Is it Time to Rethink the Forest Service – Repost

Aftermath of to action

Bonus Post

This post has been getting lots of views and discussion.  I usually post once a week, but this will be a re-post with additional comments at the end.  The Forest Service has been a major topic of discussion especially with a new administration and a new incoming chief. This will provide plenty of opportunity for discussion.

Original Post (link to original post)

Since the Clinton years, the Forest Service has undergone a great deal of change.  The agency was producing over 12 billion board feet of timber in the late 80’s, and by the mid 90’s that volume dropped to 2 billion.  To provide context, if that were converted to lumber, it would be a difference of approximately 18 billion feet of lumber.  The total consumption of lumber in the United States in 2015 was 44.1 billion board feet.  That’s nearly 41% all the lumber used to build homes, apartments, and other stick-framed structures.  That’s astounding!

Since the change occurred, the Forest Service has been struggling to create an identity.  That identity is unclear, but many of the current Forest Service employees want to do more for the land.  What does that mean?  Many of the leaders and line officers are doing their best to work with collaborative groups to develop management plans that work for everyone.  I applaud the efforts.  Praise notwithstanding, I wonder if those efforts will be enough?

Maybe it’s time for a complete overhaul of the system?  Now, before you start to think that I’m advocating for the privatization or selling of Forest Service lands, I am not.  At least not yet.  I believe there are some ways to make some serious changes that can get us the products we need while allowing public input.  It is my belief that the public participation is necessary so we can build a long-term social license to manage our forests for the benefit of all interests.

So, what does this mean?

Areas of Concern

  • Personnel: This is out of hand. Employees are always moving.  This isn’t a reasonable system for managing forests.  There are plenty of real organizational plans developed by business and other government agencies that work better.  We need competent, qualified leadership that stays in place and builds a team. Average tenure within a forest should be 10 years or more, not 2 to 5 years.  This is especially critical when you consider the time horizon under which forests need to be managed. Longer term continuity needs to be created with the community and collaborative groups.  Our collaborative group, the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is in its 15th year, no members of the forest service leadership were on the Colville National Forest when we started.  Many positions have changed 3 times or more.
  • The scope of work: Why does the Forest Service need to do all the work that they are currently doing?  In British Columbia, Canada the Ministry of Forests doesn’t do all of this extensive environmental evaluation.  The forest license holder performs the evaluations that are reviewed and approved by the government officials.  Isn’t this how we typically do inspections?  The Forest Service could quickly shift into an oversight role rather than partial implementation. The US Forest Service has approximately 34,000 employees to carry out management activities on 194 million acres.  The Ministry of Forests, Range, and Natural Resource Operations in British Columbia manages 232 million acres with 3,600 employees.
  • Accounting: This system of budgets for carrying out work with no regard to the value of materials produced is broken.  They do have a system for developing market pricing, but it’s not related directly to the cost of management activities.  Why can’t we figure out what actions and outcomes create sufficient revenue over costs and incentivize more of that to offset other costly efforts?  I understand that this is a federal agency, but we can all do the math.  It’s not complicated, and we should know how we’re managing our resources.
  • Regional Offices: Why do we have regional offices and why are they located where they are?  Should the Forest Service really have fully staffed offices in metropolitan markets?  Why can’t the rules for each region be set by reasonably sized Washington DC office and then handed down to each Forest Supervisor?  It appears that there are too many bureaucratic layers getting in the way of progress, not solving problems.
  • Recreation: Why can’t we figure out how to have world class recreation facilities on our National Forests?  It’s certainly possible to have excellent recreation sites, facilities, and trail systems.  It isn’t difficult to do, yet the forest service fails to maintain signs, maps, and information areas.  We need and deserve better.  We have more than enough resources to create revenue to cover the cost of creating and maintaining world-class recreation facilities.
  • Product supply: I have heard that we need to increase the “pace and scale” of restoration so many times it makes me roll my eyes. These words are empty.  Why don’t we have large projects in places where we have an infrastructure to buy the products?  I don’t mean a few thousand acres.  These should be 200,000-acre project areas that last 20 years or more. Larger if needed and agreed to.  They need to be strategically planned to reduce fuels in such a way to break up the continuity of dangerously dense forests.  We can restore forests while providing a significant increase in supply to the market.
  • Post-fire restoration: We need a plan to address the landscape when a fire comes, before the fire burns. This way there is no confusion on where or how we are going to manage after our forests burn.  Places that are protected (Wilderness, Monuments, Backcountry, etc.) regenerate naturally.  Areas slated for management get restoration treatment as soon as it’s safe and prudent for work to begin.  We can and should develop collaboratively approved plans ahead of time.
  • Land Allocation: Our lands should be managed actively where appropriate, restored with a conservation ethic where applicable, and protected where necessary.  Simple enough.  Why can’t we identify the acres where we have the most common ground and get to work.  The areas that have conflict can be identified and designated for a future solution.  Until that solution is determined the status quo is maintained.  The overwhelming driver of these efforts should be the local communities and the groups that work collaboratively within those national forests.

These aren’t all the issues, but some significant ones.  The way the Forest Service is conducting business is outdated and ineffective.  We need a re-organization.  Our nation needs to decide what we want our federal land managers to be doing and then rebuild the organization to fit desired outcomes.  If we continue down this path, the issue will continue to get worse.  None of us can afford that.

Natural looking forest management
Managed forest with prescribed fire


Here are a couple of other observations since this was published.

