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Mitch Friedman on national forests restoration

Mitch Friedman, founder of Conservation Northwest, explains a vision for the future of forests and wildlife in the Northwest.

From a keynote address given by Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West conference, "Challenges Facing the US Forest Service," held November 28, 2006, in Missoula, Montana.

"Bigger Fish to Fry?"

We have come together here to discuss the Forest Service, a massive institution with a vast and complex mission. Each of us brings to this challenging discussion our own complex perspective.

For instance, it might be convenient to consider me as a West Coast liberal green, which as one of the first tree-sitters, I surely must be. But I’m also a deer hunter, a failed pole vaulter for the Bobcats of Montana State, and have a work history ranging from driving forklift in Chicago to driving cattle in southeastern Wyoming to monitoring foreign fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. Which me showed up today? Which you showed up today?

Maybe it won’t be so easy for us to describe in common terms the past and the future of the Forest Service, marked out as though it were a trail through the woods. “We came from this direction, and at the next fork we’ll head in that one.”

If any group of us here put on our fleece, loaded our rucksacks and headed up the mountain, we’d no doubt find tense moments that could split the party. Are we bird watching, mountain climbing, or marking trees for a timber sale? Each takes a different trail.

Jack Ward Thomas captured this dilemma when, during his tenure as Chief of the Forest Service, he asked a Senate subcommittee if, within the spider web of Forest Service law and policy, “biodiversity is an objective or a constraint?”

It’s not just the Forest Service that has a hard time staying on trail. Now that Democrats control Congress, I’m free to renew the liberal tradition of internecine warfare. I want to single out a green group from my home state of Washington that is guilty of transgressions and even apostasies, part of a sell-out trend across the West.

This group used to hold a hard line against ominous calls for local control of federal lands, back when Newt Gingrich ran the country. But they have slid down a slippery slope, romanced into collaboration to such a degree that they actually advocate for processes that all but bind Forest Service managers into decisions made by consensus of local stakeholders.

This group used to uphold the full magnitude of the National Environmental Policy Act through appeals and lawsuits, but is now meddling to expedite the preparation of federal timber projects, even on a post-fire salvage sale!

This group once campaigned against the outrage of below cost timber sales. But now they have fallen to lobbying Congress to fund more timber sales, some of questionable profitability.

 The offending and offensive group is my own Conservation Northwest. I confess my sins but repent not!

The justification for these transgressions, compromises, and downright flip-flops is that our forests are damaged by many decades of livestock grazing, road building, industrial logging, and misguided fire policy—and are further threatened by an actively and rapidly warming climate. These challenges call upon us to set aside our conflicting views and interests, to bury the animosity of conflict-ridden pasts, and find a common interest in restoring the ecological health of our forests.

Perhaps a corollary can be found in the Marshall Plan, by which the many conflicting paths that led to a ruined Europe were overcome to build a better common future, a new path in common, after World War II.

The trail that leads to a Restoration Marshall Plan for our forests was not clear on the map during the period when conservationists, the Forest Service, timber industry, and rural communities traveled conflicting warpaths through old-growth forests and roadless areas.

But maybe now it is. My objective today is to offer my perspective on the outlines of a Restoration Marshall Plan. I will describe some positive examples from which I have learned a great deal, and set out some principles that might serve us in building a plan.

Some Forest Service leaders are already attempting to transform the agency for this purpose. Chief Dale Bosworth remarked in an Earth Day speech this year, “Our focus today is on restoring and maintaining the ability of ecosystems to furnish services that people want and need.” The Chief asserted that 75 to 80% of timber now cut from national forest is byproduct to restoration objectives.

I laud Chief Bosworth’s intentions and leadership in pursuing this direction, and I hope my thoughts are constructive.

In his speech, the Chief made a point which resonated very clearly with me, saying: “One of the most promising aspects of restoration is its collaborative appeal… A restoration opportunity can bring community stakeholders together to find common values and agree on the actions needed to reach shared goals.”

Some of the most gratifying work in my 20 years of conservation has included recent collaborative projects across Washington. Conservationists are indeed finding common ground with new high-tech mills that want small diameter wood, communities that want in equal measure both jobs and ecologically healthy forests, and Forest Service personnel that want to make productive use of their field expertise and conservation values.

I have learned that collaboration need not amount to duping or being duped, in which one interest prevails over another. It is indeed possible under the circumstances of our present forest concerns for diverse parties to sustain mutual respect and, through time and effort, find agreement on actions that are within our respective interests while advancing the common good.

Finding and walking the path of common ground does not necessarily come easily. And nothing disrupts the pleasure of that hike so much as when a partner loses that trail and stumbles out into old familiar territory.

I know there are groups on my side that reject the notion that common ground does exist in the active management of some forests to restore important functions. My staff at Conservation Northwest firmly believe in the value of thinning second growth stands on western Cascade slopes to expedite development of old growth habitat characteristics. We also have committed ourselves to thinning of dry interior forests, which—coupled with prescribed fire and grazing reform—shows promise for reducing fire risk and improving ecological health. But some allies think we’re off the trail and that I’ve been deceived by the latest tactic in the ongoing timber wars.

