Collaborating on national forest exploitation – an oxymoron?

“Attendees engaged in fruitful conversations during the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests hosted Environmental Analysis and Decision Making collaboration summit. USDA Forest Service photo.”

“Before retiring, James Burchfield worked as a field forester for the Forest Service and served as dean of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.”  Where our careers overlapped, he was known for his support of and expertise in collaboration in national forest management.  We have argued on this blog about the proper role of collaboration (it flared up again in the Rim Fire recent example), but in this Missoulian column he points out what I think most would agree is an improper role (on his way to making another point about adequately funding the Forest Service).

In 2002, former Chief Dale Bosworth, who now resides in Missoula, reminded the agency of the concept of stewardship, where the focus is not what we take from the land but what we leave on the land. I fear we may be forgetting these vital lessons.

The June 12 visit to Missoula by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to announce his Secretarial Memorandum on new agency priorities reminds us how easily we may be lured in the wrong direction. His mandate to “increase America’s energy dominance” and “reduce regulatory burdens” comes on the heels of a June 4 Presidential Executive Order that orders federal agencies to set aside environmental impact requirements because of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, the nation must take assertive measures to restore the economy, but a command to exploit complex ecological systems without appropriate environmental reviews, guaranteed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), abandons the sound principle of “look before you leap.” Further, forcing the Forest Service to meet production targets on a narrow range of resource benefits — those that can be commodified in the marketplace — discounts other critical resource values such as clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities that are well-recognized as central to Montana’s economic vitality.

Moreover, the Forest Service has learned its best outcomes emerge only after ongoing deliberations among partners and local residents to apply their nuanced knowledge and experience. This process actually happens in Montana via the decades of efforts by the 20-plus voluntary groups known as forest collaboratives that regularly engage with agency staff to improve project design, build understanding, and help get work done. These collaborative groups do not enter their deliberations with presupposed notions of resource exploitation. They want the best for the land.  

(My emphasis.)  I was always skeptical that including those with strictly monetary interests in collaborative efforts comported with this principle.  I assumed that there would have to be collaborative agreement with the desired outcome as step 1.  (This is also where forest plans should make an important contribution by defining the desired condition of the land.)  After Perdue’s announcement, it’s hard to see how any truly collaborative effort today could get past that step.



25 thoughts on “Collaborating on national forest exploitation – an oxymoron?”

  1. So true, Jon – Sec. Perdue’s emphasis points are mere pathways to some outcome, one that is not rooted in “what is best for the land”. One only has to look at the Great Lakes over the decades to see how pursuing what is best for the economy turns out to be disastrous for the environment (leaving it to future generations to figure how to restore an ecosystem so humans can use it again in the manner they desire). In a way, Sec. Perdue’s points echo much of the outspoken criticisms towards the Forest Service from commodity exploiters – profit now, protection later.

    Anyone who has experienced productive and effective collaboration recognizes that having some (substantial?) group agreement on the outcome makes for an “everyone can get something” situation. When most people realize that many want the same outcome, debating the pathway to get there can be more productive.

  2. But that’s not exactly what Perdue said, is it?
    “that orders federal agencies to set aside environmental impact requirements because of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”- he asked to see what could be done, which is a long way from actually doing anything, as those of us who have worked in DC know well, especially statements made just before an election. So collaboratives are going to lay down their flipcharts until November.. not likely..

    “These collaborative groups do not enter their deliberations with presupposed notions of resource exploitation. They want the best for the land. ” One forest’s fuel treatment with logs going to the mill- exploitation? Another forest’s fuel treatment with logs piled and burned- not exploitation? And, as we’ve discussed before, some people think that the best thing for the land is to keep various groups of people away.

    If people with “strictly monetary interests” shouldn’t be collaborating,, then we shouldn’t let people such outfitters and guides, ski areas, folks who manage powerlines, Scout and church camps and anything that needs a permit from a commercial enterprise. Probably including neighbors who would like fuel treatments nearby so their houses are less likely to burn down…

    • Any time someone has a financial interest at stake, their input (IMO) will be skewed to what is not best for the land. While I do not have all the facts in hand, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in CA suffered what could be a devastating financial blow when they ended up paying out millions and millions of dollars for damages resulting from the 2018 Camp Fire that, in part, resulted from their lack of electric line corridor maintenance. Decisions made for the short-term (ie, profit) resulted in long-term financial (for PG&E) and environmental ruin (not to mention the tragic loss of human lives).

