Who Will Answer an Uncertain Trumpet?

By Jack Ward Thomas, PhD
Chief Emeritus, U. S. Forest Service
Professor Emeritus, College of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Montana

“If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle?” – I Corinthians. Verse 13.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs. XXIX. 18.


The following is an expansion of a talk (Thomas 2008) given at a 2006 conference sponsored by the University of Montana’s O’Conner Center for the Rocky Mountain West entitled “Challenges Facing the U. S. Forest Service (FS) (Kemmis 2008) and an article in the Public Land and Resources Law Review, University of Montana (Thomas and Sienkiewicz 2005).

Evolution of the Current Situation

It is increasingly difficult, expensive, and frustrating for the FS to achieve its confused mission – or carryout direction from the Executive Branch and/or Congress. Such is the result from mismatched interacting laws and regulations, inconsistent political direction, and confounding judicial decisions (Thomas 2000, 2004, 2009; Sedjo 2000).

The Organic Administration Act (1897) empowered Presidents to create Forest Reserves from the Public Domain “…to improve and protect the forests…securing favorable conditions of water flows, and furnish a continuous supply of timber…” Jurisdiction of the Reserves shifted from the Department of Interior (DOI) to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) via the Transfer Act of 1905 which also established the FS. The national forests (NFs) – previously Forest Reserves – were to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run (Pinchot 1947).” Definitions of the “greatest good” were to evolve with time and circumstances – and have done so (Lewis 2005, Steen 1992).

The first Chief of the FS, Gifford Pinchot (1947:261-262), believed that NFs would survive if managed to generate jobs, goods and services for local economies, and revenues to County, State and Federal treasuries. One of Pinchot’s first acts was to prepare a letter for the Secretary of Agriculture to send to the FS Chief laying out the new agency’s “marching orders” including the following (USDA 1905, Pinchot 1947:261-262).

“…All the resources of the forest reserves are for use…under such restrictions only as will insure the permanence of these resources…”

“…the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value.”

“…see to it that water, wood, and forage of the reserves are conserved and wisely used…”

“…local questions will be decided upon local grounds…”

“…where conflicting interests must be reconciled the question will always be decided from the standpoint of greatest good of the greatest number in the long run….”

“They (these instructions) can be successfully applied only when the administration of each reserve is left very largely in the hands of local officers…

Later Chiefs remained keenly aware of that heritage (Steen 2004, Thomas 2004). Because elected officials from western states initially objected to the potential “competition” to private timber producers early management focused on establishment of boundaries, regulation of grazing and mining, timber harvest for local needs, and regulation of water flows to enhance settlement. Following extensive wildfires in Montana and Idaho in 1910, wildfire suppression was instituted to protect forests until they could be harvested to stave off an anticipated “timber famine” (Pinchot 1947). Some activists, personified in John Muir, believed the NF’s primary purpose should be maintenance of “wilderness character.” That clash continues today (Worster 2008, Fox 1985).

During the “custodial era” (1905 to 1946), NFs played a minor role in supplying timber. World War II (1939-1945) produced a surge in demand (and prices) which was met from private lands with profits guaranteed at “costs plus 10 per cent.” The timber industry, ravaged by the Great Depression (1929-1939), was rejuvenated. The termination of World War II marked the end of a 16-year hiatus (1929-1945) in home construction. Population had increased, economic conditions were improved, and millions of military personnel returning to civilian life unleashed a pent up demand for housing. Federal programs (including the GI Bill) provided financial incentives to home ownership. The nation turned to NFs to supply the needed wood (Hirt 1994).

Suddenly, the “trumpet” was loud, clear, certain, and sustained. The rallying cry of the “can do agency” was “get out the cut!” Praise was loud and support strong while concerns and criticisms were muted. Faith that adequate funds and skilled personnel could overcome barriers to steadily increasing timber harvests was labeled, decades later, as a “conspiracy of optimism.” Budgets to harvest timber, including building access and haul roads, were generous.

Successive Administrations and Congresses – regardless of party – funded the exploitation but consistently failed to provide adequate funding for follow-up management. Such was euphemistically labeled “a temporary departure from non-declining even flow” deemed acceptable in the process of “bringing forests under management.” Poker players call such “betting on the come.” It proved was a bad bet with severe longer term and continuing ramifications (Hirt 1994).

During 1905-1960, the DOI acting through the National Park Service (NPS) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS) routinely “raided” the NFs for lands for National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. In response the FS – abetted by allies in the timber industry, graziers, miners, fishers, hunters, and elected officials – promoted the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 (MUSY) that expanded and clarified the agency’s mission (Rothman, 1997).

”… the National Forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor        recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes. The purposes         …are …supplemental to, but not in derogation of, the purposes …set forth in       …the Organic Act… (MUSY 1960).”

So, at that point, now, the FS – considering the Organic Act and MUSY – appears to have a clearly defined mission listing nine expected outputs which blunted rationales for transferring NF lands to the NPS and the F&WS. That expanded mission led to the “myth of the omniscient forester” – e.g., foresters and engineers could, without little or no technical assistance, adequately address the broadly expanded mission. That myth was quickly dispelled. Wildlife and fisheries biologists, ecologists, soils scientists, social scientists, recreation managers, hydrologists, law enforcement officers, and other specialists were hired to help the FS meet the nine outputs.

That trend toward cadres of various skilled specialists accelerated with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970 which established the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) which, soon, further complicated NF management. The FS and these new “kids on the block” did not “play well” together and many FS veterans viewed changes in management approaches as complicating the long-standing primary tasks of fire fighting, “getting out the cut” while “bringing the forest under management” (Hirt 1994).

Active Forest Management Slows

Annual timber harvests increased steadily – from a bit more than 2 billion board feet (bbf) per year (yr) in 1945 to more than 12bbf/yr in 1968 and remained above 9bbf/yr until 1988 (FS 1992) before dropping to near 2bbf/yr in 2010. More and more roads snaked along the water courses and switch-backed up the mountain sides (often at 4 plus miles of road/square mile). To meet the “timber targets” set by the Administration and Congress harvest of individually marked mature trees (as required by the Organic Act) shifted to “even-age timber management” (which involved clearcutting) assuming that FS expertise allowed such an approach.