The summer of 2017 saw another drafted piece of legislation that is intended to help better manage the Forest Service.  It often referred to as the Westerman bill.  It’s officially called H.R.2936 – Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017.  I will provide a review of this legislation in a future post, but it does attempt to address many of the issues we discuss.  Some look pretty good, so leave opportunity for improvement.

Here’s another topic I wanted to add to this post.

  • Dispute Resolution:  We certainly need a new way of resolving differences in public opinion on forest management rather than the appeal/objection process that often leads to lawsuits.  We have seen numerous collaborative projects go up in smoke.  Projects that are developed and supported by collaborative groups should not be subject to the same legal scrutiny as projects were developed in the Forest Service vacuum.  Arbitration seems to be a good solution.  An outside group or individual that didn’t like the project could object.  If the collaborative group and Forest Service couldn’t make necessary changes to appease those concerns the challenger could seek arbitration.  This would be a 60 or 90-day process where an official arbitration specialist would review the project and objection/request and provide a binding decision.  This has major implications in both providing adequate incentive for collaboration and the Forest Service preparing for collaborative support rather than a legal defense.

11 thoughts on “Is it Time to Rethink the Forest Service – Repost”

  1. The USFS has gotten way too top heavy and defensive – they are related. The appeal and lawsuit process has generated paper but not much wood. HR. 2936 – if it can be enacted – will reduce some of the obvious problems, but the real question is why there is so much money and effort involved in preventing logical management action.
    It may be a circular problem – protests attract attention which attracts money which attracts more protests and more money and more protests! Unfortunately the logic and reasoning is frequently spurious but loud, and science is ignored or misused to serve predetermined ends.

  2. Comment on “Product Supply” – Every other forestland owner maintains a forest-wide inventory. The US Forest Service with 34,000 employees has no forest inventory (or Inventory Forester), and therefore, no basis for forest-wide planning. Planning based on “Projects” is piece-meal at best when the entire forest is over-mature and declining. “Restoration Forestry” is only an attempt to reduce decline in forest health and probability of catastrophic wildfire. There is no goal or mission to manage for a healthy forest. The most basic responsibility the public has given the US Forest Service is to manage for a healthy forest. A healthy forest is self-resistant to insects, disease and catastrophic wildfire. Why do we accept re-active planning in place of pro-active planning?

  3. Agreed exactly with your editorial published today in The Daily Inter-Lake, our local paper in Kalispell, MT, regarding fire management and expenses in our National Forests. Fires here are taking off this summer and hard as it is to imagine letting them burn (in some places) that is the direction we need to be thinking as you explained very well. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Leo. The fact is we are trying to fight all the fires and we say things like “we put out over 95% of all fires” and somehow that is seen as success. We need to pick our battles and do things to affect the future fires. The ones that are burning now are money pits.

      The pro-firefighting side says that it brings all this economic value to the community. It couldn’t be further from the truth. We need lasting natural resource jobs in the woods and at the mills coupled with solid recreation that suppliemnts the community. Not tax dollars wasted on fighting fires that we can’t reasonably control.

      Once we remove the emotion the lunacy becomes evident.

      Thanks again,


    2. Thanks Leo. Glad that these words are getting out there. I don’t like the idea of letting forests burn. That being said, if we are going to have areas that are natural and wild, they should have natural intervals of fire as well. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a strategy to protect special monuments or structures. It also doesn’t mean that we just let the fires come from wilderness areas into communities. We have to actively manage the areas that are the most vulnerable first so that when natural fires threaten to come out of wilderness we are ready to knock it down. Easy to say, but that makes more sense than spending millions on creating a future problem (more fuel) that we won’t do anything about in the meantime.

      Take care,


  4. Always insightful Russ. Among many points of interest, the personnel comparison between U.S and Canada underscores the absurdity of this bureaucracy. Great ideas change!

  5. I have well developed informed ideas about the USFS, having started in it as a seasonal in Idaho 1947. I believe we have to start with the fact that politics on the national level have been a major influence, as well as some of the environmental factions, which have had undue influence on Congress, altho some of it good. The FS I joined long ago is no longer in existence. back then it represented some great ideals, now weakened by politics. This is a long topic, but what the USFS is today, represents actually the state of our politics and misguided notions, or also a changed society, that in some ways, has degenerated seriouusly. It is very difficult to deal with. Hank

  6. Maybe we should just admit what the USFS has become -US Fire Service. When working in Central California forests (Yosemeite Area) I represented a group that was a hydrid “fuels clearing” service utilizing tribal employees. The USFS always was amazed at how much we accomplished on private property with a small hand crew and a portable chipper.
    Whenever new projects bordering USFS land (that’s what locals call it) came up, we were always offered a shot at bidding on these projects. Unfortunately these projects had to be approved up the chain of command and this usually took months and even years, due to the NEPA process.
    This was back in the early 2000s and if you travel up in these areas of California you will see the tinder box that has now been established by government fiat.

    I have worked with community organizations (Resource Conservation and Development, Fire Safe Councils and private companies) developed clearing plans, put forth economic and environmental protection plans and here 17 years later we are still talking about what exactly does the USFS do?
    The Clinton/ Al Gore spotted owl environmentalists have put such a stranglehold on the USFS that they are afraid of their own shadows.
    Until you get the attorneys out of the equation the forests are on their own.

    1. Paul,
      Thanks for your comments. There is merit to them. I would say that the USFS has been improving, yet there is a long way to go. The culture of risk aversion is slowly becoming one of trying new things and looking outside its boundaries for ideas and leadership. Legislation needs to be put in place to speed this up and get to the pace and scale necessary to achieve real gains in forest health.

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