'You've got me wrong': A Conversation with Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
by Paul Larmer and Greg Hanscom
This June, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth flew into Delta, Colo., to meet with the local staff of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests — "GMUG" in local parlance. Bosworth, who became the chief in 2001, told a crowd of Forest Service employees, retirees and local conservationists that the agency he runs has turned an important corner: Restoration and recreation have replaced timber harvesting as the defining activity of the agency, which oversees more than 190 million acres, most of it in the West.
After his visit, HCN Publisher Paul Larmer and Editor Greg Hanscom caught up with Chief Bosworth. Here are the highlights from their conversations:
HCN: I was struck by how much the gathering in Delta felt like a family picnic, a feeling that you reinforced again when you said that, though you have been a Forest Service employee for four decades, your real tenure is all 62 years of your life. Is the Forest Service one big happy family?
Bosworth: Well, I was raised in the Forest Service and lived at a variety of ranger stations growing up. Often these were very remote places, so you got to know the other Forest Service families really well. It was a neat life — and probably the reason I went into the Forest Service. I noticed that Forest Service people liked what they were doing — something that I didn’t see with a lot of other people, like those who worked in the sawmills.
HCN: Has that family feeling changed?
Bosworth: Not really, though today there are a lot more women professionals in the agency, and a lot more dual-career families. People who come from other agencies to the Forest Service still say, "Gee, it really is like being part of a family here."
HCN: Yet the issues facing the agency have changed, haven’t they?
Bosworth: Yes. The 1990s were a decade of transition from the Timber Era to the Restoration and Recreation Era. I believe that restoring fire-dependent ecosystems and accommodating increasing numbers of recreationists will be the defining challenges for a couple of decades to come.
HCN: Has fire replaced timber as the agency’s raison d’etre?
Bosworth: Firefighting has always been a big part of the Forest Service, ever since the Big Blowup in Montana in 1910 (HCN, 4/23/01). But our view of fire has changed. Now we view it as an important tool in restoring our forests. A lot of our forests are too dense because we have suppressed fires for so long. So we have to do some thinning, and we have to reintroduce prescribed fire wherever we can.
HCN: Yet the agency still spends incredible amounts of money in putting out fires — at the picnic, you said that fighting fire now takes up more than 40 percent of the agency’s budget, up from 20 percent a decade ago. And I noticed that Smokey Bear is still on all of the baseball caps. Why isn’t the agency being more aggressive?
Bosworth: We need to do more, and we are moving in that direction. But to allow fires to burn in August, when they can get out of hand and burn intensely hot, would yield results we don’t want and people living near the fires don’t want. We need to use the spring and fall times to burn. And sometimes we need to do restoration work through mechanical thinning first.
HCN: How is your relationship with Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversees the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture?
Bosworth: It’s fine. We don’t see eye to eye on everything. But I get to have my say, and I’m listened to. And I’m really pleased with the support the administration has given in some key areas. Take, for example, the problem I call "analysis paralysis." The administration has taken the heat for making some changes to streamline decision-making processes, yet I’ve been pushing for these changes.
HCN: We recently did a story that showed most of the timber projects taking place on national forests in the name of forest health these days were not approved under the new streamlined process; they went through the full NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process (HCN, 4/17/06: The War on Wildfire). Isn’t the charge of "analysis paralysis" just a red herring for poorly planned projects that deserve to be challenged by the public?
Bosworth: I believe in good analysis before making decisions, but a lot of the laws we operate under were designed in the timber era to slow down large projects. We’re in a whole new era now, and it makes sense to use the public dollars on the ground rather than doing excessive paper analysis.
HCN: Still, if the Forest Service is getting so much done under the old rules, can you see why we might wonder about the need to change them?