The courts disagreed. However efficient clearcutting may be in sustained timber production, its broad scale application engendered growing challenges as clear cuts were judged by many as ugly and not in keeping with fish and wildlife welfare, recreation, and watershed values – e. g., many considered it the antithesis of multiple-use management (Hirt 1994).

In the 1960s, the Monongahela NF (West Virginia), the Bitterroot NF (Montana), and the Tongass NF (Alaska) were foci of a public backlash against clearcutting and associated simplification of forest composition and structure. Organized hunters and anglers protested. Some elected officials (federal, state, and local) objected. Some old-line conservation groups expressed concerns. In response, the FS’s timber and road building programs – largely utilizing even-aged management – steadily ramped up. A backlash ensued.

In 1973, the Izaak Walton League sued the FS relative to clearcutting on the Monongahela NF – and won. The 1970 “Bolle Report” by faculty members at the University of Montana, affirmed internal FS reports criticizing clear-clearcutting coupled with terracing on steep slopes within the Bitterroot NF. In Alaska, objections erupted relative to “clearcutting of old-growth forests by drainage” under the auspices of two 50-year timber sale contracts with Japanese corporations. The three events combined to produce a reverberating public relations and political disaster for the FS (Hirt 1994, Steen 2004).

Attempts at “a Fix”

In 1973, Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 saying that “we have a mess on our hands.” Two years later the “mess” was even more confused. He supported amendments in an effort to “get the practice of forestry out of the courts and back to the forests” (Wondolleck 1998, p. 10 and Hall and Wasserman 1978, p. 523). Those dreams were not realized. By 1973-1974, lawsuits and administrative appeals – from both environmentalists and industry – challenging FS management were routine and increasingly successful.

Some thought that enhanced planning was the answer to establishing and maintaining control. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA) required 10-year management plans for each of the 154 NFs. Approaches were left to FS expertise (that effectively nullified the judicial ban on clearcutting). Such planning consumed more time, effort, and resources than anticipated and, ultimately, failed to significantly influence FS budgets – or dampened controversy or challenges.

By 2010 (34 years later), not one plan for a NF had been executed in its entirety. The FS proposed and Administrations, Congresses, and the courts disposed. It became obvious that such planning activities actually exacerbated conflict (Clawson 1983, General Accounting Office (GAO) 1997, USDA 1997) and a “conflict industry” bolstered by the license and incentives to legal challenge provided in the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJC). In spite of dramatic failure to achieve its intended purposes, the NFMA, remains intact (Hirt 1994).

Wondolleck (1988) thoroughly reviewed pertinent literature and discussed “public lands conflict and resolution” with emphasis on “managing NF disputes.” Oddly, she made no mention of the impact of the EAJA on the barrage of legal challenges to federal land management decisions. She suggested resolution of conflicts through “collaborative processes” during planning and preparation for individual management actions.

The FS took that advice to heart – and things got worse. Those who deem themselves to be “standing at Armageddon and battling for the Lord” are disinclined to compromise or be bound by compromises arrived at by others. Fringe elements – whether involved in the deal making or not – that are not in accord t with the results of collaboration could, abetted by the EAJA, challenge outcomes in court. I.e., “collaboration” was no panacea. As a result, today (24 years later) the situation has only gotten worse.

Unfortunately, those who spent time, effort, and money to participate in planning exercises felt used – even betrayed – when hard-won agreements were dismantled one piece at a time. Plans, no matter how well done or how well accepted can be challenged – often dismantled – by even a single individual who disagrees with the result, sues under the EAJA and wins. By 2011, legislators resorted to trying to enact agreements for management of individual NFs into law. Such is fraught with problems relative to sustained financing. Coherent management became, in many cases, outrageously expensive in time and money due to interactions of coordinated laws and subsequent, too often confounding, court decisions.

The Confusing/Confounding Torrent of Legislation

The trickle of legislation related to environmental concerns began in the 1960s and became a torrent in the 1970s (LeMaster 1984) including: Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968; National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970; Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (FACA); Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (an amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1948); Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973; Freedom of Information Act (1974); Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 (FRRRPA); National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976; Clean Air Act of 1977 (which amended the Clean Air Act of 1955); and the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) in 1980 – among others. The trumpet’s clear call signaling “get out the cut” and “bring the land under management” wavered and weakened becoming ever more discordant. Those laws, and the interactions emerging from subsequent judicial decisions, morphed into an increasingly immobilizing “Gordian knot.” Timber yields declined as management costs soared. In less than a decade, timber harvests dropped 77 per cent (12 bbf/yr to 3 bbf/yr.).

As described by then USDA Under Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey (2008:22):

“…the system of laws governing public land management is both disjointed and archaic. The laws are uncoordinated – if not occasionally confused. They are an admixture of process-oriented measures with broad and lofty goals… and absolutist prescriptions…The admixture involves different agencies with different expertise, different objectives and missions, and different outlooks on acceptable levels of risk in decision-making…The statutes are…an affront to the Jeffersonian principle that laws should change as society changes and institutions…keep up with the times…”

Rey (2008:24) further said (or hoped) that “…The notion that we are stuck in gridlock or driven by past conflicts in so longer entirely valid” putting great store in utilization of “cooperative conservation.” And, the Gordian knot only drew tighter. As an illustration, three of the primary pieces of legislation contributing strands – there are many more – to that knot included the following.

The National Environmental Act (NEPA) (1970)

NEPA imposed “checks and balances” on land management via public participation and oversight by regulatory agencies. Such, in their interactions provided more “checks” on management than “balance” between mission areas. Definitions of “balance” proved ephemeral and changed with Administrations and Congresses and Court decisions. The NEPA meant to insure that proposed management was adequately evaluated – which was not defined – relative to environmental impacts. Ongoing decisions of Federal judges, ill-equipped to make such judgments, confounded and confused processes of land management.

