Open Letter to Forest Service Leaders on Mature and Old Growth by Jim Furnish

Jim Furnish, right, a former deputy chief at the Forest Service, makes a point with Dave Mertz, a former natural resources officer with the agency, on a visit to the Black Hills National Forest. “The Forest Service managers are not keeping up with the real world,” Furnish said. Marc Heller/E&E News

Thanks to Jim Furnish for sending a copy of his letter for discussion.

I write as a loving critic to confront you about the future. Today, my 77th birthday, occasions much reflection after departing the agency over 20 years ago. My hope is that you share this letter broadly to stimulate conversation about agency action on the challenges ahead. I hope you embrace the same goal that inspired me in my career: a Forest Service that achieves greatness equal to that of the magnificent estate in its trust.

From the tempest that roiled the Forest Service in the 1990s emerged a policy and a plan – ecosystem management and the Northwest Forest Plan – that envisioned a very different future predicated on principles of ecological sustainability. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule followed shortly after; controversial within the agency, yes, but broadly appreciated elsewhere. The Roadless Rule withstood lengthy litigation challenges to finally become one of the boldest legacies in agency history. Promising winds of change blew strong toward a learning organization confronting a changing climate, lofty expectations, and fraught politics.

Climate science has advanced evidence of worsening pressures on forests, fire consequences among them, but also highlighting the valuable role forests play by sequestering and storing carbon. President Biden’s recent Executive Order 14072 mandates conservation of mature and old growth forests (MOG), specifically, as a mission priority and opportunity for the Forest Service to use public forest assets to mitigate climate effects. The agency’s response to date has been tepid at best, hardly an enthusiastic embrace of the spirit of the EO to fundamentally remake agency MOG policy in keeping with the promising vision of ecosystem management.

Forest fires provide a visceral drama that MOG forests lack, yet these forests do vastly greater work providing a broad array of ecosystem services that we desperately need, at no cost. I appreciate the challenges of improving agency performance on our fire dilemma, but you must also recognize the linkage between fire issues and MOG imperatives as you address both in synergistic fashion.

The current fire dilemma and MOG opportunity create an urgency to define a different, compelling future. I illustrate this pivot point by citing the owl crisis, when a federal judge determined that agency officials at the highest level had “willfully violated the law” in efforts to appease timber industry. This condemnation prompted Jack Ward Thomas, in one of his first acts as Chief, to demand that employees obey the law. How humiliating. Is it any wonder that forest managers were not in the “room where it happened” during development of the Northwest Forest Plan?

Organizations are birthed, grow and improve, then typically decline, necessitating reformation lest they die. The Forest Service has a storied history, but a clear eyed assessment of the agency today suggests it needs rebirth. I recognize that politics can muddle the waters, but your agency has the resources and obligation to define itself, something it has yet to do in the context of the post-owl ecosystem management era. Responding forcefully to EO 14072 could point the way to a new Forest Service model for effectively addressing forest carbon and fire – and the future.

To that point, I believe your forthcoming MOG policy is a legacy issue, a time of turning. But did you consider an interim prohibition on logging MOG timber, pending completion of measures to conserve MOG forests? Why not evaluate all pending timber sales for their impact on MOG forests? Why no public statements heralding this opportunity to buttress MOG protections? The Forest Service continues to log MOG forests, completely undermining the call to conserve them. Is this simply because EO 14072 does not explicitly prohibit it? In this I hear echoes of the agency’s response to the spotted owl issue. History did not look kindly on the Forest Service’s handling of the owl crisis when the agency failed to take appropriate actions, and history is watching again.

Our national forests and grasslands are increasingly important as climate issues worsen, beckoning you to the challenge of enhancing the role of MOG forests and their carbon attributes. This is not the time for procedural and process delays. Forest carbon possibly represents the most valuable national forest asset, but the Forest Service has not yet elevated consideration and management of forest carbon to the prominent place it deserves. The situation calls for decisive leadership action.

