions. This of course, is not a new conundrum — that of how to protect the commonwealth from privatizers and corporate outsourcing of agency functions — especially those who are advocating deregulation, and devolution of policy decisions.

    How do we protect the best interests of the public from those motivated by self-interests such as salaried staff of the NFF advancing the agendas of their corporate partners under the rubric of “collaboration”?

    One way would be to challenge the ethics and rationale of their assertions. This includes challenging those who imply the greatest threat to NFS adaptive management strategy and implementation is the “arguing over whether there has been sufficient analysis ahead of time.” This is familiar and demonstrative of those seeking to emasculate the rights of the public to defend the integrity and application of existing environmental laws on public lands owned by all Americans.

    Given there is a long history of agency capture well-demonstrated by a long history of agency mismanagement on public lands, there is an undeniable crisis of “trust” here.

    My view is the best way to restore that trust is by dissociating corporatism from the policy decision making on the NFS.

  4. David, thank you for your very thoughtful response. Personally, I am very much in the same camp as you in terms of my desire to ensure that public lands are managed for the benefit of the public as a whole. I also very much support management that meets the intentions underlying our suite of environmental laws affecting NFS lands. But at this point I’m not sure I understand “corporatism” as you are describing. Here’s my thinking on the subject.

    First, I am assuming you are speaking of large scale corporatism, since I don’t think there would be any reason to be concerned about an individual or very small business that happens to be incorporated getting involved in NFS management. With this assumption in mind I’ll speak only to large-scale, publicly-traded corporations. Here, I agree with you that corporate influence in our society is at unprecedented levels, to the point now where there is virtually no part of our economy/society that is not influenced by corporate interests in some fashion. Indeed, if you were to ask the average person on the street to “disassociate corporatism” from their lives, I believe they would be extremely hard pressed to do so (think about how many products we consume or make use of each day have a corporate tie, whether in their manufacture, transport, or retail sale). Does this make that person untrustworthy? Does this mean their decisions are automatically corrupted? And if that person happens to work for a large-scale corporation, does this mean they are merely a pawn with no free will or ability to influence their company?

    I do like what I think is the motivation behind you writing David. There is perhaps no more American value or cause than ensuring our government is working on the people’s behalf. I’m just not sure we can draw a bright line between “corporatism” and the “people’s interests”. My sense is that its much more nuanced than this…There is much more on this topic that could/should be discussed, and I’m always tempted to ramble on more, but I’d rather hear back from others if people are so inclined…

  5. Mike,
    Thanks for this conversation (and apologies for my delay due to limited-to-no internet access while making a living in the Alaskan wilds.)

    The context of the corporatism I raised is defined as, “the control of a state or organization by large interest groups”. This, in contrast to the more general and ubiquitous corporate presence in our daily lives you invoked — the inescapable corporate influence upon all aspects of American society dominated by its consumer culture. Small incorporated businesses do not pose the same threats of which I speak.

    While I agree with your points, I was specifically invoking the consequences of agency capture and other neoliberal political realities which were imposed in the Reagan era and appreciably worsened in the post-Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling (5-4) which reversed key sections of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Law. The narrow majority ruling granted corporations the freedom of gifting extraordinary sums of money to political campaigns under the auspices of First Amendment “rights”. This elevation of the personhood status of for-profit and nonprofit corporations eclipses the means of the majority of actual living, breathing, citizens to have an equal say in the politics of influence on who gets elected, what legislation gets passed, and how agencies are run, including NFS management policy decisions.

    Dissenting Justice Stevens said it best: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” As goes law-making, so goes the making of regulations and other policy constructs of government agencies expected to function in the best interests of the public.

    My use of “dissociate”, (defined as to “disconnect or separate “) was in recognition that “dissociating corporatism from the policy decision making on the NFS” is a necessary means to regaining lost public trust. Much of the problem of agency and regulatory capture is that the grip of corporatism will be maintained and worsened when we fail to attribute persistent NFS mismanagement to corporatism and the bipartisan neoliberal project.

    My critique of corporatism includes nonprofit corporations such as the capture of national and international “environmental” groups dominantly funded with the proceeds of corporate investments. That any nonprofit environmental organization receives corporate foundation funding (laundered in the name of “charity”) can call itself “environmental” while its benefactors are heavily invested in environmentally destructive industries helps illuminate the hypocrisy of what passes for “collaboration” these days.

    Please do not conflate this critique with any personal judgment of those who work for government agencies (or nonprofits alike, such as The Nature Conservancy.) I have many friends who work within these and other institutions who privately admit matters of personal conscience being at odds with their respective institutional employers.