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), created by NEPA, was to insure compliance with that law. As CEQ’s head is appointed by and reports directly to the President, its actions could be, and often have been, more political than technical in nature. There are no education or experience requirements for that position. The CEQ’s function (and its influence) varies with Administrations further confusing FS managers (Thomas 2004).

Courts ruled that the FS’s applications of “professional judgment” fell short of the required “hard look” in evaluating proposed management actions. As a result, NF administrators (and legal counselors) became increasingly risk averse and, too often, produced evermore voluminous assessments in an effort to demonstrate compliance with laws and regulations. Evidently, it was assumed that costs of court ordered “do overs” exceeded costs of “overkill” in the form of excessive documentation. For the most part, the strategy largely failed. Losers included citizens who felt inundated, confused, and turned-off by increasingly voluminous and “technically dense” documents. Costs in time and money increased. Post-mortem examination showed that such “over kill” was an ineffective defensive mechanism.

Political direction changed with Administrations, new laws, court decisions, and budgets producing shifts in (or constraints upon) management. In the 1970s, the “balance” – aided by court decisions – between preservation and conservation tilted toward preservation. Increasingly complex procedural processes led to less-positive (even negative) cost/benefit ratios for proposed management actions. Gradually, it became more fiscally rational to forego needed/desired management actions than jumping through the hoops and dealing with challenges. Active management became more expensive, more time consuming, less fiscally rewarding – and less likely to occur.

The National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA)

In the early 1980’s, following the initial round of NF by NF planning, the projected timber harvest from the NFS approximated 12bbf/yr. The Reagan Administration’s USDA Undersecretary, John Crowell (former Chief Counsel for Louisiana Pacific Corporation) persistently sent FS planners “back to the drawing board” to meet his desired timber target of approximately 25 bbf/yr – double the FS’s proposal (which was to later prove to be optimistic). The FS resisted, considering a 25 bbf/yr timber harvest level as a “mission impossible.”

Increasing costs led inexorably to less and less active management. Simultaneously, wildfire suppression costs increased with the ongoing build-up of fuels and emerging consequences of climate change. By 2008, fire suppression consumed nearly half the budget for managing NFs. By 2012, with burgeoning budget deficits adding to an enormous and growing public debt (the deficit was 40 cents on the dollar of federal spending); building political backlash seemed a preamble to significant reductions in discretionary federal spending – including that of the FS.

Unless the FS can carry out sustainable management that generates revenues to cover a significant portion of costs, the future of the NFs will increasingly be brought into question. As budgets and personnel decline, the FS will be forced to cut back even further on maintenance, hiring, training, travel, etc. contributing to an ongoing erosion of morale and management capabilities.

The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) (1980)

The EAJA allows citizens to sue federal agencies for non-compliance with law(s) and/or regulation(s). Winning plaintiffs are compensated for costs. Conversely, plaintiffs with low net worth (or have non-profit status) have no liability when they lose – no matter what havoc the suit may have inflected in terms of management delays and legal costs. An ongoing drumbeat of judicial decisions (i.e., “case law”) defines and redefines the “playing field” for political/legal games surrounding NF management.

The Collapse of the “Conspiracy of Optimism”

The belief, or faith, that “we can have it all” – timber, grazing, fire protection, wildlife, fish, recreation, water – given “proper management” of the NFs rang hollow in the late 1980s and 1990s as organized interest groups demanded different “outputs” increasingly viewed as mutually exclusive (Hirt 1994). Those “win/lose” political games gave rise to “professional gladiators” or “hired guns” that served various clients. To some extent, the struggle became their reason for existence –and their “rice bowl.” Compromises, which dampen conflict, are not in the best interests of gladiators that hold diametrically opposed views. Victory, not compromise, was the objective.

The on-going collapse (1990-2012) of the wood products industry – especially that segment dependent upon harvest of wood from federal lands – left the FS without an effective constituency. The “winners” gave no evidence of considering the next question – “now what?” In the growing lacuna in management, it began to seem inevitable that, sans a clear mission coupled with effective political support, NFs are likely to be considered a national/regional liability rather than an asset.

Sedjo (2000:185) put it this way “… the FS now stands largely exposed, without public constituencies willing to advocate its cause…given the absence of a mandate that has broad support …one might ask whether there are any reasons to try to maintain a FS separate from other federal agencies.” A decade later, those questions seem prescient and loom larger.

“Ecosystem Management” (EM)

The ESA has been called the “900 pound gorilla” of environmental laws. The status of “threatened and endangered (T&E)” species has evolved into the ultimate measure of “protect the forest” as required by the Organic Act. The purpose is to “…provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species may be conserved.”

It was inevitable that the FS would adopt “EM” as a guide. In 1989 (distributed as guidance to field units in 1992), Chief Dale Robertson announced a “New Perspective” to guide management. President George H. W. Bush made the announcement at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. As conceived, EM sought simultaneous achievement of economic, environmental, and social sustainability on NFs.

In 1990s, the F&WS, squeezed between science and politics, had no choice but to declare the northern spotted owl to be “threatened” under the ESA. Its primary habitats were old-growth forests of western Oregon, Washington, and northern California – a primary source of high value timber. It was obvious that the required recovery plan would result in dramatic reductions in the rate and amount of cutting of old-growth forests.

A clumsy drawn out political circus ensued. Secretary of Interior Manual Lujan called for the “God Squad” to override the requirements of the ESA. To the surprise of the Bush Administration that gambit failed. Then, in 1991, Federal Judge William Dwyer shut down 139 FS timber sales pending development and adoption of a legitimate plan for spotted owl recovery. Big money, thousands of jobs, political survival, and power of elected officials was now on the line. So, the Bush Administration delayed action until after the Presidential election of 1991 – in retrospect it was a strategic and ultimately embarrassing political error.