As Deputy Chief, I found myself in the forefront of efforts to resolve the decades-long roadless area controversy. Importantly, the Forest Service’s own logging and road construction activity posed the greatest threat to the integrity of roadless areas. Yet we changed; providing durable protection by developing a timely, forward thinking, effective solution via a federal regulation. You now find yourself in a similar situation as Forest Service enabled logging poses the greatest threat to MOG forests. President Biden’s EO 14072 provides the impetus and justification to advance the conservation legacy of the Forest Service on behalf of MOG forests. I urge you to seize this moment to craft a creative and robust response as you embrace the mandate to steward the public’s magnificent forest estate.

25 thoughts on “Open Letter to Forest Service Leaders on Mature and Old Growth by Jim Furnish”

  1. When Forestry becomes involved with conspiracy theories, we can assume that forest management has now become entrenched into partisan politics, for the long run. This allows some people to completely disregard science, while preferring to go back to concepts from a few decades ago, when fires were smaller.

    There’s so many variables involved, especially when opponents use semantics to cloud the realities. We need to settle on definitions, and answer the many questions about this on-going, slow-motion forest disaster, in the west. Allowing ‘whatever happens’ to happen is not good planning, but it does enhance extremist arguments.

    Of the three ‘C-words’, Consensus is tough, and involves “the balance of harms”.

  2. I think one of the more generally useful things we do here at The Smokey Wire is to model how people can disagree respectfully. With that in mind, and with all respect to Jim, here are my thoughts on his letter.

    1. My read of the history of Ecosystem Management (I was on the New Perspectives team in the WO) and the NW Forest Plan was that they were efforts to settle controversies over forest management, perhaps by using “science” or at least human beings with scientific backgrounds. Looking back, it appears to me that these were unsuccessful to appease these interests, who naturally wanted more restrictions. It seems to be a case, as I look over the past 40 years or so, of moving the goalposts, both on what we might call “logging the policy low ground” of federal lands, as well as in the Coastal west, private lands.

    2. Jim’s take on the Forest Service as navigating its own course raises some concerns around democracy vs. technocracy. If, in fact, “the agency’s response to date has been tepid at best, hardly an enthusiastic embrace of the spirit of the EO to fundamentally remake agency MOG policy in keeping with the promising vision of ecosystem management,” perhaps that is because many/some political appointees aren’t enthusiastic either. The way I heard it, it was various groups with ins to David Hayes of the WH, not USDA folks, who were promoting this. Should the FS embrace the “spirit” of the EO more strongly than that of their direct political overlords? I would disagree. It is for the agency to obey the Department (as per Butz) and not make its own policy based on random folks in the WH alone. Jim also says “I recognize that politics can muddle the waters, but your agency has the resources and obligation to define itself.” Again, this invokes my concerns about governance. How would we feel about the CIA or the Social Security Administration or the NRC or FAA “defining themselves?”

    3. Jim says “ I appreciate the challenges of improving agency performance on our fire dilemma, but you must also recognize the linkage between fire issues and MOG imperatives as you address both in synergistic fashion.” I completely agree with this, and I think that that’s what the FS is doing. On projects. Retaining as many old trees but still decreasing fuels. Like many conversations, I think this would be clarified by looking at specific cases.

    4. “This condemnation prompted Jack Ward Thomas, in one of his first acts as Chief, to demand that employees obey the law. How humiliating.” I wasn’t actually humiliated. Judges are always telling agency employees to do what the judge perceives.. say the FBI, or the poor BLM not analyzing climate change impacts enough or whatever. In fact, Jack started an effort to examine whether laws conflicted making life unnecessarily difficult for employees.

    JWT also notably said “Fierce in battle, many of the eco-warriors have been unable to come to grips with the consequences of victory and are now reduced to wandering about the old battlefields ‘bayoneting the wounded.’ To be fair, JWT’s next sentence was: “Their counterparts from the resource extraction community, likewise, cannot come to terms with defeat and hold ‘ghost dances’ to bring back the good old days when they were the undisputed Kings of the West.” I think history speaks for itself… no cutting of greater than 80 year old trees.. sounds to me more like JWTs sentence #1.