      Another example I experienced was a horseback trip into the Scapegoat Wilderness through an outfitter. While the comfort and conveniences were appreciated, I was struck by how the outfitter described his relationship with the Forest Service, leveraging his business interests to gain leniency for addressing Wilderness values. Those values are rarely agreed to in terms of how they are achieved, so to hear how an outfitter was profiting from his use of land was an eye-opening experience for me.

      I believe that everyone should be at the table, but each individual needs to be honest with themselves and the group on what their role will be in the group. When it comes to land health, people with a profit motive at the heart of their participation are not viewed favorably.

      • Yes, people can value their own profits over others’ values. That’s why there are CFR’s, and inspectors among Forest Service people. But if we substitute “personal desires” for “profits” then who is pure enough to participate in collaborative? If we said “I don’t think OHV use is good for the land” should OHVers not be allowed to participate in collaboratives? Or only commercial ones? To me those are exactly the kind of discussions that fits collaborative work. In fact, people in collaboratives can call each other on their interests and points of view in a way that may be difficult for FS employees. I too have been on horseback trips with a variety of different outfitters, and they may have questioned some of the rules, but still followed them. People can be troublesome in a variety of ways, but I don’t think that that’s a good reason to keep them out of the convo.

        • Completely agree, Sharon…the collaborative conversations would be more effective more quickly if people are truly invested in sharing and learning perspectives rather than protecting positions.

        • I’m with you on this, Sharon. It would be ideal if everyone involved in collaborative processes wanted “what’s best for the land,” but that is inherently subjective anyway. Collaborative stakeholders are bringing their own personal perspectives to the table, all of which are informed by personal biases. Yes, some of those biases are more ecological than commercial, but the national forests were founded with all those perspectives in mind. Isn’t what’s best for the land that it be protected in public ownership with public accountability, managed according to best available science, and with a “big tent” of support needed to keep the agency well funded?

          Ultimately, it’s the agency’s job to decide what’s best for the land. Sometimes it’s better to use imperfect tools than to do nothing at all, and sometimes it’s better to do nothing at all than to use imperfect tools. It’s all about context, which is why both plan-level and project-level public involvement are and will always be essential. If the agency’s job is to make sense of both narrow and collaborative forms of input and then decide what’s best for the land, our primary objective should be creating a virtuous cycle where agency staff are rewarded for doing what’s best for then land rather than meeting “flagship targets” that aren’t connected to outcomes.

          We just wrapped up collaborative comments on the Nantahala-Pisgah draft plan. I think it would make a great guest post to discuss what the collaborative said and what we all learned though the process.

  3. Perhaps, As long as the national forests are cutting 8% of the annua growth while 67% dies from fire, insects and disease (as a result of virtual non-management), we might focus our discussions on other , more significant,concerns.

    Your one-track minded curmudgeon, Mac

  4. Nobody said “keep them out of the convo.” You can be sure there will be plenty of lobbying by those with financial interests to structure the desired outcome or purpose and need to fit those interests. I think the point here is that Perdue is responding to that lobbying by doing their bidding, so there is reason to think that there will be collateral damage to collaborative processes and solutions.

    • Would you say the same thing about collaborative processes if an Administration with a protectionist bias gets elected?

      • Well, I wasn’t saying this; I think Jim Burchfield was. I assume you mean “protectionists” would issue an edict about caring for the land, which I think is a much better focus for public collaboration than how to get the cut out (or the oil out). I don’t think you would find many people refusing to buy in to that outcome.

        • The Trump administration has repeatedly, and proudly, proclaimed that they are changing America’s bedrock environmental laws to facilitate more public lands logging, mining, drilling, grazing and fracking.

