Can the Forest Service get back on track?

  • Chris Wood


It's been a dismal eight years for the U.S. Forest Service. When the Bush administration took office, it immediately suspended a popular measure to protect 58 million acres of backcountry public forests from new roads. Instead, the agency became consumed by firefighting.

Since 2001, stopping fire has grown from about 15 percent of the agency's budget to nearly 50 percent today. Without forward-thinking leadership, the Forest Service agenda will continue to focus primarily on this one reactionary activity. Yet there is enormous potential for the agency and its 35,000 employees who manage public lands that exceed the size of Texas. Agency staffers could be turned loose to do good work on the ground. 

The future of the agency -- and the rural communities that depend on it -- lies in its recognizing that more frequent fires are a symptom of a warming climate and an already stressed environment. And while fire fighting is essential, it is only one part of a long-term agenda. Scrape away eight years of languor perpetuated by the Bush administration, and the clear challenge of climate changes stands out. Here's what the Forest Service could do to lead the way:

  • Protect the highest quality lands. In a warming climate, national forests, and particularly roadless areas, are thermal refuges. Protecting these lands protects fish and wildlife and also reduces the costs of filtering water for downstream communities. Private ranch-lands also harbor important big game habitats, many of which are threatened by development. It makes sense for the departments of Agriculture and Interior to work with landowners and provide incentives to those who help conserve high-value lands. 
  • Reconnect landscapes. If fish and wildlife habitats are fragmented, they won't survive floods, fire and drought predicted to increase with climate change. Identifying and protecting important wildlife corridors on public lands and allowing rivers to access floodplains are not only good for fish and wildlife, it's good for communities. A healthy landscape will recharge and replenish underground aquifers that supply municipal drinking water, minimize the potential for downstream flooding, and improve soil productivity for farmers and ranchers. 
  • Engage communities in restoration. Recovering the ability of our lands to withstand the effects of climate change is essential. Reconnecting people, children and communities to the landscapes that provide their food, energy resources, and recreation opportunities is important to our nation's well being. Restoration activities such as tree planting, energy conservation, and thoughtful community planning bind us to the lands and waters that sustain us. 

The Forest Service can play a decisive role in helping communities and natural landscapes adapt to the effects of climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, that work should drive everything the Forest Service does.

The economic benefits to our communities of a Forest Service agenda that stresses dealing with climate change cannot be overstated. Benefits include high-wage jobs in rural areas that most need them. Reducing hazardous fuels within our forests will also reduce the cost of fire fighting and make communities safer. Cut trees and brush also could be utilized as biomass, offsetting demand for oil and gas. National forests are a natural showcase for the responsible development of renewable energy from the wind and sun, which will further reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

One hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt created the Forest Service with the idea that the federal agency would provide the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. Climate change offers a similar challenge at a far larger scale. Yes, it's a challenge, and yes, it's time for the Forest Service to reclaim its conservation mantle. 

Chris Wood is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a former Forest Service staffer who's now the chief operating officer of Trout Unlimited. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Forest Service Back On Track
Nov 10, 2008 05:16 PM
Yes,blame it all on Bush again,the normal cop out.Facts are the problems go all the way back to the Carter administration.Why? Carter in all his wisdom obolished the Civil Service Commisssion.What does that mean? Before applying for a government job in resource management using the SF171 form you received a grade from CSC based on qualifications,education,background and experience with 5 and 10 pt preference for veterans.The max. grade was 110.All agencies had to pick one of the top three graded candidates for a specific job off the CSC register. It was a great system and agency personnel had to be qualified to be hired.After Carter abolished the system agencies were given flexiblity to hire about anyone and some only have goverment training for the job.Can you believe a wildlife biologist for example with no degree or experience in the field it's true on the job training for 2-4 weeks.Then the government started hiring all these people not qualified for the positions.Then came Clinton with quotas.So many women for example that were not qualified but it looked good on paper the quota.Spread this all over the years now and the make up of agency personnel with little qualifications in the profession.Most have no understanding of the resources,the laws and how to manage the resourses on public lands and that is what we have today.BLM and the USFS is under a multiple-use mandate as well. How will you get them "back on track" nearly impossible.When you talk to these agency people today most hardly get out of the office as well.They know little about the issues or care.Serving the public and the resource is only remotely considered.Then government contracts to write all these silly EIS documents you read these days. Contracts awarded to companies out of state writing about the resources here and never been here.It is clearly a mess and goes back farther than Bush.So what's the BO plan? I think it will be more quota' and race included and no multiple-use land management.More unqualified at the helm.The US Forest Service and BLM today are beyond help,hopeless!The BO administration scares me and doesn't support sport hunting and public access to the wildlife resource for that purpose.Certainly not firearm purchase as well.It will get worst before it gets better count on it.
Reinventing the Forest Service
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick
Nov 10, 2008 07:26 PM
Jack (above) blames the Carter Administration's abolition of the Civil Service as well as affirmative action for bringing incompetence and ineffectualness to the Forest Service. As a former Forest Service worker, I have seen and worked with many very highly skilled professionals - botanists and wildlife biologists, planners and engineers, the whole range of technical experts. I strongly disagree that the problem with the Forest Service is in the ground ranks.