    5. “The Forest Service continues to log MOG forests, completely undermining the call to conserve them. Is this simply because EO 14072 does not explicitly prohibit it? In this I hear echoes of the agency’s response to the spotted owl issue.”

    I don’t hear that.. I hear that the FS was just given beaucoup bucks to reduce fuels and wouldn’t be able to conduct activities as directed and funded by Congress if every fuels reduction effort had to be checked for 80 year old trees. Both the Bipartisan Infrastructure and the IRA went all in on fuels projects.
    So the FS would look bad historically either way… “they told us they could do it and didn’t” or “we decided to review all fuel treatment projects because…” .

    6. “Our national forests and grasslands are increasingly important as climate issues worsen, beckoning you to the challenge of enhancing the role of MOG forests and their carbon attributes. This is not the time for procedural and process delays.” While I’m not sure of the mechanism of their “increasing importance” as climate issues worsen (except related to fire and fuels projects), I agree with not delaying due to process. However, I think Jim and I probably disagree about what process delays could best be gotten rid of in order to deal with climate change..

    7. “You now find yourself in a similar situation as Forest Service enabled logging poses the greatest threat to MOG forests”.
    Back to government structure. Didn’t the Congress mandate multiple use and fund the FS and to do timber sales? I bet if the timber budget were zeroed out, the FS would stop immediately. Shouldn’t the FS do what the Congress says..? Doesn’t that count as “obeying the law?”

    Also, is logging the “greatest threat”?
    That doesn’t seem to be true of many areas where fire seems to produce the greatest threat to forests. Perhaps we all see issue this through the lens of our neighboring forests… but for many of us living and recreating around large fires that doesn’t seem to be the case. Plus the carbon released e.g.
    If we are concerned about carbon, wouldn’t we divide forests into “less likely to burn” and “more likely to burn” and focus on fuel treatments strategically placed to protect MOG areas in the “more likely to burn” and perhaps no logging in areas less likely to burn? But the MOG EO is intentionally a national effort- 80 years old is pretty “one size fits all.” So I’d argue that it’s not really about carbon at all.
    Here’s the logic.. climate change is the most important thing, we say this will help climate, so you gotta do it. It just happens to be the exact same thing that the same groups have been saying for the last 40 years, wrapped in the cloak of climate science. But as a person who follows wildfire science, I’d say that cloak is very tattered.

    • Appropriation bills authorize spending money. I don’t think appropriation bills should be viewed as laws that must be “obeyed,” except in the sense that spending that is NOT authorized by Congress may be illegal. Congress has oversight of whether and how the money is spent through mechanisms that are not regarded as enforcing a law (which do create an incentive to do what Congress says).

          • Jon, but I also think that a federal judge told the Biden admin that not holding lease sales violated the relevant statute that required quarterly lease sales, so in that sense was behaving illegally.

            I don’t know the ins and outs of the different requirements in legislation though perhaps you or Bill do.

            • I’m not an expert on this either (but I did once take the “Principles of Federal Appropriation Law” employee course :-)), but I understand that appropriations bills can not include substantive legislation, and that the leasing requirement was in a substantive law rather than an appropriations bill.

    • Even the Northwest Forest Plan allows risk reduction treatments in stands over 80 years old in Late Successional Reserves (LSRs are where stands >80 years old are not to be cut).

      And we really cannot continue to ignore the increase of more shade-tolerant tree species in western forests in the absence of disturbance and the absence of indigenous management. A moratorium on logging in stands >80 years old could potentially cause harm to biodiversity in drier forests. It’s just not that simple…

  3. Herr Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke blames wildfires in the West on those he calls “radical environmentalists” despite most acres burn every year on private ranch land in Republican counties and despite a federal probe after he abused his office to block a tribal casino he’s ahead in polls to go to DC again. Zinke is just another political opportunist in the extreme white wing of the Republican Party whose career has been financed on the public dole.

