Political Appointees, The Good and the Bad: Guest Post by Jim Furnish. II. Jim Lyons, the Committee of Scientists, FS R&D and the 2001 Planning Rule

This is perhaps the first chance (in history) to synthesize a group history from the ways different people remember it. As such, this is an invitation for all of us to give our perspectives from that time period, and see how or if they fit together. And if it only covers a piece of our own humble Forest Service history rather than say, the Cuban Missile Crisis, well then so be it. Now, back to Jim Furnish and his experience with Undersecretary Jim Lyons. For those of you who don’t remember that period, there was a Committee of Scientists which included a lawyer (I think they really meant a “committee of scholars”). Note as different groups of scientists and scholars are brought in to give advice, disagree (at least the COS) internally, and are used to support essentially the answer to a non-science question (which thread of sustainability should be dominant in forest planning). Is that a question that should be resolved by “eminent scholars”? For newbies to all this it’s not hard to draw a line between the “sustainability is #1” esoteric discussion, as Jim terms it, and the concept of “ecological integrity” in the 2012 Rule.

The Good: Along with the Roadless Conservation Rule, the FS was revising NFMA planning regulations (remember?). To be blunt, Dombeck loved the Roadless issue; Planning, not so much. But Jim Lyons was another matter. He was totally into the planning regulation, and behaved very hands-on throughout the process. Regrettably, almost anything Lyon said when the national leadership team met to process sections of the new regulation (even if credible) was met with skepticism, owing to a lack of trust. Sally Collins, later to become Assoc Chief, had joined my staff from Deschutes NF in OR as my Assoc Dep Chief. We both had abundant planning experience, and had each served on a planning advisory group appointed by Lyons to prep for the new regulation. Sally and I concluded that Lyons needed to allow the regulation to proceed without his direct intervention; his efforts were counterproductive as he was not the right messenger.
We approached Lyons with our assessment, and asked that he trust us to shepherd the regulation through to its publication as a draft rule in the Fed Register. We promised to keep him abreast of progress, and would see to it that his concerns were addressed along the way. Bear in mind that the planning regulation was “his baby”, but he weighed the matter seriously and begrudgingly agreed. This was a difficult regulation, as it forwarded concepts and ideology at odds with past practice, but we got it done after smoothing out the process. I give credit to Lyons for harnessing his ego to serve a cause he cared deeply about.

A brief sidebar: the concept of sustainability fostered heated debate while preparing the planning regulation, the crux of the matter being whether economic, social, and ecological sustainability were indivisible, or could be viewed as unique but related features. This topic devolved into a largely esoteric argument between research station directors and Lyons, while regional foresters seemed dull to the topic. Researchers argued for indivisible, tilting at the notion that ecological sustainability become the “guiding star” for the Forest Service, as was articulated by the Scientific Committee headed by Norm Johnson (OSU). Lyons and Dombeck decided the sustainability issue emphatically at a national leadership meeting for one “3-stranded rope” made up of unique and separable economic, social, and ecological parts. End of story! Remarkably, FS science leaders then created a 21-page “encyclical” making their case yet again. Lyons had had enough. He asked Oregon St Univ to empanel a group of eminent scholars to tackle the question. They sided with Lyons. End of story, again.

I use the planning regulation, which was achieved toward the end of Lyons’ 8-year tenure, to make the argument that Lyons learned some valuable lessons along the way about how to work effectively with the agency. He behaved arrogantly and could be condescending early on, and few could forget his handling of the firing of Robertson and Leonard, and appointment of JW Thomas. I found him to be dedicated, thoughtful, and supportive, all things which Tenney was not.

And here’s my main point about the intersection of politics and resource policy: the days of the FS being relatively immune from political tampering are long past (if they ever existed). Each administration will make personnel changes (i.e. fire Chiefs and others) to suit their aims, in hopes that “their people” will be compliant. The illusion that a “career Chief forester” is an essential ingredient to an independent agency is sort of laughable today. That said, because the FS has a trust relationship with the public and their lands, they have an obligation to engage in “principled dissent” when necessary to blunt ill-advised political machinations. Any Chief might lose a tough argument, but every Chief should fight for what’s right by the land. And fight hard!”

