Posted: June 12, 2017

Source: Evergreen Magazine
By Mark Corrao


Why The Forests In the U.S. Need Balanced Management

Forest health throughout the western U.S. is continuing to decline due to fire exclusion, insect infestations, disease outbreaks, and a lack of active forest management. In the wake of national wildfire suppression policies and litigation, predominantly on National Forest System (NFS) lands, poor forest health conditions are accelerating and impacting neighboring landowners across much of the West. These forestland conditions, multi-faceted and only treatable through proactive management are just now beingacknowledged.

Founded by a great deal of precedent-setting case law of environmental statutes that effect U.S. Forest Service decisions, forestland management on NFS lands requires personnel to not only be experts in their field, but also something akin to a legal analyst. Additionally the annual nature of the Forest Service funding cycle makes it challenging to plan long-term projects. Funding is often allocated late, leading forest-level personnel to award potentially premature contracts and agreements. This is further complicated by a lack of operational experience and seasoned leadership in many national forests due to frequent turnover of Forest Service personnel, thereby weakening the impetus for achieving management goals and targets. This all leads to additional time spent planning and re-planning, inefficient or inadequate decision-making, and ineffective use of already limited resources.

The NEPA process, throughout the West in particular, has reduced the ability of the USFS to complete planning and application of timber sales. This is predominantly due to litigation from parties not participating in the collaborative process through objections to projects often targeting administrative actions and NEPA processes  (Gambino-Portuese et al., 2009; GAO, 2010; Keele et al., 2006; Miner et al., 2010). This is further supported by the Council on Environmental Quality’s records indicating the USFS is the most common federal defendant in NEPA litigation (Mortimer and Malmsheimer, 2011). As a result the agency’s fear of administrative appeals and litigation as well as personnel perception of risk, has led to smaller and more narrowly scoped projects in the past that significantly increase per unit costs (Nie, 2011).

A prime example of the hurdles our Nation faces in decreasing wildfire, maintaining green instead of black forests and in correcting forest health on NFS lands is currently playing out in northeast Washington State. Despite full collaborative engagement and agreement to develop additional wilderness and inventoried roadless areas the Forest Service has been called to court for the Mill Creek A to Z stewardship project in an administrative case by a party unwilling to join in the collaborative group. The intent of the Mill Creek A to Z stewardship project was to manage a piece of Forest Service land from the planning stage through completion of all product removal and service work activities (USFS Solicitation AG-05GG-S-13-9001).

The Mill Creek A to Z stewardship project example is one of collaborative system failure. The Forest Service, under the guidance of established law, was correct in allowing a contractor (Vaagen Brothers) to pay all costs associated with a third party consultant, Cramer Fish Sciences, for completion of NEPA within the project area. Cramer Fish Sciences signed documentation acknowledging there was no financial or stewardship credit gains available to them for a successful project and, under penalty of law, they that were not associated with the contractor in any way that would constitute a conflict of interest (USDA Forest Service, 2016). Yet the project has been stalled due to allegations of current or past collusion between Cramer Fish and VB from the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. There is no evidence to support this claim. The relationship between these two entities has always been one of professional distance. VB’s only role was to pay the bills of Cramer’s work on products of Forest Service design. This is a project delay and publicity tactic often applied by natural resource litigants (Gambino-Portuese et al., 2009), who’s objectives are often variable and infrequently align with the Forest Service mission (Keele et al., 2006).

The great irony here is that the Forest Service imposed requirements for analysis and deliverables on Cramer that where above and beyond the requirements of the agency for similar NEPA (USDA Forest Service, 2016). Furthermore, the methods, analysis and delivered products produced by Cramer were said to be highly scientifically based. Unlike the common Federal approach, Cramer spent months on the ground reviewing every harvest unit, fish passage, and road condition with their personnel to develop appropriate prescriptions and restoration projects.  This is in addition to the multitude of modeling required to complete the analysis as directed by the Forest Service, the collaborative and other stakeholders.

Given the progression of natural resource management and a growing public  culturally removed from forest function, the Forest Service has developed into an agency where frequent leadership turnover, a lack of direction, inconsistent support for activities within the organization (GAO, 2007; ITC, 2013; Keele et al., 2006), and individuals that apply personnel attitudes, values, and beliefs to management decisions (MacGregor and Seesholtz, 2008; Predmore, 2009; Stern et al., 2009) have impacted the impartiality, effectiveness and public trust of the organization to a degree of near stagnation.

I’ve known the Vaagen Family for maybe 20 years. Among their lumbermen peers, Duane is easily the most creative thinker and his son Russ is among the most innovative and stewardship-focused individuals I have had the pleasure to work with within the industry. For many reasons, some personal and some related to the need for improved forest health on federal lands, Vaagen Brothers took on the initiative to fund the Mill Creek A to Z project. Vaagen and their peers wanted a non-government attempt at the NEPA process to understand the duration and costs of NEPA under the work principles of the private sector. For this example they observed the NEPA process, performed under the auspices of the private sector, could be completed in less time, to a greater degree of detail, and with less financial resource investments than if completed within the oversight agencies where the authority lies.

With 100% of the costs (> $1 million) invested in the NEPA alone, Vaagen Brothers a member of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC), is watching a forest health project developed through unanimity between more than 30 collaborating parties be brought to its knees. Even in the wake of the worst wildfire season in the State’s history, where more than 1 million acres of Washington’s green forests were blackened and destroyed. The four years of collaboration and negotiations toward a “win-win” solution among many initially disparate interests can be halted by the social-political agenda of one. Many in the Forest Service say they can’t do more because of staffing and funding limitations. However, there may be more truth than they would like to admit in the words of the late Jack Ward Thomas who called it “the crazy quilt of environmental laws.” How much of the problem is the statutory and regulatory maze created by Congress, and how much resides in socio-political private agendas seeing only “win-lose” outcomes?