Who Does the Equal Access to Justice Act Protect?

At the end of an otherwise unremarkable article about yet another environmental group reversing in court a federal agency’s illegal decision, and getting paid for its troubles under the Equal Access to Justice Act, is the following postscript:

In fiscal 2020, 16 federal agencies reported 15,596 separate awards under the EAJA totaling more than $101 million. The Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs accounted for the vast majority of the EAJA payments.

And the answer is: Veterans and seniors. That’s who.

Biden Nominates Homer Wilkes to Oversee Forest Service

President Biden has recycled former Obama nominee Homer Wilkes as his Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment. Dr. Wilkes’s bio is impressive:

Dr. Homer Wilkes, a native of Port Gibson, Mississippi, currently serves as Director of Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Team. He is oneof the five Federal Executive Council member to oversee the rebuilding of the Ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Oil Spill of 2010. He served as the Acting Associate Chief of USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Washington during the period of 2010-2012. Dr. Wilkes’ tenure with the United States Department of Agriculture span’s over 41 years. During his tenure he has served as State Conservationist for Mississippi; Chief Financial Officer for NRCS in Washington, DC; Deputy State Conservationist for Mississippi; and Chief of Administrative Staff for the South Technical Center for NRCS in Fort Worth, Texas.

Dr. Wilkes also served as Naval Supply Officer in the United States Navy Reserves from November 1984 – Aprl-2007.

He received his Bachelors, Master of Business Administration, and Ph.D. in Urban Higher Education from Jackson State University. He also successfully completed the USDA Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program (SES CDP) through American University’s Key Executive Leadership Certificate in Public Policy. Dr. Wilkes and his wife Kim, currently reside in Ridgeland, MS. They have three sons, Justin, Austin, and Harrison. He enjoys fishing, restoring antique vehicles and family activities.

Insofar as he has no experience with the Forest Service, which under the current organizational chart is the only agency Wilkes will oversee, does his nomination suggest that Vilsack will reunite NRCS and the Forest Service under NRE?

RIP Commercial Filming Permits

I shed no tears for the death of “commercial filming” permits. Last week, a federal district court judge declared the law requiring permits for commercial filming on public lands an unconstitutional infringement on speech. The court entered a permanent injunction enjoining the permit program and its enforcement.

The court’s postscript noted that “a more targeted permitting regime for commercial filming, which is more closely connected to the threat posed by large groups and heavy filming equipment, may pass constitutional muster in the future.”

Special-use permit administrators everywhere should be breathing a sigh of relief.

Forest Service Enjoys Record Fire Year

The Forest Service reports 2020 has been a record fire year, with more national forest acres burned (5 million) than at any time since 1910. This is 2.5 times the average of the last 10 years, a remarkable achievement given that fire ignitions in 2020 increased by only 5% compared to the 10-year average. 2020’s average size of 735 acres/fire dwarfs the decade’s second-highest at 422 acres/fire.

The Forest Service attributes its success to “prioritizing early suppression of wildfire ignitions.”

FS Chief Christiansen’s Job Appears Secure

Two former Obama officials, Robert Bonnie and his long-time associate Meryl Harrell, are the Forest Service-relevant Biden transition team members. They are also two of the three authors of a “transition memo” that frames their advice regarding USDA actions and policies through a climate lens.

Chief Christiansen may be heartened to read the memo’s caveat that “Notably, the Forest Service has no political positions; the Secretary should maintain that tradition . . .” Unsurprisingly, it appears her tenure as Chief will be secure after January 20, if she survives the Trump purge.

What other takeaways do ambitious readers glean from the memo?

Oregon Public Broadcasting “Timber Wars” Podcast

OPB has released most of its 7-part “Timber Wars” podcast.

The writer/director, Aaron Scott, spent a year on this impressive project, funded, in part, by an NPR grant. As in Bill Dietrich’s “The Final Forest,” the best book on this era, Scott sympathetically lets protagonists from all sides tell the story in their own words. [As one of those protagonists, Episode 3 — The owl, I’ll let my words on that subject speak for themselves.]

