193+: “Revisions which a minute will reverse”: Rethinking the Forest Service in Time by Char Miller

193 Million Acres: Toward a Healthier and More Resilient Forest Service covers a lot of territory. Taken most literally, the title refers to the lands that the US Forest Service stewards across the United States. But it also evokes the reciprocal dynamic of that stewardship: the different ecosystems—forest, grassland, and wilderness, to name a few—have had a profound impact on the federal agency’s actions; it is also true that the Forest Service, by its policy decisions, budgetary outlays, and managerial schemes have altered conditions on the ground. This feedback loop is of prime importance.

It is vital for another reason. Whether read individually and/or collectively, the contributions to 193 Million Acres reveal alterations in how researchers have analyzed the interplay between the agency and the public lands over the years, a process of rethinking and revising which stretches back to the establishment of the Forest Service in 1905.

The probing the significance of these revisions—historical, scientific, political—form the crux of my chapter in the anthology, “Future Imperfect: The Forest Service and Federal Land Management in a Climate-Charged Environment.” The title and text are self-consciously framed in the concise, three-word description of the historian’s narrative strategy—change over time. And what better way to illustrate some of these historic forces than by starting in the present? A present in which a warming planet is rearranging ecological relationships and thereby disrupting the capacity of the Forest Service, among other institutions, to manage as they once did.

Here’s the set up:

How will the agency steward its 193 million acres of forests and grasslands as the climate and landscapes shift in relation to one another? The Forest Service and its agency peers “know enough now to begin taking decisive action at the local, state, regional, and federal level to implement adaption strategies on public and private forest lands” (Malmsheimer et al. 2008). That said, these agencies have encountered “bottlenecks,” based not so much on the “limitations of our science as on limitations in the policies and existing institutional framework within which forestry is practiced” (Sample, Bixler, and Miller 2016).

These confounding situations have arrived at a fascinating moment in the agency’s history. Founded in 1905, in the immediate aftermath of its centennial celebrations the Forest Service found itself with a golden opportunity to (re)consider whether its prior commitments would allow it to celebrate its bicentennial. That may seem an odd statement. After all, the Forest Service has managed to weather serious challenges in the past, a legacy suggesting it might prove as nimble when confronted with future trials, however unpredictable those posed by global warming may be. Would the agency’s history offer a useful guide to a future layered with the dilemmas a warmer Earth currently is producing? However traumatic climate change is already proving to be, however disruptive its impact on the agency’s previous patterns of behavior and action, analyzing the agency’s past still may provide insight into its future. How will its leaders, line officers, rangers, and staff face the daily complexities posed by an integrated series of forces that may overwhelm their capacity to manage landscapes? How will they respond to the welter of opportunities and challenges that already have emerged and will arise? These are not just policy questions; they also have a historical dimension, for as Richard Neustadt and Ernest May (1986) observe in Thinking in Time: “[S]eeing the past can help one envision alternative futures.”

The bulk of the chapter then explored three possible paths that could redefine the Forest Service’s structure and mission.

Scenario One: Evolutionary Dynamics

The Forest Service has evolved in relation to the lands that it manages, establishing a dynamic interaction between the environment and the professional conservationists who seek to steward it, which confirms a broader claim: “History has repeatedly demonstrated that the health and welfare of human societies are fundamentally dependent on the health and welfare of their forests” (Thompson 2008). This reciprocity, in its particularity and broad sweep, may prove the key to the agency’s long-term survival. Because over time it has had to adapt to shifts in political temper, scientific knowledge, and social concern, its legacy of resilience also may define its 21st-century behavior in an era of climate change, enabling it to morph as required while retaining its core responsibilities and organizational structure.

Scenario Two: Devolutionary Progress

Yet what happens when the rate of change is so rapid and/or radical that organisms emerge as something else altogether? Indeed, a proposed alteration that the Forest Service has faced—and to date has fended off—is the devolution of its lands and authority to the individual states in which its forests, wildernesses, and grasslands are located. Those who have argued for this outcome have drawn on a powerful strain in American political thought, starting with the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved for the States respectively, or to the people.” In attempting to define the precise relationship between federal and state sovereignty, a central issue in the United States since the 18th century, the amendment makes clear that this relationship is in tension. The Forest Service knows this full well, for the agency long has been a flashpoint in the heated political debate between states’ rights and national prerogatives. What followed was a comparative analysis of how and why the national forest-management agencies in Canada and New Zealand—which initially replicated the US model that Gifford Pinchot and his successors had developed—lost their managerial authorities and foci. Were their experiences suggestive of what might lie in store for the US Forest Service in the 21st century? (Hint: I don’t think so).

