Needed: Coalition for Public Access to Information on National Forests (AKA The People’s Database)

FIA(formerly known as “the People’s Database”)

Volunteering for SAF gives me many opportunities for insight and opportunities to compare private and public forests, and regions of the country.

Recently, SAF signed on to an effort to get funding for FIA- forest inventory and analysis- which collects information about forests across the US. A couple of times I served on two “Blue Ribbon Panel” of users of the information who (excerpted from this):

The American Forest and Paper Association has organized two Blue Ribbon Panels (1991 and 1997) to review the national FIA program and provide recommendations to the Forest Service on needed changes to the content and capabilities of the program. The most recent panel recommended that the Forest Service should 1) elevate the priority of FIA in the Forest Service program, 2) convert the FIA program from a periodic inventory to an annual inventory, 3) fulfill the congressional mandate of reporting on all lands regardless of ownership, 4) concentrate on the core ecological and timber data, and 5) develop a strategic plan to implement the full FIA program.

FIA also has regular meetings with user groups to help guide their activities and generate support.

It seems to me that we are missing a group (Coalition) that can reach across different interest groups and ask for information that we might agree that we all need about National Forests. We don’t have an AF&PA to speak for us and get things started, so perhaps we have to organize ourselves.

We could ask the Chief to convene a panel of citizens representing different groups to ask 1) what information is important to be collected in a standard format across forests and regions? and 2) how best do we make that accessible to the public? For example, PALS has searches that internal folks can do but not external.. should it remain that way?

Stakeholders outside of the FS could lobby strongly for this information the same way that they lobby for FIA.

Some topics we’ve mentioned here are budgets and outputs, costs of environmental document developments, number of acres treated, etc., as in the “vegetation management” thread here and here. it seems to me that we could take advantage of having an Administration who promotes transparency to set such a framework of an advisory committee.

At first, I was thinking volunteers could find and enter the data, but then I thought “if the public wants this information, why doesn’t the agency just provide it?”. I’m sure that the agency could save some bucks by stopping collecting information on a variety of things that someone used to be interested in, and focus on things the public is currently interested in. The public could actually help the Forest Service prioritize information across silos, something that is problematic internally.

But we can’t ask poor Region 1 to do more work on their own.. when these are national forests, and data should be captured and made available consistently across regions. Besides, they appear to already be doing more work than some other regions, based on the GAO reports and Derek’s observations.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Needed: Coalition for Public Access to Information on National Forests (AKA The People’s Database)”

  1. I would think that “state and local” governments would be VERY supportive of such a “data base.” I think they would be very interested in “how many acres of a particular individual forest is in the WUI zone…and most importantly…how many of those acres are being treated per year. In this era of GIS…certainly that info could be provided…I’ve seen only one map of the WUI in Montana …and I think it was put together by the state…and I’m sure that was complicated as someone had to correlate all the “county designations.”

    Of course…the “how many acres treated” would have to be the “non duplicative” acres. Sharon knows what I mean…but for others…it would mean “combining various “multiple” treatments on the same acre into a reality based “actual treated” acreage. Don’t treat it as a “monitoring report output,” where the same acre is counted two or three times. As in counted once when commercially thinned…then again a couple years later when RX burned. I’ve seen forests count the same acre once when shelterwood cut, then again with a pre-commercial thin of the understory…then again when pile burning occurs. That is all fine when reporting “outputs”…but shouldn’t be applicable to WUI treatments.

    Of course…to beat an old horse again..”big numbers mean nothing by themselves, only percentages can lead us to perspective.” I think states would be VERY interested to know what “percent” of the WUI is being treated every year.

    I would also think that state game and fish departments would like to see “total early seral” acres of a particular forest…and that should be broken down into “suitable and roadless/wilderness.” Because of our wonderfull courts…I know the forests have inventoried the crap out of verified old growth. I know it’s a huge volume of data…and I’m probably naive to think some GIS tech. could just push a total button.

    Anyway…I love the FIA reports..been a great source of info for me. My only gripe…is I wish all of them would report “stand-age class.” Some do…most don’t. Since I’m a big fan of utilizing the “fire suppresion generation” of trees for timber(no need to cut OG)its a good visual. The forests that do have them(frankly,I can think of only a couple)…have this wonderfull “bulge” of 80-120 year old trees.

