White House proposal eliminates Forest Service research

The following article was written by Marc Heller, E&E News reporter. It includes perspective from Smokey Wire contributor Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The Forest Service is looking to shift research away from wildlife in national forests and toward wildfire management, according to budget documents.

In its proposed spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the service said it intends to eliminate research funding for fish and wildlife and close a research station in California. Staff would be reduced, although researchers would be given the opportunity to relocate within the Forest Service.

The wildlife and fish research totals $22 million this year.

“The proposed budget requires difficult decisions about what research stations and programs would continue to operate,” the Department of Agriculture said in a memo to staff, detailing the planned budget rollout. The administration presented the fiscal 2021 budget proposal to Congress on Monday.

“Making these decisions will allow the Forest Service to focus its resources on its highest priority science activities,” USDA said. “These highest priority science activities are those which make the greatest contribution to the agency’s land management responsibilities.”

In the memo, obtained by E&E News, the department told staff the proposal doesn’t mean the Forest Service is turning away from science and research, but rather that it’s realigning its research priorities to reflect the relative importance of wildfire and forest health. The proposal also would eliminate funding for research related to recreation, saving $9 million.

The forest inventory and analysis budget would climb 2%. The service would also invest more than $12.5 million to strengthen the link between research and wildfire suppression operations, the department said.

“The Forest Service will continue to be a national leader in conducting applied science to inform forest management and improve forest conditions,” USDA said.

Cutting research is likely to raise objections in Congress, particularly from Democrats who view the Trump administration as hostile to science. The department appeared to anticipate that line of inquiry, posing in a question-and-answer section of the memo: “This budget is yet another example of this Administration’s war on science. How can you justify this huge cut to research and say that you will still have enough capacity for a viable research program that will support the management of the Nation’s forests?”

The department’s answer, in part: “Selecting priority research areas on which to focus resources is essential to maintaining the quality of the Forest Service’s research enterprise and represents the agency’s commitment to producing high-quality, impactful science.”

Research on wildlife and fish directly affects Forest Service decisions on land use, including logging that has impacts on wildlife, said Chad Hanson, a forest biologist with the John Muir Project in California who is opposed to logging on federal land.

The research has sometimes been at odds with timber industry priorities, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

“Fish and wildlife research reformed Forest Service logging. But for the work of a generation of Forest Service fish and wildlife scientists, old-growth forests would all be stumps today,” Stahl said.

Other potential points of contention are the proposed closure of the Pacific Southwest Research Station in Albany, Calif., and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico. The research station in California is the smallest of the Forest Service’s five research and development stations and can be merged with the Pacific Northwest Research Station, the department said.

USDA said the proposal would cut 287 staff years, although the proposal didn’t say how many researchers would be affected. Scientists working on forest inventory and analysis, for instance, would be kept on at other facilities, the department said.

In the budget justification document presented to Congress, USDA said, “These closures would require the use of reduction in force authority, voluntary early retirement authority and voluntary separation incentive authority.”

11 thoughts on “White House proposal eliminates Forest Service research”

  1. I find this amusing in a lot of ways. The assault on science and research in the President’s budget is appalling, but also inconsistent with what leadership of USDA is saying about the need and importance of research. It is clear that whomever is writing POTUS’ budget hasn’t actually talked to Department leads (at least at USDA), and that POTUS’ budget is simply a political statement and not a serious attempt to set national priorities.

    Below is a story also from E&E News, published 2/18/20, that discusses Ag Sec’y Perdue’s focus on adaptation science:

    Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will allow agency scientists to study how U.S. farmers are responding to climate change — a notable departure from the Trump administration’s history of squelching climate science through budget cuts and the suppression of scientific reports.

    The recently released “USDA Science Blueprint” identifies climate adaptation as one of five focus areas the agency will pursue between 2020 and 2025. It includes 26 objectives, strategies and evidence-building activities around climate change, divided under two broad headings: landscape-scale conservation and management, and climate research and resiliency.

    “We are committed to putting science to work for the American public,” Scott Hutchins, head of USDA’s research, education and economics mission area, said in a statement. “We will always strive for scientific excellence and integrity in support of America’s agriculture.”

    The decision is notable given Perdue’s record of squashing scientific reports on climate change. Congressional Democrats last year demanded answers after a Politico investigation found that Perdue had released only two of 45 recent agency studies on global warming (E&E Daily, June 26, 2019).