13 thoughts on “Political Appointees, The Good and the Bad: Guest Post by Jim Furnish. II. Jim Lyons, the Committee of Scientists, FS R&D and the 2001 Planning Rule”

  1. Jim – your last paragraph is spot on! I believe that we have too few people in the agency who are willing to provide “principled dissent” for a robust conversation, especially when decision is not going to do right by the land. One of the reasons I retired is I felt that my own principled dissent was losing its influence from considering the right thing to do. I was seeing decisions becoming more politically based and the experience of the hard-working, good intentioned employees (who strive to be rooted in the best available science) be pushed aside for the short-term win. However, the nature of the Forest Service’s business is rarely short-term, so to see the long-term implications not even be discussed became increasingly disheartening.

    I gained a valuable insight to how previous generations of retiring FS employees may have felt when they decided to leave the agency they truly loved.

  2. Tony and Jim, what you’re saying is fascinating to me, because every issue that I recall had dissenting people on both “sides.” Or maybe I naturally see things more in shades of gray than black and white. Of course, I was also not Ms. Popularity when I raised what I thought were helpful and illuminating questions.

    Or maybe because I started in political science, I see things more as “politicals are legitimate either way, the best we can do is try to slow down or stop their most egregious errors.”

    Or maybe I just worked in different positions in different places?

    I’ve had my hard earned experience pushed aside by political reasons, but I thought “that’s the way it goes or the cookie crumbles” (both kinds of administrations). The joy of being a career fed that we don’t have to be immersed in the seedy vitriol pool of partisan politics. The sorrow, perhaps, is that we don’t ultimately call the shots. That’s what we signed up for when we joined the Executive Branch.

    FS line officers can also make different decisions based on their own unique histories, personal biases and philosophical points of view. They even make their own big and small “P” political calculations and often run their own political traplines inside or outside the chain of command.

    Given laws regulations and policy, how much latitude is there to “do wrong by the land?”. I think specifics might help.

    • Sharon: “Or maybe I naturally see things more in shades of gray than black and white.”

      Well, that’s the one things we can say about most anything we see as a topic for discussion these days. While they are those religiously driven fanatics on both sides of any issue who see things as either black or white, one of the tactics from either side when it appears they are about to lose an argument is to cloud up and muddle the waters of any kind of clarity, that way it’s not a total loss and you still have your herd to fal back on for group think safe haven.

      Sharon: “Of course, I was also not Ms. Popularity when I raised what I thought were helpful and illuminating questions.”

      Nobody these days can ask a question when either side of an issue believes in, “If you are not for us, then you are against us.” When translated means you must accept everything without question the leaders say is truth. In the mean time photographs from all over the globe are showing us alll half of a forest dead from whatever cause and the other half still alive but barely hanging on & it’s illustrative of just how gray and muddled the health of any ecosystem is. It’s neither green nor brown. Camoflaged I guess.

      Anthony Erba: “I was seeing decisions becoming more politically based and the experience of the hard-working, good intentioned employees (who strive to be rooted in the best available science) be pushed aside for the short-term win.”

      I saw and heard this too back in the 1980s, many forest service employees were discouraged. One was the local biologist assigned to the Idyllwild Forestry Station, Tom Roberts, who left the forest service for that very reason. Tom helped restore the Garner Valley floor grasslands which were mainly sedge and developed natural watering holes for wildlife. But he told me he hated the political fighting. He did prevent the High School from being built inside the wild area of Garner Valley and instead to present day Anza Valley where it should have been all along and is now. In an interview in 2010 here is hs response to a reporter’s quaetion. BTW, Tom died in 2017.

      The journalist asked Tom this question: “Why did you leave the Forest Service?”

      Here was his response: “The Forest Service was getting very politicized during the Reagan years. It was frustrating to be in a conservation position in an agency that had become very commodity-driven. Most of the Forest Service employees are driven by a stewardship mission to wisely use the resources. You can log old-growth trees if you leave some of the trees for the spotted owls; you can graze cattle if you leave enough forage for deer to eat. But there was pressure to over-utilize both.”


      Anthony Erba: “However, the nature of the Forest Service’s business is rarely short-term, so to see the long-term implications not even be discussed became increasingly disheartening.”

      Most leaders will never get this, since short term fixes get them elected.

  3. The over-emphasis on singular resources (ie, timber, minerals, oil and gas) and the minimal (or lack of) action towards other resources is what I mean by “not doing right by the land”. I understand that Congress has a role in this with how they approve the Department’s budget (eg, what gets funded is what’s important). But, by the time the money is actually used to accomplish work, there have been numerous discretionary decisions made by individuals on how to appropriately use that money. Sure, everyone has a good idea, maybe even a righteous idea, on how to manage the public’s land. But, Jim points out that the public trust has ebbed and flowed over the decades, mainly because of FS officials making questionable decisions to execute their vision of what right for the land.