Frankly, it would be easier to discount those views had the Forest Service under this administration been better at indicating which path it wanted to follow. We have wasted too much time, money, and good will re-fighting the Clinton Roadless Area Conservation Rule, provisions of the Northwest Forest Plan, salvage sales from the Biscuit Fire, and much more.

Accomplishing our Restoration Marshall Plan will require better focus.

The timber industry clearly also displays reluctance and confusion on our hike through the woods. There is a tremendous volume of small logs that most of us would feel great about sending down to the mills. Cutting these small trees can sustain companies and communities while improving our forests.

But what do we do about the handful of remaining mills that want big logs?

I recognize a need to retain some infrastructure capable of processing big logs, as the alternative would penalize those private and public foresters who adopt farsighted forest practices that will result in more large trees in our healthier future forests. But can’t we somehow separate the forward-looking need for capacity to mill big logs from the outmoded mindset that too often still operates the mill?

For instance, my staff is now working collaboratively with timber interests to advance a cutting-edge project to salvage small trees burned by this summer’s Tripod Fire on the Okanogan National Forest of northcentral Washington. The objective is to move fast to cut small logs before they economically decay, and to take advantage of this winter’s snow and ice to protect soils from the logging activity.

There are tools available in NEPA that allow such a quick turn-around, but they rely upon on a conservative approach that minimizes damage. Rapid salvage requires that we stay on existing roads and gentle slopes, and thin only small trees in roughly the same approach we would have applied to the stand before the fire had moved through. But when other timber interests are pushing for a bigger sale, including bigger logs, the process diverts from the trail of common ground and back toward complication, delay, and possibly the old warpath, same way it did for the Biscuit Fire and a many other salvage experiences. Legislation to promote salvage, advanced by Representatives Walden and Baird, aggravates this divide rather than solving it.

The benefits of successfully collaborating to pursue common ground are vast. My group is part of a cutting-edge collaborative process called the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which has gone beyond negotiating specific restoration projects. The Coalition is in advanced stages of developing a blueprint for management planning across the entire Colville National Forest.

The Colville has been gridlocked in familiar timber war for decades. Of its roughly million acres, only 30,000 acres are protected in designated wilderness, and recent years have seen just a few million board feet logged annually. The blueprint that the NEW Forestry Coalition has put forth would add several hundred thousand acres to the wilderness system, restore a couple hundred thousand more acres of dry forest toward old growth ponderosa pine with natural fire regimes, and maintain fuel loads in the wildland urban interface with excellent silviculture. The 80 million board feet that could be generated annually under this plan would meet the needs of local mills.

This blueprint is now receiving substantial support in the local community. I doubt such a plan could have been arrived at by the agency on its own, via the old approach of centralized, internal forest planning. And even if that miracle had occurred, familiar pushback from the community would likely have been unavoidable.

The question is whether we can realize this vast potential without succumbing to the temptation to fall back into fights over big trees, the symbolism of wilderness, and other old habits.

Money and agency staffing are also big challenges. Even if our collaborative work produces an excellent consensus plan for salvage logging in the Tripod Fire area, the Forest Service doesn’t know if it has the wherewithal to implement that sale without shelving important projects that would thin green stands that could burn in fires next summer.

On the Colville National Forest, there’s certainly no guarantee that Congress will commit the funds to enable the Forest Service to prepare the scale of projects proposed, no matter how diverse and accomplished is our coalition.

The Forest Service budget has been stood on its head. While static overall for the past several years, the percent going to fire suppression has grown from 22% to 42%, meaning $750 million less annually for timber sales. I remember when that statistic would have had me dancing in the streets. But now, not so much.

There is reliable science indicating that, due to earlier springs and hotter, drier summers, fire has increased 60% in the mid- and high elevations of the American West the last couple decades. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that dumping money into the fire is our best response. More than $82 million was spent fighting Tripod and its sister fires, despite its being located primarily in remote, roadless country. Another $28 million is being spent in rapid response rehabilitation work. Yet the Forest Service can’t find the 50 grand or so needed to prepare smart salvage sales there without starving other projects to treat high risk green stands up the valley?

Chief Bosworth has testified that the Forest Service can address this challenge of diminished budgets through “renewed efficiency and accountability to reduce costs while accomplishing its mission.” He elaborates with four points: 1) Dealing strategically with threats to forest health; 2) expanding collaborative efforts; 3) increasing efficiency; and 4) improving organizational and financial management.

Those four points are as difficult to argue as a horoscope prediction: They are as desirable and true at full funding as they are after the meat clever has come down. But my experience does lead me to state without equivocation that the Forest Service will have little success dealing strategically with forest health other than through collaborative efforts, because only collaboration identifies the common ground that makes efficiency—the Chief’s third item—possible.

Perhaps it’s too early to judge the Chief’s plan, but my observation is that the pace of work on the ground is far too slow. The Forest Service claims in its Healthy Forests Report from last month that over two million acres have already been treated this year for hazardous fuels reduction and landscape restoration, most of it accomplished through prescribed burning. This is a great start, but represents a small fraction of the work needed. The program remains chronically underfunded, with collaborative groups struggling for federal dollars to implement their projects, while fire suppression eats the lion’s share.

