What the FS Should Do To Manage the Flood of Bucks re: Wildfire Resilience: Convened by Aspen Institute and TNC

 

Rumor has it that Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and Chief Moore will make an announcement about the 10 year plan next Tuesday.  Meanwhile, the Aspen Institute and TNC convened a set of folks (would it be overreaching to say “many of the usual suspects”? you decide, guest list here).

Here’s a link to the report.

Earlier we received some inklings about the work of the WRRIT from Chief Moore at the SAF Convention as described in this “premonitions” post..  Here’s what the Aspen/TNC report says.

In September 2021, the Forest Service established an internal Wildfire Risk Reduction Infrastructure Team (WRRIT) to develop a ten-year strategic implementation plan to address wildfire resilience across the U.S.
WRRIT is working to:
1) clearly understand the funding and legislative requirements (including congressional direction), and how to prioritize hazardous fuels, prescribed fire, and workforce development projects;
2) identify the internal needs to operationalize the incoming surges in funds, specifically related to capacity, internal policy, infrastructure, technology, and business practices, among others;
3) develop strategic plans and designs to address wildfire resilience at scale while providing flexibility for geographic differences; and
4) socialize and communicate the science and scenario planning, as well as how to engage with employees, partners, and others to get their input and communicate the need for action.

I’m for any team who has an objective of socializing, but I’m not sure that we mean the same thing by the term..

As we talked about before, a key difficulty with national prioritization has been pushback from those who would receive less. Pluse there’s already many different prioritization processes in place.. for example Colorado has its own risk mapping to focus mitigation priorities. Here’s what this group had to say:

Forest Service leadership explained that firesheds will be a major component of the initial prioritization process, yet many participants expressed concern about using the fireshed model as the base map or as the only prioritization tool. For instance, congressional constraints may not align perfectly with fireshed model parameters. In addition, many states are neither familiar with nor using the “firesheds” concept and few have adopted the prioritization tool as part of their State Forest Action Plans. Workshop participants suggested that location in critical firesheds could be a criteria and a preference, but perhaps should not be a definitive requirement. Instead, participants offered that there could be multiple screens used to identify priority locations, and the agency should find ways to move between and sequence screens based on context. Additional prioritization screens could include watersheds and collaborative planning (e.g., Community Wildfire Protection Plans, shared stewardship agreements, forest action plans).

Equity Considerations
Advancing greater equity will also likely play into the criteria for selecting priority landscapes. For example, starting with projects that have collaborative history might make sense, but those are often places with a history of investment and an active partner environment (e.g., universities, NGOs, and other active stakeholders). Focusing solely on these high-capacity areas, despite being high risk, can leave behind certain places and communities, including those that have been historically underserved. Participants agreed that there must be a balance between projects that are ready to go (in places that have capacity, created by the existing system) and investments in those places that could benefit from increased capacity and outcomes. If criteria and prioritization screens do not explicitly include equity considerations, the need for expediency will likely lead to investment in the usual places, projects, and groups, and not result in the needed paradigm shift.

There has definitely been a sense of “them that has, gets” in terms of CFLRPs and other funding sources. However, it might be desirable to define more clearly what we mean by “underserved.” Ideally it would be desirable to bring each area up to “CFLRP level” in terms of interested universities, partners and so on. It might take other colors of dollars to support that capacity. In fact, building the underserved to CFLRP-like capacity would be a useful exercise far beyond wildfire resilience IMHO.

One way to plan for fuel management and fire response is to use Potential Operation Delineations (PODs). PODs are fire management planning units that are defined by boundaries like roads and ridge tops, within which risks can be quantified. While there is significant funding targeted for POD adoption, it is not yet a widely known practice. The agency is making strong investments into the development of PODs and those will likely have to be brought into the agency’s work in years 1-2.
Implementing the surge in funding will likely require recognizing local context and variation and PODs could be a way to increase the application of prescribed fire and sustaining investments

This group seems to like PODS, but hasn’t gone as far as I’ve suggested-  to put a time-out to NFMA planning and work on PODs and fire planning for each western forest until they are all designated and NEPAed.

