More Reflections on the Black Hills and Open Peer Review: Second Guest Post by Frank Carroll

Thanks to the Norbeck Society for providing links to the Friday videoconference! In case you haven’t been following the different threads , here’s a link to the info, including an agenda and list of speakers. It’s open to the public via the web. It’s from 1-3 MT on Friday May 1. That’s today. Now on to Frank’s second post.

Sharon Friedman writes “One of the interesting things about this paper is the peer review process- internal, external, and stakeholders and the public….I think it’s a great idea to have a variety of perspectives. Some of the most rigorous scientific reviews I’ve seen are when people with different opinions, interests, and experiences on the ground review a paper.”

Our experience with direct engagement of interested and affected publics in forest management began in earnest in 1970 when then-Southwestern Regional Forester William “Bill” Hurst wrote a letter to all hands extolling the brave new world of public involvement in forest management. The idea of direct public involvement didn’t come to Bill in the dark of night. As in our own time, the Forest Service was working hard to remain relevant in the sea of competing public interests, Congressional distractions, and Secretary-level politics that whipsaw the agency in every Epoch from 1895 until today.

The idea was to capitalize on the reputation the Forest Service then had as what authors Clark and McCool described as a “Superstar Agency” in their seminal work, Staking Out the Terrain. Hurst and his peers reasoned that involving the public directly in decision-making would build a cadre of political support that would support Forest Service management into the future and speak for the agency in political fights down the road. After all, people trusted us. Kids wanted to be forest rangers. Lassie ruled the airwaves. Capitalize on all the good will, Hurst reasoned. History will note that Bill’s expectations were earnest in intent, naïve in conception, and not at all what he envisioned in terms of real outcomes. Inviting the public into the agency house resulted in land and resource management planning and all the many iterations of public policy and high drama we have known since 1980 when LRMP really took off and the world changed.

The idea to involve our scientists and their research in what I view as an ill-considered and potentially disastrous, open-ended “peer review” process with any and all hands commenting is a direct descendant of Bill’s effort in 1970 and driven by the same desires that somehow involving the public in our planning and management processes, and, now, in our science and data, will somehow elevate our work. As we learned in 1980 and subsequent years, our shared agency hopes that opening the document to some form of “public peer review” will build a strong political consensus for the report and its conclusions is wrong. It will not. It will, however, compromise Forest Service science in unlooked for ways that may ultimately damage both the data and the scientists. Public involvement in this paper will not change the outcome of future decisions on forest management in the Black Hills in any way.

It’s a hard lesson made harder in the knowledge that “peer review” from all hands was not an idea supported by or even considered by the authors. The principals in this case are useful pawns as various levels of the agency and outside interests attempt to legitimize the conclusions in the report. The thinking is that if enough outside interests (like the Norbeck Society, Forest Service retirees, and others) weigh in and are familiar with the report and its projections, the weight of political power will swing away from the current timber industry in favor of timber volume reductions. For a host of reasons, that will not happen.

Jim Neiman’s monthly electric bill is $30,000, month in, month out, and won’t change barring any unforeseen events. The timber industry including Jack Baker and Jim Neiman support thousands of jobs and hundreds of families in two states. The combined economic clout of a robust and creative forest products industry are critical contributors to well-being in the southwest corner of South Dakota and eastern Wyoming and that industry enjoys the full support of the President, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Chief of the Forest Service, the Regional Forester, Senator Thune, Senator Rounds, Congressman Dusty Johnson, and every community leader who counts across two states.

In addition, the industry has operated in an unbroken cycle of success since at least 1885 providing timber and other forest products for the Hills and beyond. They have continued to do so up to and including this year. When there are blips in production, those blips are products of market conditions, not Forest Service actions with the glaring exception of 2000 when agency machinations gone wrong resulted in zero timber offered or sold. The combined experience of leadership at all levels has been that the timber industry can and does take care of itself using a combination of market forces, entrepreneurial skill and creativity, tenacity, and dedication to sustainable forestry over time.