The fourth approach that the Chief named for getting more done with less money involved organizational change. This need is monumental, and perhaps the heart of the matter. Many of us are familiar with the agency’s historic mindset: “When we’re getting yelled at by all sides, we must on the right path.” That belief used to be somewhat amusing when industry and conservation positions were irreconcilable over things like the clearcutting of old growth.

But times have changed and there’s little room for the yelling. Moreover, we sometimes find that the yelling occurs because the Forest Service has played each side against another, or even gone solo down a completely different trail than the rest of the group desires. Standard bureaucratic reasoning applies: power, turf, grudges, budgets, and performance evaluations that reward the wrong things, and the hubris of which professional foresters seem particularly susceptible.

The institutional signals and inertia of the Forest Service still run contrary to a restoration mission, and I surmise that only the finest agency leaders are making progress swimming against that stream.

Over the past five years the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, in Washington’s southern Cascades, has moved from a gridlocked battleground over old growth timber sales toward a unified vision for restoring second-growth forests. The progress is due to a collaborative process, called Pinchot Partnership, in which my staff has played a proud and active role. However, in the pursuit of volume targets, agency managers have been recently pushing controversial timber sales that have re-igniting past tensions. The Forest Service should instead be remaining in step with the Pinchot Partnership and other community groups to find sales that meet the needs of the mills and the forest ecosystem.

I highly recommend to you Daniel Kemmis’ book, Community and the Politics of Place, in which he traces to decisions made by America’s founding fathers our modern experience with government decision-making. This notion of due process by which Forest Service managers are to propose timber sales that every American citizen then has an equal opportunity to throw rocks at and later tie up in court is a gift of the accursed federalists. The collaborative process, in which we come together from diverse backgrounds and interests to produce something more in the spirit of the common good, might better approximate what Jefferson had in mind as a republican form of governance. Two centuries of bad policy and habit flow from the fact that Jefferson lost that debate.

So our little group, trying to find the trail of common ground through the woods, is perhaps working up a pretty steep slope. We should be surprised not by the challenges, but by the successes. Nonetheless, I have seen enough progress to be encouraged and to remain committed to the idea that a Restoration Marshall Plan is possible.

Chief Bosworth said in his Earth Day speech that, “Increasingly our role in the Forest Service is to bring folks together to articulate their concerns and values hammer out some agreements based on mutual goals, then work together to restore ecosystems through on-the-ground community based projects.”

You go, Chief.

If the Forest Service can indeed stick to that spirit, and really execute on the other principles that the Chief has set forth, there is good reason for hope. For my part, I firmly believe Congress will need to help, both with both policy direction and more money committed directly to collaborative restoration.

In my experience, community-based collaborative restoration works best in the context of seven general principles, some of which lend themselves to policy, some not:

1.   Establish and respect clear sideboards to keep attention focused on likely common ground. For instance, in the Northeastern Washington Forestry Coalition, we agreed up-front to avoid new roads, roadless areas, or cutting old growth. An important sideboard for restoration projects is that timber generation is only as a byproduct of restoration objectives.  

2.   Walk before you run. Follow first the more obvious common ground—things like fuel reduction in dry forests in wildland urban interface—before attempting to tackle fire salvage or thinning within old growth to reduce risk of crown fire.

3.   Cultivate good leadership. Strong leaders help collaboration survive both substantive challenges and tugs from naysayers.

4.   Job performance standards need to keep step. Forest Service employees should get credit for working collaboratively and for quality restoration treatments.

5.   Training also needs to keep step.  We need a restoration management institute—where Forest Service staff and collaborative group members—can be trained in the latest science on restoration planning and field craft. Training can help agency staff better work with stakeholders and accept the risk of new approaches. Line officers need to learn to use more efficient NEPA tools and get past anachronistic fears that good projects will be appealed. 

6.   Embrace stewardship.  Stewardship contracts allow for much more flexibility and collaborative involvement than traditional timber sale contracts. While they take more time up front, efficiency and results are gained in the long run.

7.   Relationships, field knowledge, and new ideas are assets. Agency personnel should be transferred less. And the Forest Service should itself to hiring managerial positions from outside the agency to help break stagnation.

We also need to manage expectations. Collaboration cannot solve every problem, and win-win will not always replace real life trade-offs. But there is much value in the act of hiking together, as the massive challenges that face our world, with climate change coming first to mind, require us to resolve as much as we can in ways that bring us closer together, rather than divide us. Trust, risk-taking, and momentum build as challenges are overcome, bringing to collaboration a culture of candor, problem-solving, and collegiality that builds community.

The many disparate trails that brought us through the woods to this point are no longer the matter. Our focus is to find the common ground that leads us effectively forward, in a Restoration Marshall Plan that can, with a minimum of conflict and maximum efficiency, lead to a future with restored, healthier, more resilient forest ecosystems.

Thank you.

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