Will the Forest Service Rise to the Task?: A Guest Post by Dave Mertz

Dave Mertz

Well, the election is almost over, with something to please everyone!  As I predicted, democracy has survived and the wheels of government will continue to grind forward.  So back to our usual forest stuff.

A while back, Jim Furnish posted on the future of the Forest Service vis a vis MOG.  Dave Mertz another Forest Service retiree, had some thoughts on this as well.


This may be a watershed moment for the Forest Service. Everyone is looking to the Agency to address the wildland fire crisis in the West. A lot of additional funding has come their way, from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in particular. I think we all want them to succeed but are they up to the task? There are a number of things that the Forest Service does really well. They are considered by many to be a premier wildland fire suppression organization. Their ability to mobilize forces and equipment is really quite amazing. Their initial attack success rate is also excellent. In the past, the Agency produced incredible amounts of timber for sale. That of course, has greatly declined over the last 20-30 years.

We probably all have our thoughts on how the Forest Service could be more successful. I enjoy reading the Smokey Wire and seeing what other people think. I don’t consider myself an expert but I had a career with the FS and worked in Timber and Fire on a number of Forests. I would like to share a few thoughts for discussion.

For starters, I think the FS needs to decide what is the mission of the Fire Organization and the associated 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? Each of those require somewhat different approaches. Or, are they trying to do it all? I think an argument could be made that they are indeed trying to do everything and not being overly successful in any of those areas.

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 were added 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 chaparral and other areas, 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!”

If you pay attention to things like the Smokey Wire and other sources, you surely have seen all of the arguments about how logging is the answer to the wildland fire crisis. If we could just thin millions of acres, we would be fine. Turn the loggers loose! Others say no, you have to prescribe burn, that is the answer. Others say you have to do both. Then again, others say that logging and thinning makes the situation worse (Chad Hanson and others). Doesn’t the FS have the science resources to answer these questions? Of course, they do.

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. Everyone needs to be upfront and honest!

The FS has also been saying for many 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 necessarily buy the lawsuit thing. Maybe in the past, but not now. They have a number of current, categorical exclusions (CE) that for all practical purposes, make NEPA irrelevant. The 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. Sure, the CE’s have limits on acres, but it is not really that much work to crank them out. Do a bunch of them!

The FS can’t get a lot 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 also 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 have not seen the latest OPM survey, but I am assuming things have not improved). 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. I don’t blame them. The cream will not rise to the top with that kind of thinking.

I am hoping that the Forest Service will rise to the occasion. I also hope that they can stay relevant and once again be seen as a premier land management agency. I certainly wish them all the best, as we all should. They are desperate for strong leadership. It really comes down to that. They have an outstanding workforce that can accomplish amazing things, but they need good leadership.

Let’s see how they do over the next couple of years. If I got some things wrong here, please let me know.

Dave Mertz retired from the Black Hills National Forest in 2017 as the Forest’s Natural Resource Staff Officer.  Over the course of his career with the FS, he was a Forester, Silviculturist, Forest Fire Management Officer and a Fire Staff Officer.  Since retirement, he has stayed involved in Forest Management issues, with a particular interest in the Black Hills NF’s timber program  


17 thoughts on “Will the Forest Service Rise to the Task?: A Guest Post by Dave Mertz”

  1. Dave raises many interesting questions. I
    1) In my view, although the authors were not all Forest Service researchers, I think Prichard et al. (2021) attempted to clarify the research base behind fire, fuel treatments and adapting western forests to climate change. Perhaps the PSW GTR-220 also did that (summary here http://sofarcohesivestrategy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Briefs-CA-Fire-Science-Consortium.pdf) for the Sierra. So it’s not that folks in R&D haven’t tried to clarify these things the best they can.

    2) As to litigation, the GAO study showed that it’s more of a problem in some places (e.g. R-1) than others. It seems like it’s pretty specific to any area.. how priorities for litigation are developed by Litigatory Groups. I know Region 2 had relatively little, compared to other areas. Perhaps a circuit thing? Maybe the litigatorily-inclined TSW readers will weigh in. One I recall was a project for University of Denver law students.

    CE’s are sometimes litigated. I remember one in NE Oregon that we covered here, maybe someone else remembers the project. Still, how much are people using them, and could people be using them more? How much is a PALS question (although as a retiree I don’t have access); could people be using them more? I don’t know, perhaps others currently working have a better idea.

    Now, I recall a reluctance to use CEs both by practitioners and by Tom Troxel, the arguments being EAs are more defensible and they are in some sense “safer”. Also our OGC folks warned us against using CEs as I recall.

    As to doing a bunch, there is a feeling that if you actually do a bunch in the same area, you should have done an EA. We even talked about that with CEQ when we were developing various CE’s , should their use be limited by space and time (like only so many in a watershed over a period of years).
    So it would be great to know peoples’ perspectives who are currently working, and if there are folks who have worked in BLM as well as the FS, if the attitude toward CEs is different.