    In the end, this will never be ideal to our individual ambitions. I would like to see an enduring commitment to management actions that are holistic in nature, not just read how the FS intends to be holistic.

    • Tony, I’m still having trouble getting from words like “holistic” to a mental image of how a project would be changed to be more “holistic” without getting into the gritty details (fewer acres? more feet from a stream? methane capture?), but your thoughts reminded me of a post from almost 10 years ago and our colleague John Rupe’s comment:


      Here’s a link to John’s comment:
      “Regarding Charles Wilkinson’s comment, the 2000 rule was unique because of its inclusion of “right brained” philosophy. You don’t expect that in a rule, which is typically read line by line, word by word, comma by comma. Lawsuits are won or lost by the application of specific interpretations of the words. Squishy concepts like sustainability are hard to work with in a rule. The limitations of a rule require us to consider other ways to convey expectations – a topic for another post.”

      (Note, in 2010 we had (yet) not been told to not participate on the blog, so John and I believed that it was OK to do so during the development of the 2012 Rule. ) John, as always, had many insightful ideas from his years of planning.

      • Sharon, I see the dilemma you have with the word “holistic” relatively easy to resolve. The day a FS line officer puts as much emphasis and priority into the non-commodity resources as the commodity resources (as Kevin helped point out), I would say that the agency is executing holistic management. But, while the agency is better than it was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s (particluarly for timber management, and there are those who dispute this), there is much room for improvement. I saw the agency turn the corner with the concepts of “new perspectives” and ” ecosystem management” in the late 80s and early 90s under Chiefs Robertson and Thomas. But, as of today, the agency is slipping back to its old ways of past decades.

        Finally, look who is getting hired/promoted (and why) into leadership positions. That should help all of us understand what is important to the agency (and Department).

        • Tony, I don’t know what’s going on now, but perhaps like you, our Regional Directors team had each GS-12 selection and above come to us (mostly us advising the RF or Deputies) for review. I left in 2012 and spent seven years observing this.

          Most of these folks had (1) the support of their bosses, (2) links to a good old boy kind of support network (3) were good employees on paper and (4) the rumor mill did not turn up bad whispers. There was also (5) pressure to hire diverse people, that many times was in tension with 1, 2 and 4. I don’t remember their philosophical inclinations coming up (although the person making the selection might have had that in mind, it wasn’t in the presentation to us).

          Now if you are talking DC level decisions (Forest Supes and above) I don’t know how they pick them and if they are influenced by politicals one would expect a bouncing ball of tendencies rather than a continual downward trend to the past.

  4. From the perspective of an ordinary taxpayer, this is the kind of thing I see. It’s from the September 6, 2019 issue of the San Diego Reader.

    “After nearly three years of planning, paying and preparing to build a trail on Orosco Ridge, the San Diego Mountain Biking Association was stunned to learn their work with the U.S. Forest Service was cast aside via a letter posted on social media announcing the project’s suspension.

    “ ‘We started this because they came to us and said this trail would be one of the (Palomar) district’s top three priority projects,’ says Susie Murphy, executive director of the mountain biking group. ‘We raised $70,000 and spent $50,000 of it, and now they’re saying they don’t have the staff time or budget.’

    “The letter – followed by a more detailed explanation – came after the forest service’s National Environmental Policy Act evaluation turned up comments that raised questions about how appropriate the plan was, says Olivia Walker, the local Forest Service public affairs officer.

    . . . .

    “Both Murphy and Walker say that a staffing change in the Palomar District played a big role. The project’s Forest Service champion moved to another district, and most of the institutional knowledge and support went with him. The letter on social media came from his successor.

    . . . .

    “Once they were invited in the fall of 2016, the mountain biking association really liked the idea and developed a plan for 20 miles of trail. They hoped to eventually build 80 miles of trail – and that alarmed some people who read the NEPA documents.

    “Of the 607 comment letters the forest service received, . . . 55 raised issues including questions about environmental issues, the clustering of trails and the condition of the roads, the impact of increased parking and human activity and the propriety of the relationship between the forest service and the association.”

    No wonder people take things into their own hands and build unauthorized social trails.