          Yet some people on this blog continue to ignore the Trump administration’s own words and actions (which again, they proudly and repeatedly proclaim) to provide some type of cover and rationale to what’s happening to America’s public lands legacy. I just really will never be able to figure that one out.

          • But Matthew, the Trump administration can’t change laws.. they can only change rules to implement those laws. How successful have they been? Not very. And most of them have not gone to court yet. I don’t get all excited about words because I know it’s hard to change things in basically three years. Words are not actions. Regs that haven’t been challenged in court are not actions. Actions require budgets and budgets come from Congress.

            For example, Biden says he will stop oil and gas production on federal lands. Even so, we don’t know if it will be legal to stop it, because it’s a program authorized in a statute. In the short term, they can slow it down through various bureaucratic levers. If I asked other D friends about this, they would say “ah, but the candidates have told us their intent… whether they can do it or not is a separate thing.”

            It’s not that I agree with the words and regs they come out with, it’s just that my experience is that people with other opinions have deep pockets and good lawyers, as well as communications arms that actively promote outrage and don’t place administration actions in context of previous administrations. Their goal is to keep hitting anything that moves to help elect someone else. But we can’t equate what we read in fear-promoting sources with the real world.

            Hope that clarifies my point of view.

        • I think saying that “getting the cut out” or “getting the oil out” as a “focus of collaboration” isn’t what any collaboratives are about. I’d guess that most honor the need to protect the environment and don’t see that getting some trees to the mill is against that. I have a great deal of respect for Burchfield, but in this case, I don’t think he completely understands the complexities of Administrations getting their desires implemented.

          • I did want to backtrack a little on this. If the Forest Service would be honest about what it wants, for example, “we need to sell xx MMBF of timber – where and how should we do that this year,” they might be able to convene a collaborative group that would like to help them answer that question (perhaps an opportunity to minimize the damage). I’ve always thought it starts things off on the wrong foot by saying “we must put a timber sale here,” since people who don’t want a timber sale here won’t want to collaborate on obtaining that outcome.

            Regarding campaign promises, “Even so, we don’t know if it will be legal to stop it, because it’s a program authorized in a statute.” An authorization is not worth much without funding, and beyond that, efforts to stop funded production activities are only limited by contractual arrangements, and those can usually be abrogated with money (by the terms of the contract).

            “Regs that haven’t been challenged in court are not actions.” I don’t understand what a court decision changes about the nature of a regulation (as opposed to changing its meaning).

            • Your first point is well taken, Jon. Since most effective timber organizations on local units are planning several years ahead on where to place timber sales, your suggested question (“Where and how…”) would have people realize that they are a couple years behind the curve once they find out where the FS wants to place a timber sale.

              One way to overcome that is to be more transparent with planning the timber program, but that would be an extraordinary action by the FS.

              • I use to attend purchaser meetings with the FS where they would explain their timber sale program. They usually projected the program several years out. Including why, where, and how the volume would be produced. I am sure this information would be fairly easy to access by the general public.

                • Good to hear, Bob. What would be extraordinary is if this was common knowledge, not just known by a few. Something to work on…

                  • I think I remember from the EADM meetings or earlier that people wanted to be able to be involved in setting general areas for project planning. Somewhere between the forest plan and project level. And I bet there are districts /forests where this occurs.

                    • Yes, you are correctly, Sharon. That public comment was the overriding statement from those EADM meetings. It is good to hear your optimism that transparency may be occurring in some places. While I acknowledge that, I also propose that the FS has much work ahead to make this approach consistent across the country.

  5. Hmmm. I’d say that one of the desirable things about collaborative groups is that they can help to dampen national ideological oscillations insofar as the collaborative world with one chunk of land -the smaller the stakes, the less energy gets devoted to partisan drama.

    • Agree. And project-sized chunks of land framed by collaboratively derived forest plan desired conditions should work even better.

  6. “people wanted to be able to be involved in setting general areas for project planning.”

    It seems to me that the Forest Service’s movement towards “condition-based” planning, where a decision is made on managing a large area without knowing exactly where, and not inviting public participation in a NEPA process when they do know where, is heading the wrong direction. It’s a lot different from looking at the large landscape with the idea of getting the public to help them identify where they should manage.


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