The report paints a picture that is contrary to our combined experience in Black Hills forestry. The message is not trusted and there is no agreement on potential outcomes or conclusions. In such a situation the status quo will rule the day absent any surety that is should not.

The Forest Service must be highly circumspect in inviting public participation in scientific analyses and agency management, especially when the likelihood is high that public expectations for change from some quarters will not be met. In this case, the status quo will rule coming decisions related to ASQ and that’s OK. The problem is actually self-regulating. Either the timber industry is right and they will continue to use their skill, creativity, and market forces to make a living and provide forest management, or they will fail to do so, also because of market forces quite apart from Forest Service aspirational objectives. Please take heed, RMRS…you may think inviting “peer review” today looks good, but wait until they are editing your text and bar graphs to fit with their personal perspectives…your political scientific reports will frustrate you more than you can know.

In my opinion, the correct focus of the agency should be to compile data, provide analysis of current management and alternatives to it, and work to merge competing interests to the best of their ability. The Forest Service has no business trying to strong-arm the timber industry. A sketchy “peer review” of data and analysis is not helpful.

Additionally, the rise of the use of “unplanned fire in the right place at the right time” and “reintroducing wildfire to fire-deficit ecosystems,” or “forest management by applied wildfire,” has endangered the agency’s moral high ground to try to limit or control proven, traditional, systematic, forest management programs like the sale of federal timber. The timber sale program is a controlled disturbance agent well understood by most foresters. No one knows what the outcome of applied wildfire will be through time. I merely point this out to inform the complexity of the discussion. There is a high level of distrust in Forest Service forest management exacerbated by various attempts to (inappropriately) involve the public, on the one hand, and exclude the public on the other (there has been no public process to disclose the cumulative effects of management by wildfire or “managed fire” as it is called today).

Frank Carroll is managing partner of Professional Forest Management, LLC, PFMc, a full service forestry and grassland consultancy. Frank and partner Van Elsbernd have been working since 2012 to understand and help shape wildland fire policy. Frank is the principal author of the wildfire impact analysis for the Mount Rushmore Independence Day Environmental Assessment. PFMc has helped over 600 clients recover almost $600 million in damages from wildfires across the West.

17 thoughts on “More Reflections on the Black Hills and Open Peer Review: Second Guest Post by Frank Carroll”

  1. I think this happens a lot in our discussions on different topics. In this case, I think open peer review is a great idea when it’s done “right.” Frank is probably thinking it will be done “wrong.” So is there a “right” way? What do I think that that would look like?

    Which is kind of relevant to our usual “Science Friday” because there are two stages it seems to me, in this.
    One is weeding out comments that do not fit the concept of “peer review”. Given the relatively narrow purview of this report .. which I believe is the question of whether the current level of cutting meets LTSY, then peer review would involve the methods (what data, what analysis?), conclusions and recommendations.
    Public and open peer review can be handy because reviewers who are knowledgeable about the methods (and have a strong interest) can add to the paper in the sense that the authors can add to their explanations of why they picked the approach they did, what other ways they might have done it, and why they didn’t choose those methods (if they think these are good points).

    The key point seems to be trusting the interaction of the authors and the reviewers (and the editors or perhaps folks at the Station who would tell the authors what to change). We don’t know how that will work, although if we were super-interested I guess we could FOIA it. My point is that usually when a paper is published, the same kinds of judgments go on with a smaller data set (not as many scientists, no regular people) and I guess I don’t see that limiting comments has many advantages, the power to change is still in the hands of the authors and the editors of the journal, or in this case, possibly other RMRS employees. Say there are ten improvements that can be made, that editors and authors would judge to be improvements. You can have three academic peer reviewers (who aren’t paid to do this and may not give it full attention, or may use the “sounds plausible” criterion) generate possible improvements, or 30 people, or 300. The extra work is sorting through them may not be “worth it” to get those 10 improvements, but I don’t think we know that.

  2. “The Forest Service has no business trying to strong-arm the timber industry.”
    I think Frank is just saying that those in power are going to ignore the science so don’t bother. Maybe someday those in power will have to answer to a judge.