Partially due to the lingering and increasingly embarrassing impasse, Governor William “Bill” Clinton squeaked by President George H. W. Bush in Oregon, Washington, and California and, was elected President. In 1992, Clinton convened a “timber summit” in Portland, Oregon to gather information, hear concerns, and solicit advice relative to ending the impasse.

Clinton assigned a team of scientists (the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team or FEMAT) to provide alternate management scenarios with assessments of economic and social impacts. Most significantly – and with dramatic far reaching lasting effects – he ordered that “impacts were to be absorbed, first and foremost, on public lands while taking an EM approach.” Those instructions were a game changer having significant lasting consequences, still not fully appreciated, for subsequent management of federal lands. Henceforth, federal lands would be first in line to provide habitats – and absorb the impacts on current programs – necessary to sustain and recover T&E species.

The resultant dramatic diminution in federal timber programs in the Pacific Northwest was a harbinger of declines across the entire NFS. Such policy became a dramatic – but little recognized – constraint on public land management which will increase over time as additional T&E species are identified by the F&WS and NMFS.

Simultaneously, many forest land-holding companies facing dramatic reductions in timber available from public lands sought new ways to improve returns on investment. Profits from timber was increasingly constrained by competition from nations less fettered by legal and environmental constraints and benefiting from lower costs of production. Conversions to Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) and other more economically attractive ventures increased.

Beginning in 2007, that trend was accelerated by the onset of the “Great Recession” with associated declines in values of residential properties and demand for new housing. Most of the land-holding companies’ value was, now, in the land itself with a much lesser share in the trees growing on those lands.

Many whose livelihoods and cultural identities were tied to the timber industry were shaken. Some undertook activities reminiscent of the 19th century “ghost dances” of the Plains Indians intended to bring back the buffalo (i.e., the “good old days”). Many mills, large and small, closed as politicians and timber industry champions raved, empathized, wrung their hands, pounded their chests, and promised relief – and utterly failed to change the course of events. Yet, the associated “sound and fury” did signify something – festering frustration with resultant economic/social disaster.

Thomas (2001a) put it this way:

“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.’ 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.”

Most hard core “environmentalists” demonstrated little concern with the social/economic consequences of their victories. Some, figuratively, continued to wander the old battlefields “bayoneting the wounded” via challenges to even minor forest management activities. Victories have consequences. To the victors belong the spoils – and some responsibility to ameliorate consequences of their victories – “you break it – you own it” (Thomas 2001a and 2001b). There was applicable wisdom in President Lincoln’s admonition to General Grant near the end of the Civil War – “Let ‘em up easy.”

Inevitable Change – Underway and Piecemeal

By 2009-2011, political efforts emerged to “cut a deal” by working around laws and established processes for management of NFs in Montana and Oregon. These efforts were variously labeled as “collaboration,” “cooperation,” or “coordination” and aimed at “cohabitation” of landscapes of intermingled federal, state, and private forests. “Compromises” (worked out by small groups of self-selected participants cutting behind-the-scenes deals) emerged as proposed legislation. These “deals” demonstrated no recognition of inherent problems in assuring funding over time and inevitable necessities to react to changes in economic/environmental conditions – and budgets. A Congressman’s ability to keep their promises disappears with their departure from Congress. That begs questions.

What consequences will emerge? Who owns the NFs – the people of the United States or local self-appointed interest groups? Who gets to play in the game – under what rules? How will the various “deals” be funded – year after year, decade after decade – in face of changes in legal/political/environmental/economic conditions? Is it wise, or prudent, to open this Pandora’s Box? Are the elected officials involved “wise men” or players in new poorly considered political games to placate constituents – perhaps, with an eye on the next election?

In 2003, the attention of FS managers was focused on prevention of wildfires in “wildland-urban interface” (WUI) by the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) to be accomplished primarily through thinning of second growth forests. Maybe it would be simply too “politically incorrect” for environmental warriors to mount opposition. However, similar instructions to “protect watersheds,” have yet to receive equal management attention because “Beyond this point there be dragons” in the form of legal challenges.

Some hard-core environmentalist organizations routinely, astutely, and successfully utilize skilled experienced legal counsel and litigators – with challenges are facilitated by tactical advantages and economic stimuli provided by the EAJA. Winning challenges produce a pay day – and they win a lot. There is no risk of liability if they lose – such a deal.

The EAJA “play book” can facilitate carefully coordinated, strategically-timed, challenges that render proposed management actions moot via time delays and costs that combine to produce unfavorable cost/benefit ratios for management actions in question. In such cases, a “loss” can be considered a relatively cheap “win” if the activity in question is abandoned. Conversely, proponents of the management activity can only engage in the “litigation game” as “intervener” sans chances of recovering costs. As a result, many FS managers become more and more risk averse and shy away from even short-term environmental risks that would lead to longer term improvement(s) and, perhaps, financial returns to the treasury and county coffers – not to mention jobs. .

On the flip side, even mentioning global climate change is attacked by some of conservative bent seemingly that the FRRRPA of 1974 requires “…an analysis of the potential effects of global climate change on the condition of renewable resources on the forests and rangelands…” Such is nothing new – and amazingly prescient.

Required environmental impact statements (EIS’s) emphasize immediate and short-term impacts of proposed management actions and associated short-term risks. There is no requirement (except for activities proposed under the HFRA) to evaluate risks of not carrying out proposed actions – a serious shortcoming. After the EIS is finalized, interactions with federal regulatory agencies (F&WS, NMFS, EPA, and/or the Council on Environmental Quality or CEQ) ensue – especially when T&E species are involved.

Any of these agencies can give a “thumbs down” on the proposal(s). Management success depends on the FS’s capability, flexibility, and agility to react effectively to changing environmental, social, political, legal, and economic realities in the face of a gushing stream of new information, new understandings, political direction, and evolving legal situations (i.e., court decisions). Management capabilities, already difficult, are increasingly impaired. Why?

The FS increasingly lacks a clear mission (see Peterson 2000 for an opposing view) and consistent political/legal direction (Thomas 2004, Fretwell 2009). Wondolleck (1988) expounded the same thesis a quarter century ago – and, yet, problems for managers got worse. The present hiatus in NF management is multiplied by accelerating losses of experienced personnel through attrition.