There were apparently no techie people at this conference, so perhaps that’s the reason for this rather gloomy observation..

Industry can play the role of removing material off the forest and utilizing products in innovative ways. However, too often the material is of low or no value. Participants noted that industry capacity takes time to build, and supply may need to be guaranteed. However, there needs to be more discussion about how to remove material that simply has no value and the investment needed to remove that material as a service rather than for profit.

Paying to remove it to me doesn’t really help to solve the problem of what to do with it. I think everyone agrees burning it in piles is suboptimal for climate. Then it’s a complicated question of how to use it in such a way as to reduce costs to the taxpayer, keep it out of the atmosphere, and make a profit if possible. Maybe that’s the next workshop…

Then there’s some of the usual partnership/EADM observations.. including the idea of a “partnership modernization effort” like the recent forest products modernization effort.

Complex Processes
Navigating the agency’s contracting system can be difficult. Contract administration, compliance, recordkeeping, reporting, accounting, and liability insurance are hard for potential partners, especially those with limited capacity. Some partners shared that it can be hard to advance local innovative approaches that end up getting stalled as they run through layers of bureaucracy. Other complex processes raised included wildfire liability insurance, cancellation and termination clauses in stewardship contracts, and reimbursements instead of upfront funding. Agency standards (e.g., multi-party stewardship agreements, revisions to template arrangements) and national level approval processes should be nimbler.

Personnel Transition Management
Inconsistent personnel can pose an additional challenge for partners. Detailees and personnel lost to fire assignments represent barriers to relationship building. Partnerships rely on building trusting relationships, which can be challenging when Forest Service employees move frequently.
As surges in funding materialize, participants agreed that the agency needs to assess its internal policies and systems to see where it can reduce hurdles to partnerships. There may be a need for partner liaisons — which could be inside or outside the agency — to help navigate partnership challenges. More broadly, the agency may need to pursue a partnership modernization effort, like the recent forest products modernization effort.

I’m a fan of Forest Products Modernization.  To me it’s partially an internal exchange of neat ideas and projects among FS people,  but it’s hard to develop a picture (from the outside) of changes to procedures and removing barriers.. maybe an annual summary of those kinds of changes would be helpful? Maybe they are there, but I haven’t seen them.

Anyway, if you’re interested, take a look at the recommendations and see if you find any surprising, or support or take issue with any.

8 thoughts on “What the FS Should Do To Manage the Flood of Bucks re: Wildfire Resilience: Convened by Aspen Institute and TNC”

  1. Of course, there will be a need to hire an army of inexperienced temporary employees, right off the street, to do the labor-intensive fieldwork. (Unless they want the loggers to select the trees to cut – Designation by Description. In that case, they would need lots of inspectors, beyond the normal (small) amount that Ranger Districts have. Such new employees would also have to be trained, from the bottom up)

    It sounds like the leadership (still) has no desire to increase the size of permanent staffs, regardless of what happens. I would expect an underwhelming result from all that money ‘flooding’ into the Forest Service budget.

    Reply
    • Hi Larry, my early experience goes against your last statement. My region is increasing the PFT workforce by 15% in the coming months (or at least we’re going to attempt to, but that’s another story). I think it varies by region: let’s say I’m in R5/R3-type country and we’re getting after it, but we’re also getting a significant portion of the “flood” of money due to our nexus with infrastructure and fire dollars. My bigger concern is how we’re going to pay for these employees in 2026 and beyond, but I guess we can worry about that when the time comes.