    I would like to respond to your statements regarding a wholly different threat, (“policy paralysis” borne by, as you frame it, “an age of uncertainty like never before, which can lead to paralysis or can inspire creative adaptation… (there is an opportunity for adaptive management to occur), rather than arguing over whether there has been sufficient analysis ahead of time.” and,

    “(If) we were to model ourselves after how nature functions, we would choose the (creative adaptation as a) course of action. Paralysis has never served nature very well over time…”

    I agree upon the importance of modeling our attitudes of “management” upon natural processes. I disagree that there exists a threat of “paralysis” in dynamic natural systems which have evolved over eons to recover from largescale disturbances perfectly fine on their own. There exists a very real threat that captured agencies under the guise of adaptive management, are rushing into “legally binding implementation agreements”, which have very little applied science to support their activities. Rather, such implementation agreements more closely resemble the model of “Disaster Capitalism” as described by Naomi Kline. In that model, there is no interest in addressing causation of the problems because there is handsome profiteering opportunities in treating the effects of the problem of anthropogenic disasters.

    There are many examples of published research demonstrating how forests recover after catastrophic events with no “management” activities at all. In fact, much of what passes for management actually impedes recovery of natural systems. A recently published paper in Ecology, reported on by the National Science Foundation, supports this notion in its subtitle, “To preserve forest health, the best management decision may be to do nothing.”

    This also serves as an example of the threat posed by incorrect assumptions driven by captured agencies claiming “adaptive management” doesn’t need sufficient analysis ahead of time. To the contrary, the above referenced study required a 20 year time span to derive its important insights and ongoing conclusions.

    The article can be found here:

  6. David, you need to be very careful about reading research press releases.
    First, it is well known that forests grow back after hurricanes without salvage. I remember looking at forests regrown from the 38 hurricane while at Yale in the 70’s .

    What they are saying is that “forest wise” things will be fine without salvage and that’s true. But people might want to take out one or more trees for a variety of reasons. And it’s mostly private land, so it’s up to them to do it or not.

    Most of the forests of New England are not “natural systems” in the same sense of say a western roadless area, so “impeding its recovery” might not be meaningful. Of course, the whole idea that there are “natural systems” nowadays is a philosophical concept and not particularly based in “science.”

    I think Dan Botkin did a good job of talking about these concepts in New England forests in his 1992 book “Discordant Harmonies.”

    I wonder why NSF is spending money studying things (forests grow back fine after hurricanes) that are known, when there are so many things pointed out on this blog that are not known. Actually I know why, but it’s discouraging.

  7. The anti fire salvage people NEVER talk about the devastation of re-burns, which kills all survivors, bakes the soils into hydrophobic erosion machines, and pushes recovery back for decades, and maybe even a century. “Forest wise” and people-wise, that, indeed, IS a disaster.

  8. Sharon,
    Thanks for the reminder of “the need to be very careful.”

    We should expect no less a level of the same care being applied in regards to “management” activities on our NFS. The main problem being such care has obviously been absent due to the points I raised above. (This failure of the public trust is of course well-demonstrated by the prior large scale mismanagement the USFS now openly admits to across our NFS which requires “restoration and (finally?) stewardship.”)

    As I pointed out, there is zero evidence that the primary causation of mismanagement, (that being the reigning corporatism influencing US politics and agency capture) has been even minimally addressed. There is a strong case that this causation of mismanagement is being maintained and augmented by simply rebranding standard silviculture treatments as “stewardship”, and using “restoration” as a bait and switch tactic with the paid help of captured collaborating environmental organizations using the rubric of “collaboration, stewardship and restoration.”

    There are valid reasons to be concerned when such agency “transitions” occur by dismantling and reversing key viability clauses of NFMA, or by clever machinations and rule changes by the likes of former Under secretary and timber lobbyist, Mark Rey. As a classic demonstration of agency capture while overseeing the USFS, Rey was openly expressing his personal contempt for environmental laws and threatened with incarceration for being held in contempt of the US District Court, while employing end runs around the intent and purpose of NEPA, ESA and NFMA.

    I made no claim New England forests were comparable to roadless areas of the West. However, there exists corresponding research pointing out (for instance) the environmental damage caused by so-called, “salvage logging” in the West also being detrimental to impeding forest recovery and the recovery of native forest-dependent species. There are many other examples to draw from.

    Privately-owned tree plantations across the US already supply a far larger percentage of our fiber needs than the NFS by a factor of at least 10-1. Until the Forest Service changes its name to the US Tree Plantation Service, it is reasonable for the public to expect the careful maintenance of our national forest system health through judicious problem solving focusing on causes of mismanagement rather than the opportunistic profit taking from treatment of the effects of mismanagement. This includes the National Forest Foundation facilitating the commodification of our NFS commonwealth via carbon credit and other “offset” scams pushed by The Nature Conservancy, the Obama administration and others which stand to enrich the bottom lines of the same corporate interests which have been at the center of agency capture and mismanagement in the first place.

    Many claims have been made by you and others that the USFS problem lies with citizens who demand in court that the USFS follow the letter and intent of environmental laws. Yet I remain convinced agency capture and corporatism is a far more plausible explanation of the problem of mismanagement. It is safe to say the USFS has not mismanaged through the application of too much environmental caution in their management activities on our NFS.