A look at the FS planning regulation (mandated by the NFMA in 1976), is informative. The first regulations took three years to produce (1979) and were revised only three years late (1982). In 1994 another attempt at revision was aborted by the Undersecretary of USDA to mollify environmentalists’ objections. In 2000, yet another try failed. All three versions contained what was intended to be “philosophical guidance” to managers. Appellants, and, subsequently, the courts, took that guidance literally. It follows (emphasis added).

“… Fish and wildlife habitat shall be managed to maintain viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species in the planning area…In order to insure that viable populations will be maintained, habitat must be provided to support, at least, a minimum number of reproductive individuals and that habitat must be well distributed so that individuals can interact with others in the planning area…”

Taken literally, these requirements are technically and economically (there is a decided interaction between the two) impossible to meet. Therefore, this paragraph is irrational except as generalized guidance. Deriving the required information (frequently enough and with enough precision to be meaningful) for hundreds of species (some cryptic and little known) across 154 NFS was, is, and will remain impossible. Even if such surveys were economically feasible and technically possible, it would be many years to be able to discern differences between natural perturbations from changes related to habitat conditions. That is a “mission impossible” frozen in time by court decisions – a classic “Catch 22.”

In an effort to escape this mission impossible, draft regulations included a “habitat relationships approach” (Thomas 1979) as a means of evaluating the welfare of all vertebrate species.

“…Plan decisions affecting species diversity must provide for ecological conditions that the responsible official determines provides a high likelihood that those conditions are capable of supporting over time the viability of native and desired non-native species well-distributed throughout their ranges within the plan area…A species is well-distributed when individuals can react with each other in the portion of the species range that occurs within the plan area…”

It was left to the “responsible official” to determine if the requirements had been met. The proposed 2008 Regulations took a tack more in keeping with EM.

“…The overall goal…is to provide a framework to contribute to sustaining native ecological systems by providing appropriate ecological conditions to support diversity of native plant and animal species in the plan area…If the responsible official determines that provisions in plan components…are needed to provide appropriate ecological conditions for specific threatened and endangered species, species-of-concern, and species-of-interest, then the plan must include additional provisions for these species…”

On June 30, 2009, A U. S. District Court decided that the 2008 Rule satisfied neither the NEPA nor the ESA and gave the FS the option of reverting to either the 1982 or 2000 Planning Rules. That was a classic “Hobson’s choice” as both are technically and fiscally infeasible. At some point the question must be asked – what are the consequences of a rule that cannot be met and, yet, cannot be altered? Clearly, escape from this “fantasy land” requires clarifying legislation if any significant management actions are to take place..

High Troop Morale Critical to Success

In 2009, the FS was ranked near the bottom of government conservation agencies as a “desirable place to work.” Fourteen years previously, the FS had been identified as a “bureaucratic super star” on the basis of effectiveness and high morale (Clarke and McCool 1985 and 1996). What happened?

Effective organizations have clear coherent attainable visions and missions – and the means to achieve them. Timber harvest programs carried out from 1946 to 1990 produced significant financial returns to county and federal treasuries and provided thousands of direct and indirect jobs in rural areas where well-paying jobs were, are, and will remain, relatively scarce. Powerful politically active constituencies – the wood products industry, its workers, associated communities, state wildlife agencies, and local and state governments – provided political support for FS timber harvesting and substantial – though far less than adequate – funds for reforestation, rehabilitation, and road maintenance.

In retrospect, ever higher timber harvests (with associated roads) were too narrow a vision pursued too vigorously for too long. Ultimately, public backlash – and the fact that most of the “easy stuff” on the “easy ground” had been cut using clear-cutting – produced dramatic reductions in timber programs – across the entire National Forest System (NFS) (Hirt 1994). In 1976, Payments in Lieu of Taxes ( PILT) was authorized by Congress to compensate counties for the diminution of timber harvests from federal lands which provided 25 per cent of receipts from timber harvests to counties for roads and schools. PILT compensated counties for national forests within their boundaries not being subject to state, county, and local taxes.

Today, increasing pressures to reduce federal spending begs a question – will PILT continue when slashing federal expenditures is de rigor? If so, affected states and counties will demand reexamination of the benefits and costs of NFs within their boundaries. Already, some suggest that NF management be turned over to the states (Fretwell 1992 and others) to be managed under state laws and regulations to produce JOBS and revenues to the states and counties.

Seeing Things as They Are

Conflict smolders as the winds of change surge producing more and more political spot fires. Yet, the established political postures of the old gladiators remain frozen in place. Why? As Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Yet, times, circumstances, and understandings do change – socially, economically, politically, and ecologically – however slowly and reluctantly. Then, when change finally comes it can come very quickly.

At this point, it might be well to put aside the dreams and drums of the “ghost dancers.” The “good old days” are gone – they will not return. It is well past time to sheath political weaponry and bind up old wounds – of land and people. It is time to seek new vision and “pound swords into plow shares and spears into pruning hooks.” What was, to many, an entertaining debate during plush times, seems ever less so in a time of sustained economic/social/political strain.

The Specter of Wildfires

Much of the lingering positive public image of the FS emanates from the aftermath of the “Fires of 1910” in Montana and Idaho – and all the attempts since – to avoid and/or bring forest and rangeland fires under control. Those who battled those fires – and the wildfires since, especially those who died in the efforts – remain fixed in the public’s mind as “heroes,” the “good guys” incarnate, despite the too frequent fatal errors made in those efforts (Maclean 1985, 2007; Eagen 2009, Barker 2005, Matthews 1951). Oddly, a century after the fires of 1910, one of the FS’s original de facto missions – to protect forests and rangelands by suppressing wildfires – has resumed center stage. The near certainty of wildfires increasing in number, intensity, and acres burned now focuses on the WUI where homes sprout in areas difficult to defend against fire. That situation will worsen as land-holding wood products companies maximum incomes by sub-dividing their lands for home sites.