    • I completely agree with you on it not being a good idea to stack up CE’s in a geographic location. This is not the intent of using CE’s as I understand it. I know of an example where this exact thing happened. Three CE’s right next to each other and they were all signed within a short period of time. This should have been done with one EA. If you are a member of the public and have a concern about this (were the effects of the cumulative project adequately analyzed?), what is your recourse? Other than filing a lawsuit, which now that I have retired, I have found out what a big deal that is, you really have no recourse.

      It is difficult to file a lawsuit. People make it out like it is no big deal to file one. In actuality, there is a lot to it. You have to build a case, find a lawyer that is willing to take it on, and then find the funding. It is a lot of work and for a CE covering a couple of thousand acres, you would have to be pretty passionate about the project to file a lawsuit.

      When it comes down to it, you have to rely on a given FS unit to do the right thing with a CE. You have to hope that they will be ethical in the development of a project. You can bring up your concerns during the comment period, but they do not even have to respond to your comments. Some units do a really good job at that. Others say, it’s in the project file and that you have to file a FOIA to see it.

      Used properly, CE’s can be a good thing to get things done. Is there some abuse out there? I believe there is.

      • My favorite CE segmentation case is Alpine Lakes Protection Soc’y v. United States Forest Serv., 838 F. Supp. 478 (W.D. Wa. 1993). Plum Creek Timber sought 7 special-use permits to build logging roads across NF land to log its in-holdings. The 7 permits were submitted to the FS in a 3-month period. Notwithstanding the FS’s biological assessment, which concluded that the “indirect effects [on spotted owl habitat] from all projects are large, involving losses of suitable habitat on private land totaling 1812 acres,” the Forest Service categorically excluded the first permit from further review. In court my former Oregon State University ecology professor Bill Ferrell testified to the cumulative effects to recreation from three of the projects lying near each other and watershed effects from three roads proposed in the same watershed. The FS failed to assess the connected private land logging, too.

        The Court ruled against the Forest Service finding that it had failed to assess the cumulative effects of the seven connected and similar actions.

        Inexplicably, the Forest Service wanted to appeal. DOJ said “Not on our dime you won’t.” And that was that.

        • I was in the room when the Forest Supervisor made the decision to go ahead and invite a lawsuit.

          Remember under ANICLA (or it might have been BLM’s organic act), but in any case that law stated that the Forest Service MUST grant reasonable access.

          So it was a choice between which law to violate. I think that is when the Chief of the Forest Service found out that “obeying the law” was not that easy.

          That Forest Supervisor’s position was let the JUDGE sort it out, “He can tell us which law to violate”.

          The judge in his wisdom told the Forest Service to follow BOTH laws!!!!

          I had little respect for Federal judges and even less after that decision.

          I hated working with the Cle Elum District. The area was a snake pit between the environmentalists and the Clinton Administrations “very special relationship” with Plum Creek.

          In the middle of the Adaptive Management Area EIS the environmental community announced that they were supporting adding FOUR more lanes to I-90 in Kittitas County. Right there, they destroyed Kittitas County for many generations.

          I never thought I would see the the Sierra Club supporting a highway to destroy a fairly nice rural county.

          For Sharon, I believe the Forest Service went ahead with three of the permits and denied the other four and then the land purchases and other events made the issue mute.

          I remember endless pointless meetings in my career. Fortunately, I was on the “edge” as a interested party on this one so I just kept my mouth shut.

          • I was in the room, too — the other one — building the case, drafting the briefs, and recruiting the experts. We never understood why the Forest Service thought there was a conflict between ANILCA and NEPA; can’t walk and chew gum, I suppose. The case set the stage for Alpine Lakes Protection Society and Plum Creek to consummate a big land exchange that added to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which was our goal from the outset.

            • I agree about the lack of conflict, and I’ve seen this attitude a few times where the FS would rather blame the courts than do the hard work. I don’t know if the court said this, but I would say that NEPA is a procedural statute, and that ANILCA is a balancing statute. It should have been easy to do the correct NEPA analysis and then take that into account when determining what kind of access should be allowed under ANILCA: “the Secretary shall provide such access to nonfederally owned land within the boundaries of the National Forest System as the Secretary deems adequate to secure to the owner the reasonable use and enjoyment thereof” (§3210(a)).

  2. I worked for private industry, National Park Service, BLM, and for most of my career the Forest Service.

    As Dave mentions, hands down, the Forest Service was by far the most technically competent agency with the greatest amount of expertise in virtually any field. It was what kept me working at the agency, well living in a nice community for the majority of my career also helped. No matter the issue or problem I faced in the Forest Service with a few phone calls or DG messages I could get help on my issues.

    Even when I worked in the private sector and BLM I called the Forest Service for help with technical issues and problems. The Forest Service research branch had no peer in the world unfortunately the agency did not recognize what it had!!!

    The issues with the Forest Service are NOT technical. They come down to leadership and a willingness to take risks. It got beat down so much that I suspect the Forest Service gets startled by its own shadow.

    The faith in “scientific management” started with Gifford. But what people forget is that Gifford was also a gifted politician. And in the end, it was his political side that was more important than his “science” side.

    The land management agencies have different cultures and methods for approaching decision making and problem solving.