      Reply
      • I think the days of having permanent seasonal timber crews is long past. Without them, the summer work season will continue to be limited by the 6 month limit on Temporary Appointments. In fact, I could see this coming summer as a lost cause, due to the glacial pace of utilizing the new money and hiring more staff. There are a lot of issues that haven’t been addressed regarding the workforce needed to accomplish the lofty goals wanted by Congress. Of course, it might be easy to blame Congress for not fully analyzing and addressing the labor issues. I still think that the Forest Service will outsource some of the work that Temps have done in the past. Changing the 1039 appointments into something else isn’t on anyone’s radar. Even Term Appointments will be avoided, if the past is a guide. I doubt that many ‘bigwigs’ are concerned about the work that Temps are expected to do. Are you willing to use weeks of the work season to hire and train inexperienced Temps every spring? Of course, such positions don’t need to know anything about forestry as a prerequisite. How many Ranger Districts will need 10-20 new timber temps?

        You get what you pay for.

        Reply
        • Another issue will be that some of the timber temps will apply for the many fire jobs that have been mandated. Maybe the Forest Service should consider assembling discrete fire crews, composed of experienced timber employees. When things are slow, they could shift into timber mode, with minimal disruption to the other fire folks.

          This idea makes me also wonder if those timber temps will be unofficially-excluded from being hired into fire jobs, because their ‘trigger fingers’ are too important to meeting timber goals. Such a thing could happen, behind the scenes, in Staff Meetings.

          Reply
  2. My biggest fear is for the forest service to little the $ away with little to show for it! The need for timber sale administrators (TSA’s) service contract CO’s and COR’s, schooled in mechanical treatments are a dwindling commodity. You don’t just send someone to TSA training and they come out fluent in all things timber. Same with CO’s and COR’s; improperly trained employees, turned loose on mega- bucks (and acres) of treatments is not going to be a pretty picture.

    That, and leadership too “risk averse” to step out there and make a difference!

    Reply
    • As a Temporary, I was a Harvest Inspector for many years. My FSR and TSA authorized me to handle all sorts of extra contract provisions, to facilitate rapid progress in the field. That is very important in insect and fire salvage. Some of my co-workers weren’t given that authorization. For new inspectors, there was always the desire to hold those loggers to the letter of the law. They would often see something they don’t like, wanting them to change their ‘style’ of logging, while exceeding their authorization, and no contract provision to back them up. It takes a lot of on-the-ground experience to deal with the real-world problems of logging difficult terrain. Learning the limitations of men and their machines helps you make better decisions.

      It takes a while to develop your own style of enforcing the contract. My style always seemed to bring out the logging crew’s best work. I would always document their good work, in the contract file. They REALLY like getting it in writing. I learned so much from the variety of Sale Admin people I worked with/for. I learned a lot from logging contractors, too.

      In the end, I had one chance to be a TSA, on a detail. It worked out great, but I never got another chance. Those kind of job openings are scarce, and my experience didn’t get me selected for the few openings I applied for.

      Reply
    • Jim I’m happy to report that my regional leadership is taking an aggressive posture here, and not being risk averse at all. Truly that comes from Chief Moore and Chris French – they’ve delivered very clear leader’s intent on this, and while I can’t speak for all Regional Foresters, I know mine gets it.

      That said, all the money in the world isn’t magically going to make the 3 new TSAs and 5 new archs I’m advertising actually exist. We need people to apply for these jobs, and I’m not confident that they are out there. And if they are, and I get them, someone else won’t. I know it’s early but so far we haven’t screwed this up. Hopefully we can keep that going.

      Reply
      • Yeah, I guess I’ve seen these fizzes and flops too many times to hold out much hope – I sure hope I am wrong this time! I am not at all covered in a warm, fuzzy feeling with the current leadership! Here’s hoping for the best!!!!

        As for leaders intent, just saying it is not going to “make it so”. Aggressive leadership (not just saying the right words) is a minute quality in the Agency; more often than not, those leaders that step out there and get the job done will be yanked back in line, or worse, promoted….🤣

        There is a term we used in “Roundtable” to try to convey those leadership qualities we strived to embrace, “authenticity”. An authentic leader needs no fancy words, nor mission statement for employees to recognize that attribute.

        The FS has an excellent opportunity to change the future of mega-fires, through fuels and timber management, I sure hope they “walk the talk”…..

        Reply

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