And, yes, Bush is partly to blame. The problem with the Forest Service these days is twofold, at least: the muddying effects of political appointees, and - as Chris Wood describes in the commentary - slashed funds. The political-appointee aspect has gotten a lot of well deserved press, to wit: when you hire industry lobbyists to run a federal agency or department, you shouldn't be surprised to get policies that favor industry over the taxpayer and the landscape.

Chris mentions in passing the other aspect of the Forest Service quagmire - funding - but doesn't offer any solutions. It's true that wildfire suppression costs have grown "catastrophically" during Bush's tenure. Global warming and historically incendiary conditions, coupled with ongoing growth in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), have led to a perfect storm for wildfire. Because it is chief among the Forest Service's (many) mandates, much effort and money has gone to protect life and property.

Furthermore, a lot of uncommitted (and also committed) Forest Service funds were also eaten up this year by fire, thanks to state-of-emergency conditions in California. This massive suppression effort absorbed whatever discretionary funds had existed (and there wasn't much) for things like research and conservation. Also, since the Forest Service's budget has been both steadily and abruptly shrinking during the Bush years, there's been less pie to go around altogether, which has created a perfect storm within the Forest Service itself.

The new Administration and Congress could do a lot to fix these problems. Excising political appointees from the ranks of the Forest Service and other land management agencies will be one good and much overdue measure. Increasing overall funding is another, which will help all these agencies recover from what has been a Great Depression in conservation funding under Bush.

Another idea that's gaining traction in the Forest Service is to put FEMA in charge of funding catastrophic wildfire suppression efforts. This plan would allow the current staff of highly competent Forest Service firefighters to continue their work on the ground, while the funds for fighting these fires would accrue to FEMA. This would effectively put catastrophic wildfires on par (where they belong) with the likes of tornadoes, hurricanes, and major floods - the other natural disasters that make up FEMA's purview.

The real benefit of this proposal is that such an reallocation would allow the USFS to restore some stability to its budget - a stability that's sorely lacking these days. This, in turn, would enable better allocation of funds to conservation, restoration, and the Forest Service's many other, "forgotten" mandates.

Chris Wood has some good ideas of ways in which the Forest Service can put to use an enhanced budget. Reestablishing that budget is the necessary first step.
We care...
Nov 10, 2008 07:56 PM
As a Forest Service employee, it's easy to see that Jack has no clue in what obstacles the Forest Service faces on daily basis. The ones he mentioned are not the ones I see. For example, I have a Master's degree in the field I manage and the women I work with are more than competent to fulfill their jobs. In fact, my supervisor is a woman and highly qualified! And if you do talk to me, I will tell you that I really care about protecting and conserving our precious natural resources. I understand and learn about the issues and everyday I try to work within the laws mandated by congress. With a progressive government having more power in Washington, I think a real change for the better is coming to the agency... it can't get any worse than it is now with the current administration's budget restraints and denial of global warming among a few issues. Rather than read comments from someone who obviously does not have Forest Service experience, talk to a Forest Service employee. You might understand how much we all care about the land and our desire to serve ALL American people!
Global Warming?
Doug Rodrigues
Doug Rodrigues
Nov 10, 2008 09:09 PM
Please explain how the Forest Service can have any effect on Global Warming? Considering that "Man Caused" Global Warming is a SCAM, and the increased heat of the Sun cannot be controlled, why is Global Warming even mentioned? Remember that the temperatures on the other planets also increased simutaneously with earth. Please don't ruin your credibility by jumping on that Politically Correct Global Warming scare bandwagon. It would only serve to demonstrate that the "experts" are political hacks. Also, keeping citizens out of public lands in the name of "conservation" is illogical. If the land cannot be used in a reasonable manner, then it's worthless. Who's going to see it?
What They CAN Do
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick
Nov 11, 2008 01:51 AM
I think Chris's point is that the USFS can have an effect in species that may be impacted by global warming, through such things as wildlife corridors or refuges from the full heat of a warming climate, or simply chopping less trees that will send more CO2 into the atmosphere. These are things the USFS can effect.

Of course, if you still think human-caused global warming is a scam, you have your head in the sand and like it there and aren't likely to be convinced by mere facts to the contrary. Fortunately we are entering a new Administration that vows to take science seriously for a change.

The comment "If the land cannot be used in a reasonable manner, then it's worthless" is too just ignorant to merit a response.
Political Correctness...
Doug Rodrigues
Doug Rodrigues
Nov 11, 2008 10:02 AM
Okay, if Man caused the Global Warming, then explain why the other planets warmed up too? No "Man Caused" Global Warming proponent has ever been able to give me an answer. I assume that you won't either. Also, why does the politically correct "News" media never mention the volcanic activity beneath the Artic Ice Cap spewing out 2100 degree hot water? Logically, wouldn't that have an effect on Artic Ice thickness? Simultaneously, the Southern Ice Cap is thickening! You need to do some research yourself before telling me that my head is in the sand. Political Correctness somehow causes the majority of citizens to lose their reasoning ability.

