Tag: Forest Service

Logging On and Off

Logging On and Off

Sawmills in Colorado and Wyoming are amid a resurgence and putting beetle-killed trees to use, likely reducing fire risks in the process. But the mills remain hampered by a lack of raw materials while management on national forests limits logging of big trees and focuses on forest health.

My November 2014 story, “Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound,” for High Country News, looks at how mills have revived and whether the industry’s needs can align with those of the forests.

Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management's sawmill
Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management’s sawmill, which reopened in 2013 after a 10-year closure. (Joshua Zaffos)


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Fire Up The Checkbook

Fire Up The Checkbook

Congress keeps wavering whether it wants to open wide the wallet and hand a stable cash stream for wildfire prevention and control…which is one more reason to sweat for managers trying to cool the flames on the ground and in the research labs. This is an article I wrote on the perils of fire management funding that appeared in Forest Magazine in Winter 2009.

Burning Up the Budget

Forest Magazine, Winter 2009

Geoff Donovan, a U.S. Forest Service research economist, didn’t hesitate to launch new projects early this past year. Donovan studies the costs of fire suppression and management at the agency’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, Oregon, and he knew there was a good reason to jump into his research sooner than later. One of his colleagues had determined that the agency faced a more than 90 percent chance of needing to raid research and program funds to pay for firefighting costs toward the end of the year.

motorcycle_firefighter1Planning for probable budget cuts because of the increasing cost of fighting wildfires is a wise move for Forest Service personnel. In 1998, 10 percent of the agency’s budget was dedicated to firefighting, but by 2008, that number had grown to 45 percent of total funds. When the government used up the $1.2 billion it had allocated for fire suppression by August, Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell announced plans to take $400 million from other agency programs.

Fire transfer orders, which dip into budgets at research stations and on national forests to shore up the firefighting deficit, have become an annual part of wildfire season. The agency has made transfers six out of the past eight years, and as a result, many projects have been subject to delays and cancellations. Staff members are learning to plan—or not plan, in some cases—accordingly.

“It’s politically intolerable to hold people to that [firefighting] budget,” Donovan says, “because then you’re going to let things burn.”

Congress uses a ten-year average of past fire costs to determine the Forest Service’s fire suppression budget each year. The agency used to cover excess suppression costs with money from timber sales, but that account has dried up as cutting has declined, says Forest Service Budget Director Lenise Lago. At the same time, in the last decade fire expenses have spiraled upward because of fuel buildup from Smokey Bear–inspired fire suppression, rampant development in the urban-wildland fringe and the impacts of climate change.

It’s a vicious cycle for forest management. Cuts and program stoppages trickle down to affect plans for land acquisition, recreation, structural maintenance and education. More critically, from a forest-health perspective, the budget transfers mean projects that proactively lower fire risk, such as fuels reduction, restoration of wildlife habitat and rehabilitation of burnt-over landscapes, are postponed or shelved. The money shift creates a negative feedback loop that leads to greater threats, more severe suppression needs and higher costs when major burns ignite.

“We had to go through all the accounts available and shake money out of all of them,” Lago says, referring to the agency’s 2008 transfer.

In Colorado, a $63,000 fuel reduction project on 194 acres of the Uncompahgre National Forest was one of many projects put on hold after Kimbell’s August 2008 announcement. An $82,000 plan to decommission 285 miles of roads in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming was postponed because of fire transfer. The Deschutes National Forest in Oregon estimated lost funds for hazardous fuel reduction at $555,000.

“It’s pretty regular now that you see hiccups in the fuel reduction work,” says Tom Fry, who coordinates the wildland fire program for the Wilderness Society.

Congress has frequently restored at least some of the transfer money, including in 2008, through either a continuing resolution or supplemental appropriation. But the Forest Service’s Lago estimates a roughly $417-million gap between transfers and repayments since 2001. Even this year, when the return of funds helped avert outright cancellation of projects, it didn’t entirely negate the consequences of fire transfers
or provide a long-term solution.