    The suppressed research included one study into whether rice loses vitamins under elevated carbon conditions and another that warned farmers and ranchers about declining quality of forage grasses due to warming.

    USDA oversees one of the government’s largest and longest-running research programs. Six USDA offices are charged with advancing research and knowledge about the nation’s production of crops, livestock and forest products, as well as the management of 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands.

    Forest managers and experts have relied on USDA research to address a number of major climate events, including the recent California wildfires. The agency also provides critical information to the agriculture sector about climate change impacts to farms, ranches and managed forests. It also looks at ways agricultural land can be managed as carbon sinks.

    Perdue said, “USDA’s agricultural research is vital to helping our farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters increase efficiency and productivity, and our science agencies play an integral role in setting forth new visions for innovation through their work.”

    John Piotti, executive director of the American Farmland Trust, called the blueprint “an important commitment” by Perdue and USDA to scientific research on behalf of farmers and ranchers, and that the organization “is heartened to see climate change as a key focus.”

    “As farmers struggle to deal with the impacts of both extreme weather and a challenging farm economy, it is good to see the department intends to help them build resiliency and adapt to new realities,” Piotti said.

    Other experts said the Trump administration now must meet USDA’s climate research agenda with seriousness and transparency.

    “It is relatively easy to put things down on paper, but delivering on them in the real world and carrying through is a totally different thing,” said Mike Lavender, senior manager for government affairs at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Lavender said the Trump administration also has contradicted itself on climate change, noting that the president’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget includes “steep cuts to the very research and conservation programs that help farmers adapt and be resilient to climate change.”

    “Talking out of both sides of your mouth is a phrase that comes to mind,” he added.

  2. Beyond all the “war on science” hype… the Admin is probably putting on the block things they know Congress will want added back.
    Also the PSW closure might be about some unknown (to us) horse-trading with the California delegation.
    It’s interesting that Andy thinks it’s still about the timber wars…I doubt that the timber industry cares, or can figure out who is funded by the FS vs. NSF, or USGS, or ….

    As to USDA, the Politico story cited said…

    With a budget of just over $1 billion, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service — known as ARS — is often referred to as “one of the best kept secrets” in the sprawling department because of its outsize impact on society. The agency has pioneered a variety of major breakthroughs, from figuring out how to mass produce penicillin so it could be widely used during World War II to coming up with creative ways to keep sliced apples from browning, and has for decades been at the forefront of understanding how a changing climate will affect agriculture.

    The agency has stringent guidelines to prevent political meddling in research projects themselves. The Trump administration, researchers say, is not directly censoring scientific findings or black-balling research on climate change. Instead, they say, officials are essentially choosing to ignore or downplay findings that don’t line up with the administration’s agenda.

    (my italics)

    The lack of promotion means research from scores of government scientists receives less public attention. Climate-related studies are still being published without fanfare in scientific journals, but they can be very difficult to find. The USDA doesn’t post all its studies in one place.

    This seems like more of a systematic and less partisan problem.

    “Research continues on these subjects and we promote the research once researchers are ready to announce the findings, after going through the appropriate reviews and clearances,” the spokesperson said in an email.

    “USDA has several thousand scientists and over 100,000 employees who work on myriad topics and issues; not every single finding or piece of work solicits a government press release,” the spokesperson added.

    of more concern was this quote

    “All of these studies were peer-reviewed by scientists and cleared through the non-partisan Agricultural Research Service, one of the world’s leading sources of scientific information for farmers and consumers.”

    The US Government as a whole is probably “non-partisan”, but elected officials are still in control (plus or minus Congress and the Courts) of the Executive Branch. One good thing about the whole Trump legacy is that perhaps people will have a better idea of how the three branches of government work to balance each other.

    • Sharon’s knack for providing cover and downplaying anything coming from the right, while taking pot-shots at the left, never ceases to amaze.

      For the record, the Trump administration and GOP members of Congress are waging a “war on science” on a host of fronts. Anyone paying attention sees this very clearly. So, there’s no “hype” when something is actually happening in real time, and has been for years now. Also, for the record Sharon, the only reason the words “war on science” appear in the article above is because Trump’s USDA said those words themselves in a Q and A memo.

      Here’s another example ripped from the headlines:

      “President Trump’s budget proposes closing a network of climate science centers, prompting concerns the administration will hamstring climate change research while booting employees from the federal workforce. Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget would slash funding for the National and Regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers, eliminating all $38 million for research to help wildlife and humans “adapt to a changing climate.”