  3. That same sentence stuck out for me too, Jon. Sadly. What do they call a political blunder…. when someone actually tells the “truth”? It’s pretty clear from Frank’s exposition who he thinks is actually calling the shots, and SHOULD — timber industry. I’m appalled and disgusted, as are seasoned FS retirees like Blaine Cooke and Dave Mertz. Am I under the mistaken impression that the FS actually has Congressionally designated responsibility to manage national forests? Color me naive, but there in NO LAW that requires that the FS sell timber. It MAY do so after meeting many other legal requiremements. Industry’s legal rights to commence logging begin AFTER timber contracts are issued, and not until.
    The “agency machinations gone wrong” in 2000 referred to by Carroll occured when I was Deputy Chief and directly involved in Black Hills affairs. The Forest Plan had been appealed and was remanded to repair notable and glaring deficiencies. Industry had ample volume under contract (about 2 yrs worth) and operated continually while the forest plan was revised and re-issued.

  4. Jim, I guess while there is no law that the FS sell timber, there is MUSYA:
    “It is the policy of the Congress that the national forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes.”

    I don’t know if that has been restated in later legislation. To me that’s the difference between “providing outdoor recreation” versus “renewing Vail’s permit”- there’s lots of questions about where and how much, but the general intent of MUSYA I think is clear.

    • I have observed many in the FS bring up the MYSYA as a mandate to allow for timber and grazing to occur — even if there is clear damage to the sustainability of our natural resources.

      To me, the MYSYA makes clear that the extractive uses of our publicly-owned National Forests cannot endanger the key ecosystem characteristics that will allow for other “uses” (recreation, wildlife habitat, water, etc) now and in the future.

  5. Name even ONE successful or even attempted lawsuit that involved requiring the FS to sell timber… as Mike Gippert (OGC) often said of various laws and regs — they are PERMISSIVE not COERCIVE. This is at the heart of NEPA and NFMA — the FS must create legitimacy for any and all projects absent any consideration of whether it benefits industry. Creating employment is legitimate, but industry is not a proxy for the individual worker. And don’t get me started on how industry puts the squeeze on gyppos (sub-contractors). This is why stewardship contracting is such a powerful mechanism, because it can and should PAY people to achieve land objectives. That’s another whole discussion about why selling stumpage (after decades of timber sale contracts) is at cross-purposes with FS mission. At it’s heart this is what I found so repugnant about Carroll’s (a former industry hack) entire mind-set — he believes FS exists to serve industry. Now, I’m among many who believe FS and industry can create meaningful “partnerships” to get work done, but it MUST pass the test of being in the broader public interest. Industry, operating on public lands, MUST understand this fundamental construct. They have every right to turn work down and, once a contract is signed, to generate profit. But their work must serve a PUBLIC purpose, as defined and administered by the FS.

  6. Jim, I think that there are several levels to this..I know you know all this, but I look at it differently.

    (1) nationally, should the FS do timber sales? The Congress seems to vote “yes” with each year’s appropriations. Now I guess the FS could just say “keep your money, we don’t want to do this” but it’s an executive branch agency, and perhaps someday some administration will do that, or Congress will stop funding it. I just don’t see it as a high priority for expending political capital.

    (2) Somewhere between what the Congress funds and a local unit, there are decisions made as to where to do the work, based on capacity and what is in existing plans (which say where timber can be harvested, and based on further NEPA). It seems to me that this is where the decisions about public purpose are made.

    So I think the positive force is MUSYA (encouraging, in my mind, not exactly permissive) plus funding, and the toggles that determine where exactly are in plans and project documents.

    You know it’s funny, in my part of the country, people who support some industries are “hacks” while people who support other industries are seldom called that. Say the cannabis or outdoor recreation industry. Perhaps it goes back to the “good industry, bad industry” dichotomy.

  7. I’m just making a hypothetical point… .eg if a forest sells 7 sales for 60 mmbf, and then elects not to sell another for 7mmbf, are they subject to litigation for NOT selling that sale — even if it was on SOPA, went thru scoping, even NEPA decision etc. Of course not. I’m not talking about all or nothing. But the BHNF — can they be “required” (especially by industry) to sell 220 ccf if they think they should sell 180? Cook and Mertz are trying to make the point that “the forest” is getting rolled by SD delegation, USDA, Reg Forester et al. Believe me I know all about power politics (Tongass NF in Alaska a good case in point) but what responsibility and authority does the For Supv have to refuse?