The Pacific Northwest Research Station surrendered $4.4 million following Kimbell’s August announcement. Deputy Director Cynthia West says the shift forced the office to halt work on a number of projects, including remote-sensing mapping for its Forest Inventory and Analysis program, assessments of fire-smoke emissions and evaluations of climate-change impacts. In some cases collaborative programs with partners at other government agencies and universities must be relaunched after spending years aligning money and staff.

“Sometimes, you have an opportunity that can never be recreated again,” says West, referring to research and management projects lost to fire transfer orders. “If you have to walk away from a three-year project in year two, it’s really not a good deal for the taxpayers either. Once you stop doing work, you can’t just get your field groups back out. There’s a huge loss in productivity.”

Forestry organizations, environmental groups and Forest Service officials, including a handful of former chiefs, have called for a lasting fix. This past year, lawmakers introduced the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, called FLAME, to create a separate fund solely for suppression of catastrophic wildfires. The bill made it through the House, but not before being amended so the fund would still be part of the agency budget and set to the ten-year-average fire cost, which underestimates rising expenses.

The FLAME Act, as originally drafted, could remedy the fire transfer problem, says Caitlyn Peel, the governmental affairs director for the Council of Western State Foresters. But Peel and others fret that the legislation could lead Congress to fund an emergency fire account by reducing the overall Forest Service budget, meaning fire suppression funds would still come at the expense of research, treatment and other programs.

“For fire [funding] to go up, something else has to go down,” Lago says.

—Joshua Zaffos

Rainbow Blight?

Rainbow Blight?

Anyone looking for something to do this Fourth of July and within striking distance of the tiny town of Cuba, New Mexico, should go check out the Rainbow Family at its annual gathering on national forest lands. As usual, the”dis-organization” is having run-ins with the Forest Service over the thousands of unpermitted campers and the occupation of a chunk of public land.

In 2005, I spent some time with the Rainbows outside Steamboat Springs on the Routt National Forest, reporting for the Colorado Springs Independent on the group’s disciples, and its annual battles with the Forest Service.

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The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

Over the last four years, the U.S. Forest Service has been working through travel management plans for every national forest across the country, to determine which trails and routes should be open to hikers, ATVs and everything in between. The plans pitch frequent outdoors rivals: the “quiet” users (a.k.a. hikers and backpackers) against motorized users. Some recent research — completed by my grad school colleague Marc Stern — indicates the government could be doing a better job at achieving successful results, although that doesn’t mean keeping everyone happy and going wherever they want on the national forests.

I have a short news piece in the Summer 2009 issue of Forest Magazine (put out by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, better known as FSEEE), looking at what forest users think of the travel planning process and the resulting plans, and how Forest Service officials are trying to please recreational visitors and protect the land.

(As a sidenote, go check out the historic photographs within the archives of the Umatilla National Forest.)

Unmapped Terrain

Forest Magazine, Summer 2009

The Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho received a double whammy when staff released its travel plan in February 2008.

Off-road vehicle enthusiasts said there weren’t enough roads allowing motorized recreation. Environmentalists and “quiet recreation” advocates, like hikers, equestrians and (sometimes) mountain bikers, said there were too many. An ORV representative appealed the travel management plan; environmentalists filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service.

The reaction to the Sawtooth plan is no surprise. The nation’s 155 national forests and twenty national grasslands are in the process of creating travel management plans, and just about every plan released so far has sparked the wrath of hikers or ORV riders, and sometimes both. There is not much room for agreement between those who make noise in a national forest and those who prefer silence. But according to new research, team leaders should be striving for middle ground if they want their travel plans to be successful.

“We found that a predictive factor of success is whether compromise took place,” says Marc Stern, a social scientist and professor at Virginia Tech who has led surveys and studies of agency travel planners. But he added that participating Forest Service staff members don’t necessarily aim for that when it comes to the plans.

Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth called for the travel plans in a 2005 ruling. The rule mandated that all national forests draw up motor vehicle maps, restrict motorized use to recognized routes and ban cross-country travel. Under the conditions of the National Environmental Policy Act, the travel plans would be developed with public involvement and follow standards to protect the environment. All forests are supposed to complete their travel plans by the end of 2009.