      • Matthew, I don’t believe in abstractions like “the right” and “the left.” I end up sometimes saying “something may not be as bad as it appears from some media outlets” and trying to see that there is another side.

        As to the Climate Adaptation Science Centers, I was on one of the stakeholders’ groups asked to give opinions about it. Many of my fellow stakeholders didn’t see a need for this as there was already lots of opportunities for this joint kind of research with universities (e.g. CESU’s) and that a new institutional structure would cause unnecessary and redundant overhead costs.

        But the convenors carefully told us stakeholders that they had already gotten money from Congress, so we were only invited to give input on where the centers might be located, not on whether they should exist or what they should focus on.

        A person might also argue that nowadays, what is not “climate-related” research on wildlife? What wildlife biologist does not consider potential impacts of climate as she studies her preferred creatures?

  3. The Trump administration is exactly what our Founding Fathers envisioned as a threat to our democracy. This proposal, making logging the “highest priority” of the Forest Service, robs the American people and future generations of any hope of a healthy environment.

    • “On February 1, 1905, the USDA Forest Service was established within the Department of Agriculture. The agency was given a unique mission: to sustain healthy, diverse, and productive forests and grasslands for present and future generations. From the earliest days of the agency, the U.S. Forest Service has kept forest management as a primary focus.”

      • Hi Brian – When I quote something I usually try to give the citation so other readers can go to the source if they’re interested.

        Ahhh yes, “forest management;” when I was an undergrad in forestry school (B.S. 1973) and later as a forester w/ the USFS the term primarily meant timber management. Certainly that’s the vein Trump is in.
        However, some forests are being managed with more of an eye to the future; carbon storage, sequestration or whatever term you use is definitely an opportunity.
        What a novel idea; manage our National Forests to help reduce the impacts of climate change while also providing clean water, habitat for listed species and many other benefits.

      • Brian, this does not sound to me like language from 1905.
        “to sustain healthy, diverse, and productive forests and grasslands for present and future generations.” Here’s why the reserves where established:
        “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States; but it is not the purpose or intent of these provisions, or of said section, to authorize the inclusion therein of lands more valuable for the mineral therein, or for agricultural purposes, than for forest purposes.”

        The language you quoted sounds to me a bit like the language from the ill-fated 1995 RPA program.

  4. I’m not so sure this has emanated fully out of the administration. I recall being at an USFS R&D meeting that included now deputy Chief, Alex Friend. The hostility of R&D leadership towards wildlife work was immense. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the wildlife/fisheries researchers were more productive in terms of publications and grants than the other disciplines. Or perhaps, at least for Region 8 and 9 forests, those were the R&D questions that the national forests wanted answered more so that harvesting research. It was a time when ecosystem services was the new buzzword and everything linked to that. Till the day I die, I will remember Friend scoffing at the notion that biodiversity in general or that harvestable wildlife (deer) should be in the ecosystem service conversation or that the public was interested in wildlife. My rejoinder to their constant calls of the need for being relevant to the agency and the public were “well, 3 million Pennsylvania residents deer hunted this year in Penn’s woods, but I doubt 300 Pennsylvanians discussed ecosystem services over their beer and Philly cheesesteaks in Penn’s woods.”

    That being said, everything will be OK. If R&D types can be moved over to national forests to help with implementation and analysis of national forest monitoring and admin studies and knowing universities are replete with capacity to conduct research, the world will not end.

    • I still think this is a bit of a Washington Monument kind of strategy. Who in Congress is against wildlife researcher? Interest groups are either hunters and fishers, as you point out, or protectors of wildlife or both. So both sides of the aisle are likely to want to add it back.

      I’d interpret Friend’s comments as part of the scientific “coolness” factor. Any FS research administrator has a tough row to hoe between the kind of research people on the ground want (almost never cool) and the FS being a member of the Broader Scientific Community (ecosystem services, climate change and so on).

      Maybe they can switch the titles of the projects to “how climate change affects wildlife” and fund it under climate change..

  5. I took his comments as a hard core “I dont give a hoot about wildlife, loblolly pine plantation’ forester type. But I was too busy laughing at their desire to take work away from the Army Corps and USGS to analyze it too much at the time. That didn’t come to pass thank goodness.


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