  8. That’s a great question, Jim! I guess you can look at it from the political science perspective.. that the Forest Service is part of the Executive Branch, and so employees are expected to do as ordered by people higher up. You and I know that employees have various options (leaking to press, to NGO’s, playing their own political games and so on) in dealing with it, but if push ultimately comes to shove, they can refuse to do it. Likely they will be replaced by someone who will do it.

    You see, I don’t see the Forest as a separate entity from Congress and the Administration (and the Courts). I guess federal landownership implies being run by branches of the Federal Government. Should Forest Supervisors be able to refuse to do things? Of course, but in our system of government, mid-level bureaucrats seldom have the last word. And I’d have to say, I don’t think they should. That way lies chaos.

  9. Pretty much the only thing courts have said about the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act is the multiple-use part “breathes discretion at every pore.” Sustained-yield, however, has some teeth as limit on timber harvest. The law does nothing for timber industry short-term profits, so all they have for that is politics.

    It’s true that funding (and associated politics) is what drives the timber program, but this assumes that the Forest Service has completed the planning/NEPA process properly. So could we have a nation-wide injunction against timber sales? That’s what happened with the Monongahela court’s interpretation of the FS Organic Act. NFMA “allowed” timber sales again, but changed nothing about the discretion to authorize them.

    Appropriations can only fund what is authorized, by both plans and projects. Forest planning is supposed to be a big part of the process by which Congress has any idea what to fund. That is where decisions about “public purpose” are made. In theory the first forest plans could/should have reduced timber harvest levels significantly, but I’ll bet that wasn’t true very often (spotted owls were forced on them, but I think there is a national forest or two that has no suitable timber base and no ASQ.) But even if the industry has had its way with forest planning, they can’t make projects happen, (partly because of limitations and public opposition that were ignored in forest planning).

  10. Here’s an article and quote from Saturday: This says the right things, and it’s fine to question things like the reliability of the data (best available science), and more and better independent review is better when there’s a lot at stake. But there will best factual answers to these questions, which will have legal implications, and does this mean they would accept it? Or just that they are confident they can stonewall it?

    **Wudtke, executive director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, a non-profit trade association that primarily represents forest products companies, harvest professionals and other concerned individuals around the Black Hills, said that from his point of view, there is not a lot to be gained from carrying out those recommendations as written.

    “We in the industry aren’t blind to changes in the forest,” he said. “We see changes, as well. But to be clear, forests are not static and they change all the time, just naturally. We’ve supported this process that they’re going through with collecting this data and information from the start and we still support that process. But the concern right now is to make sure we have available the best information we have and we owe it to ourselves, all of the stakeholders that are at the table for discussion, as well as all the public in the Black Hills that love the forest, we owe it to ourselves to be doing our due diligence and just fact checking this information, just making sure that this is the best that we can get and that we all understand what it says and what it doesn’t say.”**

  11. Recent activity on Tongass NF, for example, is when the system runs amok; I believe the FS there has lost legitimacy and control. Sharon, you argue for a rational and orderly process that is the ideal (which I fully support). But the real world works very differently on occasion. I hope that line officers from district ranger to chief have the duty and obligation to stand on principle when necessary. And this is different from chaos. Sometimes it can cost one’s job, but it can also prevent corruption. History is replete with those who made tough choices or resigned out of principle — they may be uncommon, but their character can also sway policy.

    • I feel great compassion for the Tongassians (and the people who worked/are working on the Roadless Rule) but whether the FS ever has/had “control” in some separate sphere than the chain of command through USDA is not clear to me.

      Is it true that people say, RF’s or Forest Supervisors have lost their jobs due to not going along with the politics of the Alaska delegation?

  12. That’s an easy yes. Probably even true to say “not going along enough”. But D admin’s have been tougher to roll by the Big 3…


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