With the benefit of 30-year hindsight, however, Scott’s storyline sweeps more broadly than Dietrich could in 1992. Who could have anticipated that the Timber Wars would catalyze anarchist protests at the Seattle WTO? Or be the fuse that ignited science-denying, anti-government, class-based populism?

Scott’s production captures well the social paroxysms of those times and the indelible wounds they have left in a generation of northwesterners.

Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government?

The Forest Service isn’t quite the worst place to work in the federal government, but it’s steadily moving in that direction. According to the latest “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” employee survey, the Forest Service’s ranking has dropped in every category; from leadership to pay to work/life balance, the Forest Service is in the bottom quartile.

Out of 420 federal agencies, the Forest Service 380th place is its lowest ranking ever. Remarkably, but perhaps not coincidentally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture counts four of the Bottom 10 agencies, including the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Economic Research Service, which USDA leadership pissed off by moving their offices to another state.

The gap between the Forest Service and other land management agencies has grown. The BLM, which ranks #311, while still no bed of roses is at least only middling bad in half of the criteria measured. As is the National Park Service, which ranks about the same as BLM. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to rank in the top half of agencies.

Meanwhile, NASA remains the cat’s meow for federal employees.

Court Enjoins Logging Using “Condition-Based Analysis”

A federal district court judge has preliminary enjoined the Tongass’ largest timber sale because the Forest Service relied on “condition-based analysis” in its EIS. In addition to stopping logging, the court’s decision puts a wrench in the Forest Service’s proposal to add condition-based analysis to its NEPA rules.

Condition-based analysis treats acres as fungible; location doesn’t matter. From the Forest Service and timber industry’s perspective, a board foot may be a board foot, but for wildlife, recreation, scenery, and most everything else, location does matter: “the Project EIS does not identify individual harvest units; by only identifying broad areas within which harvest may occur, it does not fully explain to the public how or where actual timber activities will affect localized habitats.”

The decision stops logging until the court issues its final merits ruling, which is promised by March 31, 2020.

Fire Footprint

We’ve all heard about the dramatic increase in U.S. wildfire acres burned:

Oops! Wrong graph. Here’s the correct one:

Many attribute this trend to increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases. Another factor is how we manage wildland fire, as discussed by two firefighters. Travis Dotson is an analyst at the Wildlands Fire Lessons Learned Center, while Mike Lewelling is Fire Management Officer at Rocky Mountain National Park.

TRAVIS: Overall, what would you say are the biggest positive changes you’ve seen in our culture during your entire career?

MIKE: I think we are more mindful about how we manage fires now. I saw a map side-by-side of all the fires from the early 80s into the 90s and it’s all these little pinpricks of fires. And then you go into the 2000s to now and the footprints are a lot bigger. There’s a lot that goes into that. But I think part of that is not always throwing everything at every fire. Mother Nature uses fire to clean house and it doesn’t matter what we do, she’s going to do it eventually. So whether we put ourselves in the way of that or let it happen is an important decision. I think that, overall, risk management—how we respond to fires—is a significant advance.

TRAVIS: For sure. I’ve seen research showing that the best investment we can make is big fire footprints. That is what ends up being both a money saver and exposure saver down the line as well as an ecological investment, obviously. For so long, large fire footprints were only being pushed from an ecological perspective and now we’re talking about the risk benefits of changing our default setting away from just crush it. There is often an immediate and future benefit on the risk front (less exposure now AND a larger footprint reducing future threat).

XPRIZE

“XPRIZE, the global leader in designing and operating incentive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges, has announced a collaboration with California Governor Gavin Newsom, to design an XPRIZE competition that would drive innovation and develop hardware able to rapidly detect and extinguish wildfires.”

My entry: