Is it time to rethink the Forest Service?

Aftermath of to action


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?  I’m not entirely sure, but here are some concerns that I have that need addressed:

  • 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.  They task it to the forest license holder that must be reviewed and approved.  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.

I will be working on a comprehensive plan based on my experiences and observations to develop the Forest Service of the future, and I will share it here when it’s complete.

28 thoughts on “Is it time to rethink the Forest Service?”

  1. Hi Russ, As a retired Forest Service employee I agree it’s time to make some major changes in how the agency conducts the business of forest management. I have written many articles for Evergreen as you probably know that address some recommendations the agency could make, some with the help of Congress and the Trump administration. More people should be located on Districts where the real work gets done and Regional and Forest Supervisors offices should be consolidated and put the savings out on the Districts. I suggest you and your readers read what I have recommended and if you agree talk to your Congressional Representative about implementing these recommendations.

    Glad Vaagens are still surviving, hope it becomes easier in the near future to supply your mills with the small diameter trees that are needed for both making boards and biomass and to help achieve the much needed restoration in our overstocked and dying Forests.

    Barry Wynsma, Bonners Ferry, Idaho

    1. Barry, good to hear from you. I’ll go back and read those Evergreen articles again. I’ll incorporate some of your points that I think further the cause. Thanks for all of your efforts!

      1. Hi Russ, if you wish to further discuss any of the recommendations I’ve made for improving management of our national forests I’m available either here on your blog or through email or ph. I appreciate what your mills are doing to help utilize small diameter trees.

  2. These are such good points. Coming from a family that’s father left the timber sales administration side of the Colville National Forest because of the lack of common sense within the agency. I can feel this issue first hand. The NFS used to be a self sustaining entity with the federal government. The excess money from the timber was also used to help support our small infrastuctures inside these logging communities. Having moved back after 17 years to hopefully raise my family the way i was, it has become obvious to me that there are major changes needed within the NFS. Thank you for writing these articles. It really hits home for me, and I look foreward to the days when my sons can hunt White Tail Deer, ride 4 wheelers, hike trails, and fish trout the same way that I did with my father.

    1. Jason, thanks for your comments and reading my blog. I’m glad it relates to you. I’m hopeful that these efforts lead to a better future for all of us and the generations that come after us.

  3. Well said Russ and totally agree as well. Look foward to your future posts on this subject.
    For my 2 cents, change can happen fairly quickly as happened in the Cinton administration with the help of lawsuits and public pressure.
    What would happen if all Counties with FS lands sued the Government for lack of duties as is happening in Oregon with State lands? Would it effect a change to FS funding from Congress? Would it start a national discussion rather than regional one?
    And what about accountability? If the leaders we elect (Federal, State, County) fail (yes, its a strong word) to implement change, then will the citizens hold electeds accountable for fires burning through communities, criminals out on the streets, lack of school funding, etc, etc?

  4. It is way past time to either do away with the Forest Service or restore it to what it once was. I remember back in the 70s, I knew all of the rangers in all of the districts. They were part of the community and you could talk to them at any time. The forests was managed in a sensible efficient manner and I can remember some fires, but not ones of the size you see today. When one started it was quickly addressed and controlled to not let it get out of hand. Now days I have seen them let burn for a month or more and then when they blow up they have to spend millions on it when it could have been put out with just a couple of people. I see more and more roads being closed off every year so that we have less access. The radicals want the entire forest treated as wilderness and want a hands off policy in place.. This is insanity. Please stop the insanity!

    1. Gerald, thanks for your comments. Yes, we’ve certainly come a long way, the wrong way for a few decades. Rather than going back, we need a new way forward. Many of yesteryear’s radicals are actually joining the fight for change. Many of them have been engaged in collaboration to make necessary changes and yet the FS is unable to respond even with great support. It’s an organizational problem that we look to influence.
      Thanks again for reading and engaging.

  5. The Multi-Used programs seemed to have worked very well for a great many people for a long time. When this was phased out in favor of what ever USFS calls it today, the nation lost a tremendous resource, to appease a few clubs and individuals that were not dependent on the forest for their livelihood, recreation and sustained natural resources. Thank you for writing this article.

    1. Lowell, thanks for your comment and reading my blog.

      I don’t think the forest service if trying to appease specific groups any more. I think they have been trying to please everyone and in the process have pleased no one. There’s a lack of focus on what needs to be done and why they need to do it. It’s the classic case of everyone looking busy with very little, if any results. There are minor areas of improvement, but things need to change in a monumental way.

      All the best,

  6. I would also like to see these rediculous cost share programs be revised in a cost efficient common sense approach. I own a forestry business in South alabama where I’m involved in collecting pine cones, herbicide, application as well as prescribed burning and planting. I also own and operate 4 logging crews. My company is diversified as any forestry business could be and that allows me to see “The Big Picture.” Certainly I agree there has to be a step one. Great blog. Enjoyed the read. Thanks

  7. The national forest should be treated like a garden which provides for multiple uses and gives sustainable products. The original development of the US Forest Service was designed as dedicated federal lands under the care and management of the local communities; not a federal bureaucracy.
    Massive wildfires in the West in recent years have been enhanced by the poor management of forest disease, lack of access due to closed roads, disallowing grazing on the forest which has allowed for a build up of the grasses to allow for a faster spread of wildfire, the lack of local loggers to provide first response to fire outbreaks, and the total failure of a management plan to create healthy forests. The USFS could take a lesson from tribal forest managers who treat their resource as a valued asset.
    With the shutdown of logging, local communities lost school monies, road closures, and thousands of jobs in mills and the related businesses who supported the milling process being lost forever. The Canadien loggers benefitted the most from our inadequacies.

  8. At core the USFS has changed over the past 60 years, as populations continue to grow and “developers” collude with politicians to violate our zoning rules and allow residential buildings to be created in fire zones, we find more and more of the USFS’s budget shifting to Fire, less and less shifting to Recreation.

    That’s a problem.

    We also see that “Resources” is plundering public lands and handing the timber to wealthy far right wing parasite companies that loot and plunder the land while us actual citizens get zero. The trees and the land they are on belong to us, but the USFS allows filthy wealthy parasites to come in and rape and plunder, and us citizens get nothing for it — a few token dollars for each tree while the wealthy right wing parasites reap tens of millions in personal “wages” every year.

    That’s a major problem.

    The USFS should be allowing timber bids for benefit for society, not for the benefit of wealthy bastards. Timber sales should be to companies that have caps on their wages resulting from supplying said lumber to mills — say caps of $100,000 annually with the Tax Office constantly monitoring each employee, a requirement for being permitted to cut OUR trees on OUR land, otherwise they’re fined and no longer qualify buy our trees.

    1. Problem 1: I agree that people need to develop private property with fire in mind. I’m certain in the west there are no official or actual “fire zones.”

      Problem 2: This is just flat out false. Calling small, family-owned businesses “far right wing parasites” is offensive and not fair or accurate. The USFS has market pricing mechanisms on all of their contract mechanisms to ensure that purchasers don’t get anything for free.

      Problem 3: Ridiculous. Many Americans, including small business owners, professionals, college professors, and a host of others would qualify as “wealthy bastards” under your definition, including myself. If you are referring to the IRS as the Tax Office, having them regulate the personal income, much of which is business income for contractors, is a complete waste of resources and government dollars. There are plenty of ways to create qualified bidder status, including the way it is done currently.

      Lastly, your method of thinking is unfortunate and strange. Even social progressive countries like France, Finland, Germany, and Sweden don’t institute such ideas for selling public timber. I’m not a scholar of socialism or communism, but it would seem your ideas fit well more in line with those social structures than the one in which we live in the United States.

      Thanks for reading. I would just say that we have a difference of opinion on this and many other topics.

  9. “I will be working on a comprehensive plan based on my experiences and observations to develop the Forest Service of the future, and I will share it here when it’s complete.”

    The US forest Service already has such plans, they are developed with participation by all individuals who are “stake holders” — which is *everyone* since these lands belong to us. These reports are compiled and made public and are separated by National Forest and other Regions, all of which can be downloaded from USFS web sites.

    People who do not like aspects of existing plans are invited continually to provide feedback and wants, needs, desires so that the plans may be altered, and the USFS has been fairly proactive in complying with localized needs and desires presented by local citizens.

    The best way to effect change is not to come up with your own plan but to get on line, download existing plans, download the endless PDF files which documents the expected changes and behavior as well as the expected scheduled reviews of existing plans, then to work with the USFS and your local fellow “stake holders” to alter the plans so that what gets placed in to effect for the next 5 years, 15 years, and 15 years are what you and your fellow land owners want.

    1. I have been working on forest service planning efforts and collaboration every month for more than 15 years. The way you describe it just isn’t the way it works.

      Collaboration is involvement. It isn’t “wait to hear what the government wants to do and then comment on it.”

      We had a year-long, intensive process to collaborate on the Forest Plan for our local National Forest. This included over 100 people, on Saturdays for months. People of all types were engaged. We identified areas of agreement and areas of conflict. Both of which should be very helpful to land managers when making decisions. When it was all said and done the Forest Planning Team came up with their own plan that didn’t even resemble that of the collaborative group.

      The Forest Service is incapable at this point of conducting functioning collaborative projects without haveing a highly functional collaborative group. I simply don’t believe the current process is adequate for getting projects out that meet social, ecological, or recreational concerns.

      Yet again, we have a difference of opinion.

  10. Hi Russ, I enjoyed reading your article and think you’ve made some excellent points. Undoubtedly, staffing could probably be scaled back and scope and approach be retuned, but I’m not sure the Canadian comparison is apples to apples. Truthfully, I don’t know anything about Canadian public forests or the personnel working on them, but I suspect they are not as actively engaged in the diversity of work that USFS and partners are in the US. Your perspective seems to come largely from the FM side of things on NFs. But remember, USFS is not only charged with conservation and management of national forests and rangelands, they are also tasked with conducting valuable research and supporting state and other partners on state and private lands. USFS is not just about NFs (1 of 3 arms), but also research (2nd arm – Research Stations) and State & Private Forestry (3rd arm – S&PF). I suspect staffing locations are a function of needing to address all of these areas (not just NF management), although I’m sure there could be some overhead savings if facility locations were reevaluated. In the South, there are far fewer acres of NFs and ownership is overwhelmingly private and state. S&PF in Region 8 goes a lot further/farther toward conservation and management of the collective forest resources than NF management. I’m in total agreement that changes can be made for the better, but proposed changes will need to take into account that some improvements may not be “one-size-fits-all” solutions when considering the diversity of ownerships and landscapes across the Nation. Just a few thoughts…

    1. David, thank you for reading and your insightful comments. I do understand the staffing issue and the multiple responsibilities of the USFS. I am not suggesting that we take the Forest Service to 3,400 employees and manage only for timber. And just to defend the Canadians, they do more than just manage timber, they just have it better prioritized. Do I believe timber should be prioritized higher than just being equal with all other responsibilities? Yes, but not at the expense of others like recreation, research, state & private forestry, grazing, special use permits, etc. The forest embodies the single largest resource the USFS has, and through proper management which directly includes harvest. The products create revenue, but also improve conditions in the forest that enhance recreation, hunting, water quality, habitat, and the like. The revenue should help the counties in which the forest resides as well as help fund all of the necessary functions of the Agency, even if it’s based on a budget and goes back to the treasury.

      My bottom line is this. The Agency is not in control of what it’s doing and needs to visit it’s essential desired outcomes by looking to the public and not looking within. It needs to be transformed to meet the needs of our country, not the needs of the agency. This is going to require some pretty significant changes, but can certainly be done over time if need be. We have an opportunity to have everything the forest can provide without slighting interests.

      Thanks again David and I hope that future content will address your concerns.


      1. It is just not staffing that is the problem, it is what the staffing does and how their jobs are done. Gone are the days when a District Ranger was a field person that knew by personal experience the road, trails and waterways of his/her district as well as the bordering ranches and farms, local logging companies and the prospectors that were searching for their motherload somewhere in the forest. From what I see the Forest Service Professional personnel leave the patrolling to forest techs and LEOs while they and their biologists have meetings and write papers. JMHO

  11. There’s no doubt that the Forest Service has lost their mission.
    America cannot sustain an agency that puts plants and animals over humans.

    I look forward to Trump starving the FS to death over the next 8 years.
    When I look at the travesties that have happened to our forests as the result of horrible management policies, it is very sad.

    1. Byron,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. There are changes that will be made and time will tell what changes those will be. The urban-rural divide is certainly an issue.


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