    You’ve got a good project goin there Sharon. I have no doubt you are “the right person at the right moment” to do it. Must feel good to get your teeth into a new project. It might help in closing some of the “local VS. USFS schism that has developed.” I think it’s pretty obvious, with whats goin on with Utah, the WEstern Governors association, and Tester’s bill, that the states are feeling pretty much left out of the loop. There’s certainly a perception, whether it’s deserved or not makes no difference to the perception, that the USFS Kowtows to the enviros while leaving the locals out in the cold. The difference between now and the “sage brush rebellion” of the 80’s…is the USFS was logging 10 BBF/year-and wildfires. And yes…transparency is not just for enviros.

  2. From the perspective of measuring and demonstrating the impact public lands management has on communities, I’d love better reporting on stewardship contracting and timber sales. Service contracts are already made public via the Federal Procurement Data System (, but similar information on timber sales, such as volume sold (and cut) for each sale, purchaser name, SBA set-aside status, winning bid, total number of bidders, etc. would be very useful in describing the benefits of service work AND timber harvest to local communities. I can attest, through my work, that this information is hard to come by and only available in paper forms which must be collected at each Forest Supervisor’s office and sometimes at the District level.

    I would also add, since we’re brainstorming here, that all data reporting on service stewardship should include information on sub-contracting: name of all subcontractors and type of work being conducted. It’s all stored in the contract files in the form of the technical proposal, so why not digitize it, too?

    Finally, the BBER is working on an annual cut by county database for all western states, and I’ll tell you that the Forest Service cut volume by county was one of the hardest pieces of information to get access to.

  3. Thanks for these comments, Chelsea! If the FS got organized, I don’t think it would be that difficult to put out information that’s already collected.
    If people enter information into PALS for the NEPA so the public can see it, conceivably they could also enter results of timber sales into databases so that the public can see it.
    They are all part of the process of doing certain activities on the land. Also of interest is that the information is available for service contracts but not timber sales.. suggests that it wouldn’t be hard to design a complementary system for timber sales, so the public could ask questions about both..

  4. Back in the 1960s, when LBJ became President, there was an edict sent out to all Federal agencies. This edict required each agency to make sure that any data they were collecting, needed to be collected. It was discovered that there was a small group in Seattle whose mission was to keep track of how much spruce was available to build airplanes, and then send out periodic reportrs of same. When this group was highlighted, they said something like ” We wondered if someone, would be asking sometime, about the value of our reports”
    At least that is how I remember it.


  5. I have recently requested access to FSVeg spatial data for forests of Region 8 in order to do some cross-checking with FIA data and other sources. Rather than simply provide the data I was sent off to FOIA land where it might take years to gain access. In the past I have received FSVeg for specific forests (local to me) without any need for FOIA, but it is a challenge to identify the right forest level contact for the data across a region much less the whole country. There’s nothing secret or proprietary in the data. I don’t understand why access to it shoudl be any issue or problem. FSVeg, like FIA is a national database and the data could easily be made available publicly through the USFS geodata website. But for some reason the USFS would prefer to keep the data internal, reasons I don’t agree with or understand. Even though FIA stand locations are fuzzied (within a mile on public lands) it’s still possible to do analysis and comparison with FSVeg when you have the spatial information. There was a directive from the White House and Office of Science and Technology to make scientific information freely available – but sadly agencies like the forest service don’t follow along and evidently don’t see the value of being transparent with the data.

  6. Nick, I think the OSTP order is about published papers and data for those, and it gives the agencies until 2025 to accomplish it.

    “Update their public access policies as soon as possible, and no later than December 31 st ,
    2025, to make publications and their supporting data resulting from federally funded
    research publicly accessible without an embargo on their free and public release;
    2. Establish transparent procedures that ensure scientific and research integrity is
    maintained in public access policies; and,
    3. Coordinate with OSTP to ensure equitable delivery of federally funded research results
    and data.”

    I don’t exactly know what #3 means.

    • Sharon,

      I understand that, but I think it’s clear that the President and the OSTP are supporting, and in the long run requiring, agencies to publish data of scientific value. Considering USFS uses FSVeg extensively to formulate plans and conduct management that uses ‘the best available science’ I’d argue that FSVeg is scientific data. Now, even if they don’t have it publicly available right now why would they require FOIA process to get it? That is just unreasonable. The FSVeg data is stored centrally in a database. They’ve already spent more time giving me the runaround with FOIA than it would have taken someone to extract the data and put on a server for download. The whole point of public access is to make information available to the public, freely and openly.


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