As a result the FS is, albeit reluctantly, becoming more and more part of the “federal fire department” protecting those rural homes – especially those in proximity to NFs – as states, counties, and local governments grant more and more permits for construction of homes “in harms way” in the WUI. In 2007, the NFS spent some 45 percent of its budget in combating wildfires – up from 13 percent from 2006. Overall budgets for fire fighting (adjusted for inflation) and personnel dedicated to fire fighting have declined over the previous two decades.

In view of global climate change and the increasing fire prone conditions of disease ridden forests – especially in the intermountain West – that can be classified as “whistling past the grave yard.” High densities of young trees in regenerated forests have not been subject to planned for thinning operations put off for year after year and decade after decade due to inadequate appropriation and political opposition. Such situations are growing – and that seems likely to continue.

Rationales for, and ultimate costs of, increased wildfire prevention/suppression – beyond political expediency – have been inadequately thought through relative to long term ecological impacts. For example, dramatic forest thinning in the WUI to lessen fire danger will facilitate production of forage for wild ungulates at the same time that upland habitats are deteriorating sans active management. Problems with increasing numbers of ungulates in the WUI (damage to ornamental vegetation, need for population control, problems associated with hunting or other forms of controlling ungulate numbers). The natural predators of the ungulates – bears (black and grizzlies), cougars, wolves, bobcats, and coyotes – will follow their food source into the WUI especially in fall, winter, and early spring. That is already occurring and adding to burdens of state fish and wildlife agencies.

Simultaneously, the acreage of increasingly dense unmanaged second growth stands at higher elevations will inexorably increase. Among foreseeable consequences is a resurrected, enhanced, increasingly difficult and dangerous, increasingly expensive, politically volatile, fire prevention/suppression mission for the FS. The 24-hour news cycle will emphasize fire-fighting – especially when there are, as is increasingly probable, casualties among fire fighters, civilians, and losses of homes. That will likely occur simultaneously with pressures to decrease federal expenditures.

Upcoming budget shifts to fire prevention/suppression will reduce numbers of FS specialists in other fields. In 2007, the FS spent $741 million more than appropriated for fire suppression by routinely “borrowing” from other FS budget lines. It was assumed that the funds spent on fire fighting in excess of budgeted amounts would be made whole, as had been customary, through “supplemental appropriations.” This time, there was no repayment. Was that a harbinger? In response, the “Flame Act” of 2009 assured that such “borrowed” funds would be replaced through supplemental appropriations.

Is such replacement likely, year after year, considering worsening fire conditions coupled with declining overall budgets? Over the same period, wildland fire fighting capabilities have declined in terms of numbers of elite fire fighting crews, availability of aging military aircraft modified to deliver retardants and state-of-the-art fire suppression equipment. Costs are increasing as capabilities at federal, state, and local levels dwindle. It would be well if elected officials and budget hawks “did the math” and heeded the ancient admonition to “come let us reason together.” “PDQ” (pretty damn quick) would be good.

New Days and New Ways

In late 2011, the nation was engaged in two – maybe two-and-a-half – wars. Long lingering high unemployment – “JOBS” – emerged as the highest political priority along with calls for dramatic reductions in federal spending and increases in taxes. The huge national debt was still growing dramatically and was increasingly held by foreign entities. Cost for Medicare continues to grow. Social Security faces long-term insolvency. Crumbling infrastructure demands attention. Energy costs are at all time highs and are destined to increase. The environmental/economic/social consequences of nuclear power generation gone wrong are significant. There is an ongoing crisis in housing. Human populations – and their quest for the “good life” – continue their inexorable increase. Political divides resulted in downgrades in the credit in the credit worthiness of the United States in 2011. The esteem of the citizenry for Members of Congress and the President spiraled down.

For the foreseeable future, the FS seems likely to face reductions in already inadequate funding and personnel levels while demands for goods and services increase. The FS desperately needs a crystal clear mission which it cannot provide for itself. FS leaders can only propose (if allowed to do so) and multiple layers of appointed and elected officials will dispose – if they act at all.

Coherent focus requires new – or refocused – effective constituents to birth the evolving “new FS.” New notes are desperately needed for the trumpets’ renewed clarion call to service. That will require a mixed bag of potential constituents to develop and unite around a new vision. Then, they must work to assure that the needed resources are made available. That new vision must include means of realizing significant income from provision of goods and services from NF management beyond timber and grazing – such as recreational uses. Such ideas (Thomas 1985) are not new but, now, the need is obviously dire.

New Goals, Products, and Missions

As the “good old/bad old days” fade away, new days and new ways lie ahead. For example, as populations grow and demands for energy increase, fossil fuels will continue to ratchet up in economic and ecological costs. As the search for alternative sources of energy accelerates the potential for biofuels looms larger.

Among the first thrusts in biofuels production involved federal subsidies to derive ethanol from grains to be added to gasoline – an effort more focused on the welfare of grain growers than a realistic solution to soaring fuel costs. Increased use of fertilizers (largely derived from natural gas) to produce food grains to convert to biofuels for internal combustion engines – in the face of rapidly growing human populations who need the food forgone – begged social, economic, and ethical questions.

On the other hand, cellulosic ethanol derived from “waste” plant materials – ranging from grasses to wood – has potential to provide such fuel. The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act required increase of renewable fuels (9 billion gallons in 2007 to 36 billion gallons by 2022). Cellulosic ethanol was mandated to increase from 100 million gallons in 2010 to 16 billion gallons in 2022 (44% of the renewable fuels mandate). Extant technology, which is constantly improving, has the potential to meet those targets in an economically/ecologically rational fashion. But, such will require infrastructure close to the source of raw materials and that will require some certainty of a flow of raw materials over a defined time period – in the absence of certainty there will be no such investment from the private sector.

As consequences of global climate change become more obvious, forests will play an increasing role in carbon sequestration. Over the long run, demand for traditional wood products will increase as human populations increase, economies rebound, and there is increased focus and reliance upon “renewable” resources. A new mix of forest products – in new combinations – lies ahead in the dense political/legal fog that clouds our vision at the moment.