    I must read or re-read Kafka and Catch-22 and promote the little-known Gian Carlo Menotti opera The Consul. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Consul


  5. Pardon me for borrowing from my memoir, but I think my point there is apt…
    “Optimize, Don’t Maximize
    We need not choose between taking it all and leaving it all. Rampant exploitation for transitory profit operates at the extreme economic end of the spectrum, while preservation and exclusion of humans with no utilization of resources operates at the ecological extreme. A middle ground does exist where fundamental stewardship humbly, modestly, and sustainably utilizes what is produced and provided by nature. These beneficial and essential environmental services can be enjoyed in perpetuity as long we do not irreparably damage our forests, soils, water, and air.
    In sum, instead of striving for maximization, we need to develop the more moderate and habitual practice of optimization. To achieve optimal outcomes, we must account for environmental costs that will necessarily result in less revenue and profit. Our baser instincts may lead us to want all we can get now—yes, instant gratification. Yet any reasonable person ought to prefer having enough forever. Wouldn’t you rather achieve less profit perpetually than maximize short-term profits now and reap the grim result of bankrupt ecosystems later?

    [Forest Service] leaders need to explicitly embrace the mandate of ecosystem management, which I would describe as value-driven resource management with a goal of maintaining or achieving naturalness. Primary values should be clean water and air, abundant fish and wildlife, quality recreation opportunities, and sustaining landscape function.

    The broad principles of ecosystem management can be applied to any landscape—longleaf pine savannah, northern hardwoods, mountain ponderosa pine, or West Coast Douglas fir. The specific methods will necessarily vary from place to place, but the intention should be to affirm the primacy of ecological sustainability for our national forests. If this concept of ecosystem management is still murky for some Forest Service people, leaders need to clarify its meaning with simple, understandable principles. For example: We will work with nature, not against it. We will resist extremes and embrace moderation. Jack Ward Thomas, Forest Service chief from 1993 to 1996, once said, “If you want golden eggs, don’t kill the Golden Goose!”

    • Well said, Jim! Your words convey my thoughts exactly and how I approached my career: strive for moderation/optimization, not exploitation. Thank you for clearly describing what I have not been able to articulate.

  6. Folks in Region 1 tend to remember Jim Lyons for his attempt to ship them off to Ogden by abruptly combining the two regions (he evidently lost this political battle at a higher level). As it happened I also got to work with him directly later on the 2000 Planning Rule (which is what the Forest Service calls it, though it may have been signed in early 2001) when I was detailed to the primary staff position working on that in 1999-2000. There I thought he was much more willing to listen and appreciative (but this was at a more technical than policy level).

    Unfortunately my recollection of this effort was mostly buried by later working on the 2012 Planning Rule. However, in both instances I would have advised (including Lyons) that the only meaningful substantive requirements in NFMA are ecological (primarily diversity) and that necessarily makes it more important than social and economic factors. And that makes complete sense because the Forest Service manages the land, not the social structure or the economy. It makes sense for the Forest Service to establish specific desired outcomes for the land, because it has the legal jurisdiction to do so and a large degree of control over achieving them; not so for social and economic conditions.

    The 2012 requirements are not so “squishy,” since ecological sustainability has been defined in terms of a “natural range of variation.” That can be objectively determined for the key resources being managed (based on the best available scientific information).

    • But the term “natural range of variation” does not carry meaning because “natural” itself does not have any pragmatic physical meaning. It is a long and hard stretch from diversity of plant and animal communities” and a long and winding legal road to “natural range of variation” with stops at the ideas of coarse-filter fine-filter and all that. I don’t know how it can possibly be “objectively determined.”
      To this humble vegetation person, the FS does not have as large degree of control over achieving veg objectives as a person might think. We can cut trees or not, let them burn but at the end of the day what’s gonna grow back is gonna grow back (or something different based on climate change). That’s why I think protecting watershed function or climate resilience would be better and more achievable than NRV. You could also argue that climate resilience fits in better with the statutory language of NFMA as both have to do with diversity.

      • NRV is defined in the Planning Handbook (1909.12 05): “The variation of ecological characteristics and processes over scales of time and space that are appropriate for a given management application. In contrast to the generality of historical ecology, the NRV concept focuses on a distilled subset of past ecological knowledge developed for use by resource managers; it represents an explicit effort to incorporate a past perspective into management and conservation decisions (adapted from Weins, J.A. et al., 2012 ).”
        This is intended to differ from “historical ecology,” but use that knowledge to anticipate the likely future, climate change in particular.
        Diversity = ecological integrity = NRV + resilience (see 36 CFR §219.19).
        Function is part of that definition and ecological integrity applies to watersheds (see 36 CFR §219.8(a) and §219(a)).
        You got what you asked for, and I don’t know why this should be so hard to apply to a particular ecosystem or watershed. It is being done for some ecosystem characteristics but should be for more.


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