    Just a hundred and fifty years ago bison, wapiti, bighorn sheep, pronghorns and deer cleared the grasses driving Montana’s fire years. If grasses remained in the fall tribes burned the rest. Today, urban sprawl, accelerated global warming and drought are reducing productivity on the remaining grasslands of the High Plains and Mountain West so if some Republicans are angry about rewilding means it’s the right thing to do.

    La Niña, a weather pattern characterized by cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, is returning for a rare third winter, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. That means December, January and February are likely to bring drier than average conditions across the southern states and wetter than average weather for areas including the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest.

    The forecast means droughts that have punished the Great Plains and western states are likely to continue, the agency said. Wildfires will remain a risk, and some parts of the country will likely be in greater danger than before, said Brad Pugh, the operational drought lead with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

  4. A couple thoughts in response… JWT saying “Obey the law” was a reaction to a federal judge finding that FS officials had “WILLFULLY violated the law” in pursuing logging obj’s in spotted owl habitat. THAT is why I found it humiliating. I heard JWT speech on “eco-warriors” and Kings of the West, including his surmise that env laws had become too intertwined and complex. I agree, but not wholly. The legal morass premise holds the most water when the FS tries to pursue an agenda of excessive logging with inappropriate methods. But I successfully applied laws to restoration forestry for years on Siuslaw NF, which, sticking to the model, has had not one logging appeal or lawsuit for over 2 years. Not easy, but possible.
    And now about the “just let nature run its course with fire…” or wildfire as “smokescreen”. I simply ask whether agency efforts and out of control spending on fire suppression are having the desired effect of limiting acres burned? Increasing sophistication of fire weaponry certainly costs more, but do we see a corresponding reduction in acres burned? I hear persistent rumors (sorry, facts are hard to come by for me) about the thousands of miles of dozer lines, and the large % of “acres burned” attributed to backfire ops; again to what effect? All these big wind-driven fires overwhelm our containment practices, regardless of the forest/grassland condition. And now FS launches several $billion effort to “remake forest conditions” over millions of acres. I do not blame the many skeptics, myself included, questioning this approach. I do not suggest letting nature run its course, but rather seriously reconsidering fire suppression dogma. I have no simple solutions, but the whole complex issue requires a whack on the side of the head. Any others out there weary of “same old, same old”?

    • IMHO, the Caldor Fire is a ‘microcosm’ *smirk* for most of our western forest problems. It not only debunks some of the rhetoric of today’s forest conflict, it also creates new uncertainties to argue about. Along with the Dixie Fire, we can see the horrors of ‘free range’ wildfires. Right-wingers like to say that ‘more forest management is required’. Well, the area within the Caldor Fire was aggressively managed. When I worked there, we salvaged much of the Ranger District. They have also been productive in thinning projects in strategic spots.

      There is also significant private timberland ownership, in a checkerboarded pattern. SPI likes to clearcut their lands, and replant. That qualifies as “management”, too.

      Unfortunately, firefighters weren’t able to stop the march of the wildfire, which was not wind-driven, like the Camp Fire. Did all that “management” have an effect on fire behavior, for good or for bad? We should be analyzing the few things that worked, along with all the things that obviously did not work. Or, is it a good example of a drought-stricken forest burning under hot and dry (but not windy) conditions?

      We need to cut through the barriers and obfuscation to properly focus our efforts in the limited time our western forests have. The first thing we need to cut out are the extremists, who don’t care what means are justified by their ends.

  5. Ok, I get what Jim is trying to say but I can also agree with a number of points that Sharon made. I think that the FS has lost its way to some degree, it seems to be struggling in search of a mission. NFMA is actually a fairly good Act but it needs updating. I don’t think that will happen. Our politicians couldn’t ever accomplish what they did in the 70’s. Also, I have seen firsthand where the FS acts like NFMA is a suggestion instead of a law.