Stern says the travel management rule presented a landmark opportunity for the Forest Service to accomplish concrete goals. Travel planning accomplishes an explicit objective, or a “critical task,” Stern says. “A critical task is often difficult to define for the Forest Service. Its mission statement is, basically, balance multiple interests.” Stern collaborated with Forest Service research scientists to examine how team leaders approached the goal of creating their travel plans. He published his findings in the July 2009 issue of the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

The research showed that, during the NEPA process, few team leaders strived to reach compromise among stakeholders or to achieve staff satisfaction. Yet statistical analysis showed that these two factors were leading indicators of positive outcomes as defined by individual agency staffers. In other words, even though compromise or agency harmony isn’t the goal of NEPA or the travel management rule, those elements are usually part of an “excellent outcome.”

A pilot study conducted by Stern and his colleagues also found that many team leaders were unable to articulate a clear purpose for many of their actions—meaning managers were more consumed with bureaucratic procedures than achieving a plan objective or critical task—other than avoiding litigation.

In a follow-up to the survey, Stern and a graduate student completed eighty-one anonymous case study interviews of travel plan staff. The studies revealed communication breakdowns when Forest Service employees were working with each other and the public. There’s a need for agency specialists from different disciplines “to speak a common language,” Stern says. Facilitating communication between hydrologists, range managers and recreation planners, as well as between the agency and forest users, is often a function of leadership and management skills.

Few forest users think in such academic terms, but the researchers’ findings about leadership are apparent to travel plan stakeholders.

“The decision comes down, ultimately, to the manager, and if the manager is willing to make the decision to get recreation under control,” says Aaron Clark, recreation campaign director for the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance, an ad hoc coalition of twenty-six conservation and recreation groups.

Clark and other quiet-use advocates support plans in which the agency followed the requirements of NEPA—to manage against cumulative environmental effects of motorized trails, including user-created routes and old logging roads. For Clark, that means travel management should be resource-driven, not demand-driven.

But Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a national motorized-access advocacy group based in Idaho, says some plans went beyond the scope of the travel rule or didn’t follow NEPA. Hawthorne claims that extensive route closures on some forests aren’t about managing access in sensitive areas, but restricting motorized use across the landscape regardless of the conditions or impacts on the ground.

As an example, Hawthorne refers to the Lewis and Clark National Forest along the Continental Divide in Montana, where local motorized groups felt they were ignored in their request for loop routes or connectors between designated trails. “We feel it was very arbitrary, very capricious,” Hawthorne says. “It was lame, lame, lame.”

Harv Forsgren, regional forester for the Intermountain Region covering Nevada, Utah and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, says people’s reactions to the plans are understandable. “What makes it so personal is that every trail has a constituency,” he says.

Forsgren, formerly the regional forester in the Southwestern Region of New Mexico and Arizona, implemented travel analyses on all of the area’s national forests before any of them proceeded with designing travel plans. The internal analyses created route inventories, gauged public use and promoted consistency on how to manage certain issues, such as dispersed camping and big-game retrieval. The regional office absorbed some of the ensuing criticism over contentious designations, Forsgren says, and the agency “did not put off the big decisions.”

From an academic point of view, the travel analyses are a good demonstration of leadership and an effective framework for communication among agency team members. Forsgren believes the process provided a context for the decisions that followed and reduced the heartache for both staff and users.

Clark says the travel analyses guided public involvement and led to plans the conservation alliance generally supports. Hawthorne says the assessments were a reasonable attempt to do the advanced work upfront, and that “hopefully it will lead the agency to something that can work on the ground.” But he adds that motorized users in the region were “mildly critical” of some management decisions.

The lions and lambs of recreation travel aren’t going to lie down together anytime soon. Backcountry hikers and ORV riders might not want to cross paths on the forest, but Forsgren believes the Forest Service can facilitate “those diverse interests to sit down and find the common ground and the things they can mutually support.”

— Joshua Zaffos