Bosworth: I understand. We’ve been working under the old authorities for a long time. We know how to get work done. The issue is whether we can become more efficient — still collaborate with the public, but get the job done quicker and save some taxpayer dollars. Community wildfire protection plans have been huge. Communities help set the priorities. Another big improvement is the new objection process versus the old appeals. We tell the public what the decision was going to be, and they have a 30-day period to make objections. We can make an adjustment and move on.
HCN: In the past, High Country News has split Forest Service officials into two camps. One camp includes people like former Chief Mike Dombeck, who made public trust and participation top priorities. The other camp is the "experts," the folks who say that the Forest Service knows what’s best for the forests, and the public ought to get out of the way. We’ve put you in the second camp.
Bosworth: I think that you’ve got me wrong. I’m not sure that I fall into one camp or another. I think that the professionals in the Forest Service ought to be trusted to provide the best information available, and to work with the public to figure out what should be done.
There was a time when foresters said, "I went to school, I got my degree, so leave me alone." Because I believe a lot of the process has become a negative in terms of getting work done on the ground, people think that I fall into the camp of "leave it to the professionals." That’s not what I’m talking about. The process needs to include the people; unless we reach some kind of consensus on how to manage the land, it won’t get implemented. But it also needs to be modernized. I don’t want the public to be burdened with process that doesn’t add value to the decisions that are going to be made.
In the end, the thing that will make the big difference will be having public support, working together with local people to create the projects and then get them done. They’re much more willing to work with us if they can see the results of their labor more quickly.
HCN: If analysis paralysis is such a problem, why did this administration overturn the roadless protection policy — put in place by your predecessor after an extensive NEPA process — and create a whole new bureaucratic process?
Bosworth: How you go about something is as important as the decision itself. Yes, we gathered a lot of public comment on the original roadless rule, but some people felt disenfranchised by the process. Then we had a series of lawsuits. So we’re trying the state-by-state approach, letting the governors come up with recommendations.
HCN: How much power do states have in determining what roadless areas will be protected?
Bosworth: That’s going to depend on a case by case (approach). But if a governor sends in a petition for a certain number of acres to remain roadless, I think there’s a good chance that it’s going to be followed.
Ultimately, I believe the bulk of the roadless areas should remain roadless, but not necessarily become wilderness. We need those in-between areas: not formal wilderness, but still roadless. That’s where I go with my family to fish and hike.
HCN: Here on our local forest in Western Colorado, the GMUG, parts of the Clear Fork roadless area are about to be leased for energy exploration. What happens if these areas are leased, and then the governor recommends protection? Can the Forest Service back out of those leases?
Bosworth: In some cases, forests call for "no surface occupancy" in roadless areas. That means you’d have to directionally drill from outside of the roadless area. There are situations where we’ve traded leases with companies. We can’t just take away something that somebody’s paid for. The company has to be willing also, but we can usually find solutions to that kind of stuff.
HCN: We’ve heard a lot of complaints in the past four or six years about decisions being made high up in the Agriculture Department — often over your head. The Biscuit Fire salvage logging is the prime case in point (HCN, 5/16/05: Unsalvageable). But there’s a more recent example, again, here on the GMUG. The forest was scheduled to release its new forest plan last week, but has been delayed. Word on the street is that an energy company, Gunnison Energy, was not happy with the options for energy development in the plan, and that Mark Rey intervened. I’m told that the plan will be released late, with errata additions to some portions.
Bosworth: I was a forest planner during the first round of forest plans — on the Flathead in Montana. Our forest plans were being heavily reviewed in the Washington office. We’re not having any of that going on today. We get questions. We ask questions. We meet with forest planners. From time to time, people on the forest think that "somebody must be up there trying to change what we’re doing." I used to think that. That’s not the situation on the GMUG plan.
HCN: What is the situation?
Bosworth: I think there are some questions being asked. I wouldn’t expect to see any errata sheets. I have never heard of any energy company coming to talk to me or anybody in the department. I just don’t think that’s the case.
HCN: So the energy industry is not running the Forest Service?
Bosworth: The energy industry is not running the Forest Service.