    Rather, it has mismanaged by not applying enough environmental caution on our NFS. We now face the legacy of unintended(?) consequences and a panoply of anthropogenic, non-linear feedbacks with inter-relationships which are not clearly understood. If there ever was, this is the time for as you say, “the need to be very careful.”

    It is simply astonishing that at this late hour for the planet, there are environmental organizations, agencies and foundations cutting deals with corporate “partners” who are recidivist environmental criminals promising to do better next time.

    Given our proximity to the unknowable point at which thresholds get exceeded, triggering climatic tipping points of no return, the question is, “What next time?”

  9. David Beebe :

    … However, there exists corresponding research pointing out (for instance) the environmental damage caused by so-called, “salvage logging” in the West also being detrimental to impeding forest recovery and the recovery of native forest-dependent species. There are many other examples to draw from.

    “Donato’s Folly” doesn’t count as proof of this assertion that doesn’t stand up, in my vast experience with fire salvage and real world results. Ironically, the Biscuit Fira also experienced massive insect mortality. (Remember, only DEAD trees were harvested in the Biscuit Fire, preserving perfect bark beetle habitat) The Foresta area of Yosemite is a clear example of what happens when salvage doesn’t happen. The land went from 600 year old fire resistant pines to thick brush in just 22 years. Another example of unsalvaged mortality impacting vast areas is on the Bitterroot NF. The clouds of bark beetles that came from unsalvaged areas overwhelmed the at-risk, overstocked, drought-stressed green forests. In 1987, over 200,000 acres burned on the Stanislaus. Trees sometimes took 5 years to finally die from cambium scorch but, meanwhile, the bark beetles found easy targets to build up huge populations. These bark beetles drift north and east to bring 3 years of intense insect mortality throughout the central Sierra Nevada.

    Today’s modern salvage projects are a far cry from the near clearcuts of the 1980’s. It is clear that some people do not understand all the aspects and impacts of intense wildfires, fuels build-ups and current observations.

  10. David, First, let me say that I am really envious of your having been in the Alaskan wilds the past few days (even if it was for work)! I’ve never been to Alaska but it definitely on my list! Second, I really appreciate your thinking and your ability to eloquently articulate pretty complex concepts for consideration on this blog. Thank you.

    While there is so very much to which to respond in your last two posts, I’ll try to summarize my view as succinctly as possible (because real dialogue on such rich subjects is tough when written communication is all you have). For the most part, I have no quibble with how you have described our current condition vis-a-vis corporatism. I believe you are correct in that the neoliberal viewpoint is now considered to be mainstream within our socio-political system and that this has severely limited the kind of discourse that makes it into mainstream circles. You are also correct (I believe) that most “solutions” to our current problems do not actually address the cause of the problem, only symptoms, because actually addressing the cause would implicate the very system that now seeks to profit from the problem further. As a result, we too often simply apply one band-aid after another while never really getting to the core of the issue. With all of this I have no disagreement with you.

    Where we may differ is in the level of influence we ascribe to large scale corporations in our society. As I understand it from your definition David, you believe we are now wholly controlled and “captured” by corporatism. From my experiences, I would not go so far as to suggest that we are now “controlled” or “captured” but rather significantly influenced by corporatism. There are many instances where “real people” are getting together with other “real people” and joining a grassroots movement that is increasingly global in scale, and the most interesting aspect of this movement is that it does not “fit” within the political “left or right” but is instead a conglomeration of interests, all centered on reclaiming a meaningful existence for our lives (which includes a more sustainable future for all life). Paul Hawken wrote an excellent book entitled “Blessed Unrest” a few years ago that speaks to this “underground” movement quite eloquently.

    For me, many of the collaborative groups gaining momentum around the west to address National Forest issues are becoming a part of the “blessed unrest” of which Hawken speaks. Despite whatever aspersions are put toward them, these groups are mainly just honest well-intentioned people who, for very pragmatic, non-ideological reasons, are choosing to volunteer their time in the hopes of creating a more sustainable relationship with the public lands closest to them. To be sure, there is likely some degree of corporatism within any of these groups. Yet, whether one agrees with their solutions (or even whether one considers the solution to be outside the bounds of established environmental law) is not by itself a reason to suggest that such groups are “captured”. It could very well be that they are simply dealing as well as possible with a truly less-than-ideal scenario that will necessarily involve corporatism to some degree, while still trying to enhance their own influence over the direction of NF management.

    As I think about this, however, I think its also important in this blog context to clarify that I believe there is an important for the FS to “manage” National Forests to meet anthropocentric interest (Note: even the ESA is intended to meet anthropocentric interests in the sense that I amusing the term here). While I do think there is always the potential for corporate interests to overly influence NF management, I’m also more confident today than ever that the kind of take-over we’ve seen in the past cannot happen today for a variety of reasons. But regardless, my philosophical alignment with NF management in general is probably why I am more comfortable with an “adaptive management” approach to NF management in the face of uncertainty, notwithstanding the fact that this kind of management may also benefit corporatism to some degree.

    Thanks again David.


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