Scenario Three: Revolutionary Impulse

Would the creation of a new Department of Conservation in the executive branch be more likely? With a seat in the cabinet, this department might house the nation’s most important land management agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Geological Survey, National Resources Conservation Service, and National Park Service, among other entities. By creating economies of scale and greater efficiencies of action, this new department could save money and serve as a standard-bearer for the modern environmental movement. That said, this approach flies in the face of contemporary environmentalism, which stresses local agency over national solutions, and would upset those restive elements of the sagebrush opposition for whom increased federal authority is an anathema. Yet an unreflective dismissal of this possibility may lead conservationists to miss a chance to restructure federal land-management institutions and their delivery of environmental services. It may turn out that the most effective way to secure much-desired bottom-up reform is through simultaneous top-down change, which is particularly pressing in this climate-shifting era.

I knew enough to know that by themselves—and even in combination—these three scenarios are more evocative than prescriptive. My goal, after all, was to suggest ways by which institutional change might occur, despite knowing that so many unforeseen contingencies and unknown conflicts could arise to redirect the Forest Service’s future and thus the later narrating of its history. This is precisely what makes my job so much fun: The past and present, like writing itself, is in a constant state of revision.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College. His new book, Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril will be published in September. He is also the author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands and the award-winning Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, among others.


1 thought on “193+: “Revisions which a minute will reverse”: Rethinking the Forest Service in Time by Char Miller”

  1. I’m with Char on the devolutionary not happening. From here, it looks like an idea trotted out to cater to certain groups and as a result inflame other groups, increasing donations and vitriol without a chance of anything really happening. Pointless exercise on both sides in my view. But can be used by some to promote the narrative as (some) Westerners as incipient Bundys.

    The other new thing is how to incorporate Tribal views into all this feds and states devolution discussion. Don’t know how that will work out.

    I’m not keen on the Department of Conservation idea for the following reasons:
    (1) As the country grows more partisanized, having politicals further down in your organization doesn’t work very well. Think Randy Moore vs. Tracy Stone-Manning. Professional resource type versus not. Lots of experience in the field versus not. Worked and detailed to many different places in the country versus not. But if that doesn’t bother you, think of Pendley. Often politicals are more interested in paying off supportive friends and poking sharp sticks in the eye of the other party than… actual governing.

    (2). When I worked at CSRS (now USDA-NIFA), I attended meetings with Interior of how different Interior agencies would lose their researchers and they would be combined into the National Biological Survey. I think that that was folded into USGS ultimately. What happened to some agencies is that they lost all capacity to do their own investigations (nope, can’t do “research”) and the researchers did what they thought was interesting. Now, I’m all for research agencies not duplicating research, but the more centralized as a general rule, the less responsive.
    As to research, each topic in my view should have a national coordinating committee made up of reps from the different agencies. And of course I think the public should be involved in setting priorities, but I’m sure that’s a bridge too far.

    I also disagree on “this approach flies in the face of contemporary environmentalism, which stresses local agency over national solutions, ” The contemporary environmentalism I’m most familiar with, both biodiversity and climate change, is full of papers with satellite images telling people where they need to “conserve”. I’d also argue that the definition (scientific?) of both problems as international in scope, as well as academic publishers rewarding “internationalness” in scope, all work together to foster attitudes that can easily overlook concerns of local people, culture, and political institutions.

    Here’s an abstract from a Forrest Fleischman et al ‘s recent article, for example.

    “The maps and analysis of “Global priority areas for ecosystem restoration,” produced by Strassburg et al.1, should not be used by policymakers in their current form, due to the risk of displacing marginalized people, compromising food security, and undermining democratic processes. Strassburg et al.’s analysis was based on normative choices to value (i.e., optimize) relationships among biodiversity potential, carbon storage potential, and cost effectiveness, without consideration for the well-being and rights of people who live in areas identified as restoration priorities, nor the implementation costs of changing land use. While it may be informative to map the joint distribution of biodiversity, carbon, and commodity prices, the absence of important socio-economic values obscures both the costs and benefits to the indigenous, forest-dependent, and rural people who are directly affected by restoration interventions. We pose three cautionary questions that we believe must be answered before the maps produced by Strassburg et al. are used by decision-makers to motivate and implement restoration-promoting land-use policies. ”

    In fact, I’d also argue that the ENGOs who weigh in most often on federal lands policies are often for nationalizing issues, and I think George Hoberg (at UBC) wrote about this being an intentional strategy at the time of the Spotted Owl. We can perhaps see that even in the recently perceived need for a national Old Growth and Mature Forest policy when each National Forest already has its own.


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