The National Forests – Use Them or Lose Them?

Even as the “new” FS evolves, they are enmeshed in debilitating political/economic turmoil. These forests and rangelands are too valuable, for social and economic reasons, to remain in relatively unmanaged increasingly expensive limbo. The FS long ranked as among the most effective of government agencies (Clarke and McCool 1996). A refocused and revitalized FS can regain “bureaucratic super star” status – if only allowed it is allowed to let go of the past and move on to the future. Winston Churchill observed that, “Of this I am certain, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” We need to move on to the future and let got of the past – but not the lessons learned.

As the nation’s economic/social/political stresses increase, it will seem more and more rational to shed economic/political liabilities – especially those that can be converted into revenue. It will seem, at least to some, evermore reasonable to sell or trade or transfer the NFs for pottage (Nelson 2000). Such moves are being actively discussed (Fretwell 2009).

Addressing a “Gordian Knot”

More legislation, e.g., the recent Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2005 (HFRA), is a grossly inadequate likely further confusing, response to the worsening stalemate. That was just one more “patch” (a law) on top of other patches that haphazardly reside atop even older patches. Each of those laws must have seemed a good idea in the context of time and circumstances. Yet, in totality and considering interactions that evolved (especially as variously interpreted by the courts), they formed the threads of a now intractable Gordian knot (an intricate problem insoluble in its own terms) rendering NF planning and management ever more costly – and ineffective.

An answer to the quandary may reside in legend. Alexander of Macedonia was presented with such a puzzle knot and told that only the future ruler of Asia could undo it. He didn’t fuss, fume, and dither. He drew his sword and cleaved the knot in two.

Creation of a “new” FS and new approaches to NF management requires changes in thinking and direction that produces: clear vision; well-defined missions; sustained adequate financing; significant revenues from sustainable exploitation of NF resources; a rejuvenated/reinvigorated work force; and cultivation, development, and sustenance of supportive constituencies. Failing that, three fates loom large – singly or in combination.

The first is continuing the ongoing reversion to custodial management with increasing emphasis on wildfire prevention and suppression focused largely in the WUI. The second is devolution of management responsibilities to other Federal agencies with custodial missions (e.g., the NPS or the USF&WS). Lands deemed worthy of “zoning” for production of commodities might go to the States – or the Bureau of Land Management – who have track records of land management to produce revenue. The third is to, taking place over many years to prevent depressing markets, sale of NF lands to the highest bidders (including foreign investors if they like our Treasury bonds they would love our lands even more. Purchasers would be well aware of Mark Twain’s advice to “buy land they ain’t making any more of it.” Each of these options would cut federal expenditures and provide revenues to service burgeoning debt.

Attributes of “Bureaucratic Super Stars”

In 1996, among the seven federal natural resource management agencies, the FS was identified as a “bureaucratic superstar” based on seven factors Clarke and McCool 1996).
These factors included:

A pro-development multiple-use mission;

A pragmatic/utilitarian philosophy;

A clear beginning;

A scientific basis of expertise;

Internal recruitment to leadership;

A coherent well-defined public image; and

Strong support from Congress (sometimes from the Chief Executive) emanating from well-organized constituencies (Clarke and McCool 1996).

What happened in the intervening 16 years?

Public/political support for the pro-development multiple-use mission collapsed and shifted more toward preservation.

Pragmatic-utilitarianism was eroded by legislation, case law, changes in public opinion coupled with shifting, confused, inconsistent and dysfunctional political direction.

The clear beginning evolved into a “creation myth” and, then, faded into memory.

Scientific expertise increased – though support eroded – largely due to the quasi- independent research arm. New knowledge became more fiscally/politically difficult to integrate into management.

Internal recruitment to leadership positions continued while more and more decision authority shifted to politically appointed Undersecretaries of USDA. And, FS Chiefs, though selected from the ranks of FS leaders now routinely change with Administrations.

Significant, often inconsistent, shifts in policy and focus became more common with changes of Administrations.

Consistent support from Congress, responding to well-organized constituencies, eroded.

Effective new constituencies did not arise to replace those that faded away.

Of the factors identified by Clarke and McCool (1996) only “scientific expertise” remains largely intact. That begs a question. Can the nation afford, or even long tolerate, their NFs being condemned to a future of “muddling through?”

Today’s FS employees are subject to criticism by some now-retired FS veterans who served during the “good old days.” Today’s employees are as dedicated, hard working, well educated, and technically skilled. However, the circumstances under which they serve are much different. The FS, if it ever was, is no longer a quasi-independent agency – much less an “elite agency” (Sedjo 2000b). Today, there are many more, often conflicting, laws and regulations coupled with a drum-beat of court guidance along with “partners” from various regulatory agencies that can and do, rather routinely, overrule actions proposed by the FS.

FS budget requests are reviewed and altered by a USDA Undersecretary before presentation to the Secretary USDA. Then, the budget is sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) who makes changes – some quite dramatic. The President presents a proposed budget to the House Budget Committees. The revised budget, then, goes to the Senate Budget Committees who revise the budget to their satisfaction. Then, the Senate and House Committees negotiate a final budget which, when passed (it is subject to revisions on the floor of both houses), goes to the President for acceptance or veto. So, the FS Chief recommends budgets and policies while final decisions are made elsewhere – actually five entities. That does not count the “ear marks” by various members of Congress.

Homo sapiens, as all species must, exploits its environment to survive and, perhaps, thrive. Long term survival requires that exploitation by humans be: politically/socially acceptable; science based; economically rational; and economically/ecologically sustainable. That requires flexibility and agility to routinely make mid-course corrections as informed by new ecological/economic/political knowledge, social circumstances, and availability of resources.