    I can see how, internally, FS employees are thinking “this MOG thing will come and go, Biden will be gone in a couple of years, and we’ll be on to something different. No sense getting too worked up about it. If they really wanted us to implement it, they should have consulted us first.” When I first saw it, I thought “what is the definition of mature?” I guess we’ll see what they come up with, but I think a blanket age of 80 years is not useful. With all of the diversity out there, that just does not work.

    The thinking used to be that mature and old growth were seen as decadent, trees that were no longer putting on good growth. Let’s face it, that thinking is still out there, and if your mission is to optimize growth, it is still appropriate. Obviously, there is now a much greater appreciation for MOG, for a whole host of reasons. For one thing, there is now much less of it than there used to be.

    I could be wrong, but I think the spirit of this EO does not mean a hands-off approach to MOG. MOG stands can often be improved by good management. Thinning and thinning from below could be great options for improving the health of these stands. Stands of MOG that are less dense with open understories seems like good management.

    The best way that the FS could address climate change, it seems to me, is to focus on adaptation. If the future will be warmer and drier, you will want a diversity of age classes and species, more open stands that require less moisture and are more resilient. Diversity is almost always the answer to every forest problem. Diversity includes a component of MOG stands. Let’s keep them healthy and nurture them.

    The FS needs to stay relevant, and it needs to show that they are up to the task of addressing climate change and wildfires. Big tasks for sure but that’s why they get paid the big bucks! Right now, it seems like they are floundering.

    • Dave, I agree with you. Maybe it’s because we have worked in the same kind of country (although the Hills is so much wetter than most of the country I have worked in).

      I’m not sure the FS is floundering… seems like they are trying to spend all the bucks and provide all the services that they have been asked to do. So the question is “what else do we really want from them?” or “do we have suggestions for how they could do better?”

      Jim’s idea is for them to step beyond the Department’s flashlight, which I don’t agree with. But what other opportunities are out there?

      • Good question! I’ll see what I can come up with. For starters, I think they need to decide what is the mission of the fire organization and their vegetation management program? Is it to protect WUI? Is it to mitigate fire impacts to the general forest and limit impacts to watersheds, etc.? Is it to reduce the impacts of climate change and/or adapt to it? Or is it to try and do everything? How are they doing at that? Each of those require somewhat different approaches.

        Since the Fire Plan in 2000, they said they would greatly increase the amount of fuel treatment and prescribed burning. With the exception of R8, they have not really done anything significant in moving the needle. Even though a lot of fire employees and dollars were pumped into the system. Are they being smart with the dollars and spending them in the right places? California has the highest rates/acre by far for fuel treatment and then how much is spent in areas with chaparral where the impacts are gone in five years? It’s like that old saying “I don’t know where we’re going but we’re making good time!”

        Forest Service Research is well funded and has some of the best in their fields. By now, they should be able to definitively say that they have done extensive research, and these are the types of treatments that will significantly mitigate the impacts of low to moderate fire behavior. Occasionally, it will also work at higher levels of fire behavior but when we are dealing with extreme fire behavior, all bets are off. There are no pre-treatments to address that. Be honest!

        The FS has also been saying for years that they will increase timber management to create more resilient forests. How have they done at that? The excuses are typically insufficient funding, and the crazy environmentalists keep filing lawsuits and won’t let us get stuff done. Well, it appears that they have plenty of funding now and I don’t buy the lawsuit thing. They have a number of CE’s now that for all practical purposes, make NEPA irrelevant. Public can’t file objections to them, and the only option is a lawsuit. No one wants to file a lawsuit over a CE, it’s not worth the effort and money.

        The FS can’t get much done if they don’t have an effective hiring system. Hiring was bad 15 years ago and from what I hear, it is now actually much worse. Most Forests have numerous vacancies, and the process is really cumbersome. They have a new budget system that from what I hear, is good at the RO level but the Forest folks don’t see any benefit. There is no incentive for them to save dollars in order to spend in another area because they no longer have that option.

        In employee surveys, FS senior leadership consistently ranks low within the Federal Government. I believe that one of the reasons for this, is it is a small pool of people that will continually move around and move up to get these jobs and they may not always be the best. The FS has really limited reimbursement for moving expenses and no one wants to move on their own dime. The cream will not rise to the top with that kind of thinking.

        I could be wrong, but this all seems like a lot of floundering to me.

        • The full funding thing is less than one year old, and some people continue to say it isn’t working. Give it another full year, then look at the results and see if more changes need to be made. We all know that there is a process that must be followed before chainsaws can be used. I don’t think many in the Forest Service would want to take short cuts, while the eco-lawyers lie lay in wait for their prey.

    • Using age as the primary selection method in thinning projects is problematic, and ignores other important conditions. When I first marked timber, we used Dunning classes. You cannot expect the average timbermarker (today’s ‘standards’) to be able to just ‘wing it’, while still protecting 80+ year old trees. There are plenty of examples of trees older than 80 years old, suppressed under larger trees. Do they get the age protection, too?

      If implementation is tied to strictly following the law, it would be ridiculous to take core samples of all ‘borderline’ trees. Timbermarking is all about “discretion”, while still “following the law”. Sadly, some people want to remove as much of the Forest Service’s “discretion” as possible, in forest management.

  6. Yes, the chirping begins about a simple metric like 80 years for mature. Is it perfect? Of course not… I argue that no approach to define MOG will be perfect. Using the precautionary principle, what’s wrong with erring on the “young” side? What I genuinely fear is that the FS will come up with about 89 different “definitions” based on region, species, and special considerations; with each of the 89 open to criticism and argument. This will inevitably lead to an extremely complex, totally unworkable system for field people. Perhaps the FS will get to the April 2023 deadline and just say “Uncle, no can do. Sorry, mission impossible”. I’m watching…

    • I don’t know why different region or forest approaches would be unworkable to field people, they have standards by forest already in their forest plans?
      My interpretation is that it was probably a White House quid pro quo with certain apparently important groups.. who knows what was traded? Perhaps just generic good will? Perhaps it was mostly symbolic. Anyway, the quid quo pro has been done, the generator no longer in the White House and any further action will not be pushed by the Admin. Depending on the elections they may have bigger fish to fry than a potential MOG rule. Probably don’t want to poke a sharp stick at western governors.. but I’m not a political, so who knows?

  7. Jim, why is age (hard to determine) a better indicator than size (easy) and/or other specific physical traits (also pretty easy) for the benefits we expect to accrue from this policy?

    To carry that thought a little further – why not say that if it is big enough to make boards out of, it is too big to fell? Unless certain other criteria are met that are relevant to the ecological/climate value being sought, which could/should be ecosystem/species specific. Put the burden on justifying the exception rather than on making the initial designation.

    • FWIW I’m not supportive of having indicators for purportedly biological/ecological/climate needs that are attached to techno/social and variable things like merchantability.

    • My thought, simply put : age is NOT hard to determine. In most cases, it’s simple once a couple trees are cored, unless you’re on the cusp – say 70-90. Then, err on the side of caution. Further, there will be exemptions in compelling cases. Keep it simple, no need to strive for perfection.

      • How many 18 year old kids, with no forestry experience, can ‘easily’ determine the age of various species of trees? You’re lucky if they can learn the difference between Douglas-fir and white fir. Additionally, you’re probably going to have to either drop or eliminate timber cruising, and go to some other form of volume measurement and payment. Will the USFS reduce cruising standards, in the interest of “no need to strive for perfection”? ALL of this affects the pace and scale of implementation. How many huge thinning projects will have to be re-cruised, to meet the acceptable error allowances?

        I think you are expecting a lot from today’s current average timbermarker. My point is that it might be unwise to cling to the higher standards of the past, when today’s entry-level employees have zero experience or knowledge.


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