There have been periods in history where the global temperatures have been much warmer than they are now, and also Ice ages. I prefer the warmer, don't you? Sea levels were a hundred+ feet higher than they are now. Sea levels have also been a hundred feet lower than they are now. Who are we as puny humans to decide what is normal? Normal is whatever nature creates, and right now nature is creating the warmer temperatures. Live with it. All of the worrisome hand wringing and Chicken Littles running around flapping their arms won't make one bit of difference in Global Temperatures. The temperatures will be what they will be, but some people will make a lot of money pushing the Man Caused" SCAM.
It's all about power, control, and money.
Doug Rodrigues
Doug Rodrigues
Nov 11, 2008 12:59 PM
I see that my original reply is has been deleted. Interesting. So rather than repeat facts that this politically correct site doesn't want you to read, I'll say this: My gut feeling is that you've never even been up in the mountains and are making your generalize points of view from the perspective of someone who really doesn't know that they're talking about.
warming factors, cont.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick
Nov 11, 2008 09:26 PM
Well, Doug, I work in the mountains - to answer your question - as a biologist in Colorado. I'm not sure what that has to do with my credentials, but there you have it.

If you've looked at trends in global warming, you'll find that your observations are both right and wrong. Right: the Earth has undergone major shifts in climate over its multi-billion year history. Also right: humans had nothing to do with those previous shifts.

Wrong: the current change is notable for its extreme and _unprecedented_ temperature increase. There is an strongly established correlation between the accumulation of greenhouse gases (like CO2) in the atmosphere and the dramatic warming of the past 20 years. Finally, it is scientifically documented from many independent sources that anthropogenic activities have caused the greatest change in CO2 concentrations.

There have always been numerous other, "natural" sources of greenhouse gases on earth - there is no denying that man is not the only emitter of greenhouse gases - but industrial activities have caused the dramatic spike in CO2 emissions over the past several decades. And the warming of the planet has followed that spike like a shadow.

The reason for the warming of other planets in our solar system is a mystery to me. Perhaps the gradual warming of the sun is behind it. But that doesn't discount the majority contribution of anthropogenic activities in the heating of _our_ atmosphere.

I find it ironic that you (Doug) blame the scientific community for constructing a theory of global warming to benefit its own pocketbook, when the anti-global-warming proponents - namely oil companies and their political kin - are clearly the ones with the financial interest in preserving the "myth" of climate change.
FS budget needs big boost
Dave Rockwwod
Dave Rockwwod
Nov 11, 2008 09:43 AM
Chris has good thoughts about what can be done with new priorities and a budget to support them. As a former district and Rocky Mountain Research Station employee (with a science degree and an administration masters degree) who would love to return to a career in the USFS, implementing some of the restoration and conservation measures Chris mentions, it would be fantastic to see the agency retooled for both sustained use of forest products and progressive land stewardship. The Forest Service can be so much more than what it has become, and with any serious attention by a new USDA Chief, and a budget to get-r-done, it will be better than ever. Putting the onus of firefighting on FEMA is overdue and greatly assist the USFS in regaining its historic value to rural America, and take forest land stewardship to new heights.
Reagan Started the Downfall
Ed Javorka
Ed Javorka
Nov 11, 2008 10:31 AM
Of course Bush has not been a friend of the agency. But as a now-retired professional employee, I saw the beginning of the downfall during Reagan's first four years. His appointments and policies were more devestating than anything before or after. After three years of his messing with our attempts to get the first Forest Plan finished, I could take it no more and took early retirement.
It has been downhill ever since, particularly at the upper administrative levels. The Clinton years were a bit of an exception, with at least one decent Chief. Butbudget shrinkage has been the biggest challenge.
I can't help but notice the ever-growing number of women now filling the mid and upper levels at both forest and regional offices. Honestly don't know any of them or their qualifications, and can only comment on observations of women's movement during my years. It was disturbing to see several ladies appointed to district ranger and other important roles, with little or no field experience. A landscape architect working out of the SO for 3-4 years does not, in my opinion, have the background to become a district ranger. There has been (still is?)a real bias to move more women into key spots. I know this has hurt morale in the ranks.
In the late 50's when I started with the USFS, politics had no real influence on the agency beyound setting the national budget. Supervisor's and district rangers were exempt from worrying about who was in the White House, or running USDA. We need to get back to policies of that era.
Engaging communities in restoration
Steve "Hollywood" Kennedy
Steve "Hollywood" Kennedy
Dec 02, 2008 01:34 PM
One way to engage communities in restoration is to get homeowners to take their vegetative fuel reduction problems seriously, in their back yards and beyond.
  I started work on a video project about suburban forest fires, fire safety and the environment in 1993. With the help of over 75 people, I completed a version for the East Bay Hills (SF Bay Area) in 2007. A version for the Denver-Boulder area exists as a screenplay on our web site. I am now seeking funding in Santa Cruz County for a deluxe version.
   Please do a Google search for "Cannonball Express video", enjoy the food for thought and political satire and leave a message with your comments and criticisms in the Guest Book. I look forward to reading your thoughts.