    For the NPS I prepared a contracted report for a recreational area with recommendations for its management. Unfortunately, the Park Superintendent neglected to tell the two of us that prepared the report his decision in advance. No problem, the Park Service hired me on a emergency appointment to rewrite the report with the “correct recommendations” for publication as a official NPS document.

    The NPS knew what the decision was going into the process and used that to bolster their argument in the preparation of the the necessary documents.

    The Forest Service approach is to do “an inventory and analysis” to come up with decisions that end up having no political support!!! There is a faith in the Forest Service that “science” will provide the correct decision.

    Science is critical in MAKING the correct decision. It NEVER provides the correct decision.

    I don’t think most Forest Service folks understand that there are MULTIPLE correct decisions.

    In my first professional job, as I was signing up for company health benefits, I asked my boss how to align priorities in my job.

    His answer was simple.

    Your first priority is to the land. Make the right decisions there. Your second priority is to the client. Meet their needs, in light of the first priority. Your third priority is to the company as we are a business.

    That become my guiding principals in my career. I did substitute the “American people” for the client.
    The hardest part was the third priority. Nobody cared about the impact on the Forest Service. The part people don’t understand is that with a functioning Forest Service it is impossible to achieve the first two priorities.

    It is a vision thing.

    The Forest Service has come up with some great “slogans” as their vision statement.

    Unfortunately, they still do not understand that the best science will not come up with THE CORRECT DECISION.

    That is a value driven decision upheld by a professional code of ethics and the ability to communicate that “land” ethic to the public.

  3. Vladimir is on to something, as my Pappy used to say; it is lack of leadership, trying to please everyone and loss of employees will to actually do something – anything!

    Most of this loss of ability to manage came about – I think it was actually the tipping point, when Howard Zahniser attempted to try and set aside special areas for Wilderness. His efforts, while noble, were not that impactful. His vision focused on a few million acres, of the most special “untrammeled” areas left. The FS told him to pound sand! And that, my friends, was the biggest salvo of “hold my beer”, “sand kicking”, “peeing on my Cheerios” challenge ever to take hold, and to this day we are still paying the price!

    Leaders are not leading, they are being managed. Let’s do another set of vision statements and farm out our hiring, that’ll make us more gooder….. Then, we will hire nationally, discounting local talent who, though maybe not as educated, would work for almost nothing. Let’s set aggressive targets and spend millions of dollars, and have zero consequences when we fail to meet those targets – we can blame climate change, or maybe the Easter Bunny.

    Now, these sets of failures are being paid for by the incineration of forests, grasslands, Wildernesses, WUI and lives.

  4. Sadly, both extremes won’t have the patience to give the current program the many decades it needs to ‘restore’ our forests’ resilience and sustainability. Even though some of the excuses will be valid, some will still try to ‘preserve the blame’ in watching more firestorms vaporize National Forests. Whether it is litigation, timber sales, active management, preservation, liberals or conservatives, to some, the controversy is more important than the forests.

    • It’s true that forestry by its very nature, is built upon patience. It’s also true that our modern society does not do very well with the whole patience thing. They expect solutions to happen now and that is simply not going to happen in this case. I think it is important though that the FS is seen as moving the ball down the field. They may very well be, but they need to do a better job of telling their story because the impression is that they are not. Sadly, I agree with you that to some out there, the controversy is more important than forests. They need to be exposed.

  5. “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.”

    I agree Dave. And in R5, I think some of the best past and present scientists have answered this everywhere in forested California, with the exception perhaps of the wet coastal forests, where watershed research has instead dominated to great success.
    That said, there is unfortunately competing agenda driven ‘science’ that has deep flaws yet is published in pay-to-play outlets, and that confuses the public and muddies the water, especially when media outlets grab ahold of it.
    The other issue is that all that fantastic fire/forest management science is lost on, and apologies to many of the R5 employees, Forest and District ologists who quite frankly are not the best or brightest in the field. Lack of leadership, hot potato leadership changes at Districts and Forests, insufficient pay, and sometimes hostile communities is such that the best and brightest have all left, mostly. Some stay because they found a great community, and/or have a true passion for public service and public lands. One only needs to look to CAL FIRE, CA Fish and Game, and The Nature Conservancy to see where the brain drain went from the USDA USFS in R5.

    • Some good points. I have a lot of respect for FS Research, and I am sure that they have done some good work in this area. As you say though, there are other voices out there that gather attention with not the most reliable information. I believe that FS Research conducts its research in an unbiased, scientific manner. When you have other researchers out there that start out biased and then seek a way to support their bias, that is not science. Yet, they are given more attention than they deserve.

      I think that FS Research and the FS overall needs to do a much better job of getting out there and telling their story. It’s great to do good research but it is not much good if hardly anyone knows about it. There is a lot of good FS Research that is not even read or understood by FS employees. Part of that may be that are too busy getting their work done that they don’t spend the time on reading the latest papers, but they need to. Leadership has a responsibility to ensure that their employees are paying attention to their development and staying up to date in their field.

  6. Not really on topic, but I think there needs to be a response to “democracy has survived.”
    According to the Washington Post today, “So far 171 Republican candidates who denied the 2020 election results have won their midterm race.” Democracy may have lived to fight another day, but there will be that other day.


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