Depending on “Elsewhere”

Americans are using less and less of our own resources to satisfy increasing demands of a growing population while importing we need – or want – from other nations – know here as “Elsewhere.” In general, “Elsewhere” is less well-equipped than the United States – scientifically, socially, economically, and technically – to sustainably manage forests and rangelands. Jobs and money are exported to Elsewhere as our unemployment rises and balance of trade problems grow worse. Then, Elsewhere absorbs the ecological/social consequences – many quite negative – of supplying out needs and desires. At least in the short run, Elsewhere gains jobs and profits in the process. Collectively, such is, and should be, questioned as ecologically irrational, morally bankrupt, economically shortsighted, socially irresponsible, and – in the long run – unsustainable.

Who Pays the Tab?

Income from NF management is needed to help cover costs of multiple-use management. For example, recreationists, including hunters and fishers (consumptive users), should, to their long-term advantage, give up their “free lunch” and pay fees for the old reason that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Clearly, while all citizens pay for NF management benefits accrue disproportionately to those who actually utilize those lands and their products thereby creating a need for management. Logically, “the buck stops” should rest, disproportionately, with users (Thomas 1985).

As an example, visitors to National Parks (NPs) pay fees to fund management – and rarely suggest than such is inappropriate. Interestingly, NFs provide more person-days of recreation per year than the NPs. Should recreational users of NFs pay similar fees? Why not? Perhaps a single permit should be mandatory for anyone utilizing public lands and those funds apportioned to the various agencies managing federal lands.

Future NF managers will be expected to effectively/efficiently control of stand replacement fires, create and maintain habitat for fish and wildlife; manage grazing, assure high quality water, produce wood products – including biofuels, grazing for domestic livestock, protection and enhancement of watersheds, road and facilities management; and facilitate recreational uses of various – sometimes conflicting – kinds. Such requires communication, negotiation, and ongoing compromises between interest groups. Special interest gladiators who “stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord” for single outputs while thwarting “multiple-use” management are in the process of losing credibility and that seems likely to continue. Future success in “multiple-use management” will require, from interested citizens, sustained intelligent involvement, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and the mustering and sustaining of political support across political parties. .

Piecemeal Solutions to General Problems

In 2009, following a long-term and dramatic decline in the FS’s timber program in Montana – somewhat related to conflicts between interest groups, Senator Jon Tester introduced legislation dictating management of a cluster of NFs in Montana. This legislation emerged from a self-appointed coalition of Wilderness advocates, timber interests, labor, recreationists, environmentalists, and others. These self selected few “sliced and diced” and “cut a deal” amongst themselves trading Wilderness designations for a prescribed number of acres to be “treated” per year.

The groups interested in timber extraction and stand management to produce more timber, desperate in the face of a collapse in the FS’s timber program, took a one-sided deal – whether they knew it or not. Wilderness advocates got their Wilderness – to be established in law – while the “user groups” were “betting on the come” in that they were dependent on the ability of transient elected officials to secure funding via “ear marks” or some similar vehicle – year after year and decade after decade – to achieve an outcome dependent on changing ecological/economic conditions and market conditions.

A similar situation relative to the management of a cluster of NFs in Oregon was proposed in law (2010) by Senator Ron Wyden. However naive or mistaken they might be, such efforts send a message. At least two Senators deem the current situation so dysfunctional that they believe the future of individual NFs (of which there are 154) is best addressed via legislation tailored by self-appointed coalitions. Therein resides the potential of managerial chaos, and a clear message. It seems likely that “they know not what they do.”

Are the forests involved “NATIONAL FORESTS” or 154 individual “fiefdoms” to be ruled by self-appointed coalitions of interest groups with access to a sympathetic legislator(s) with enough clout to get their legislation through? And, then, maybe (but not likely), those Congressmen can assure the needed financing from the general treasury – year after year after year. Are such “fixes,” made in isolation, realistic and appropriate means of long-term management of the NFS? And, unless such NFs are excused from compliance with laws, regulations, or court precedents that may be contrary to the political deals, legal challenges are likely with unpredictable outcomes. How, in such cases, will/can FS managers react to rapidly changing conditions – wildfires, climate change, insect and/or disease outbreaks, drought, markets, and availability of infrastructure?

Is such an approach, however emotionally understandable and politically appealing, a valid long-term way to manage 154 individual NFs? Clearly, new approaches are overdue – but these are fraught with problems likely fatal over the longer term.

Change is required. But, the problem is too complex and controversial to be adequately addressed by Administrations or Congresses without initial guidance. Besides NF management, at the present, is not likely to loom large on Congressional radar as wars, the need for jobs, and dealing with budget deficits take up all the “political oxygen” in the halls of Congress and the White House.

On the other hand, the ongoing shock of deep economic recession, which began in 2008, when coupled with unsustainable budget deficits and stubbornly high unemployment could constitute a wakeup call – and a golden opportunity – for more coherent management of the NFs. So, the old recurrent question – “for whom and for what” (Clawson 1975) should the NFs be managed – resurfaces and begs answers suitable to new circumstances. The first FS Chief, Gifford Pinchot (1947), recognized that each generation should define “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run” for themselves. As EM becomes, through trial and error, becomes more clearly defined it will be increasingly obvious that people – their vision, needs, and dreams – must be included in the woof and warp of EM’s fabric. The “for whom and for what” question(s) must be answered anew as generations come and go and circumstances change.

It should be understood that manipulations of ecosystems for the benefit of Homo sapiens, while essential, is fraught with both opportunity and danger – short and long term (Hirt 1994). At the beginning of the 21st century there is no alternative to utilizing natural resources – that will be forever the case. Managers of NFS are charged with providing for human needs while “conserving” the long term productivity of the ecosystems involved. Continuous learning from experimentation and experience provides ability to make informed continuous adaptations in management. It is pointless to yell at the tide of humanity – and their needs – to stop and recede.

The key to “intelligent tinkering” with the natural world is to learn from past experiences, develop new knowledge, and make continuous adjustments (Leopold 1949). Such has always been so and will ever be so. Live and learn – or die.

A New Public Land Law Review Commission?

Honest, clear, and open communication requires good manners – which seem increasingly scarce in today’s public

Show more