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Striking the Right Balance: Coming to Terms with Change in National Forest Management

Dale Bosworth, Chief
McClure Lecture, University of Idaho
Moscow, ID — September 18, 2002

Thanks for that generous introduction. I am really pleased to be back here at the University of Idaho. This is where I got my degree in forestry back in the ‘60s, so it’s a real honor to be here today. The Wall Street Journal recently compared college costs, and for some reason they decided to mention that I lived in the College of Natural Resources House. When I was there, of course, it was called something else—they called it the Campus Club. It was a pretty good value for somebody like me, and I guess it still is.

They also wrote that a “passion for nature” is still required, and I was glad to see that. I hope it’s true. I hope and trust that a lot of the students here today will find their way to the Forest Service. The pay isn’t much, but it’s a great outfit, and you couldn’t ask for better work if you have a passion for nature.

The theme for this year’s McClure Lecture is science and public policy, and I was asked to comment on how both have changed over the years. I’ve been in the Forest Service for my entire career, more than 36 years, so I’ve seen a lot change in science and policy at the Forest Service. I’d like to talk a little about where I think that leaves us and where we need to go from here.

Decades of Change

In the last 40 years, we’ve seen tremendous changes—changes in the marketplace for forest and rangeland products; changes in demographics and development patterns, particularly in our western states; changes in public values and expectations from public lands; and changes in the landscape itself and in our scientific understanding.

In terms of our scientific understanding, we’ve really come a long way, and I want to emphasize that. I suspect that some of you on the research end of things might have been personally involved in the progress we’ve made, and I commend you for that. In terms of wildland fire, for example, we’ve made tremendous progress in our understanding of the critical role fire plays in shaping ecosystems. The same goes for our understanding of watersheds, which today are a benchmark for measuring ecosystem health. Today, we’ve got internationally agreed-upon criteria and indicators of healthy forest ecosystems. Imagine that! Technological advances are part of it—GISs, fire mapping, ecoregion mapping, and so forth. I could go on and on.

In response to all the changes in the last 40 years, the Forest Service has developed new ways of managing the national forests and grasslands. Some of the changes have been pretty tough on our local communities. But you can’t turn back the clock. Our role at the Forest Service is to help folks find new opportunities in the conditions we face today. And with all the new discoveries and technologies in the last 40 years, the opportunities are there. It’s just a question of helping folks take advantage of them.

Our problem isn’t really change; change is inevitable. Our problem, in my view, is that too many people seem to be stuck in the past. When you read the headlines, too often you find the same old folks fighting the same old battles. It’s as if nothing has changed in the last 40 years.

We need to move beyond the conflicts of the past if we are to strike the right balance for the future. That’s the main point I’d like to make today. I’ll illustrate that in several ways. First, I’ll use this fire season to show how the national debate reflects ancient conflicts and therefore misses the point. Then I’ll talk about what I think the point is—that we have a serious forest health problem and that we aren’t doing enough about it. Finally, I want to discuss some of the things we might do to help us move beyond the conflicts of the past.

Old History

This year, we’ve had one of the biggest fire seasons in memory. Four states in the West—Arizona, California, Colorado, and Oregon—have had their biggest fires in history. The number of acres burned is close to twice the 10-year average. About as many acres have burned as two years ago, when we had our biggest fire season in 40 or 50 years. Yet our firefighters have been more effective than ever. We’ve controlled more than 99 percent of all fires at very small sizes, and still we’ve had another record fire season.

I guess that puts me a little bit in the hot seat (no pun intended), because people have been looking so hard for someone to blame. Some people blame the environmentalists because they wouldn’t let us cut enough trees, which made forests too dense. Other people say that’s just an excuse for more logging; they say that big fires are normal under drought conditions. There’s a kernel of truth in what both sides say, but the reality is far more complex. I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let me just say that the blame game gets us nowhere. It does nothing to address our forest health problem, and therefore it misses the point. It focuses instead on battles fought long ago, and that’s not where our focus should be. To understand this, you need to step back in time for a moment.

When I first started working for the Forest Service in the 1960s, we had a very different situation from today. The focus was on efficient, effective timber production. State and private timber supplies were exhausted after World War II, and there were fears of a timber famine. The nation needed national forest timber to help realize the American dream of owning a single-family home.

From 1960 to 1985, the national forests met about 25 percent of America’s softwood timber needs. That gave state and private stocks time to recover. Today, fears of a timber famine are over. Fifty years from now, we expect that timber growing in the United States will be nearly double the levels in 1960.

In 1970, the first Earth Day signaled a change in public values. The environmental movement was born, and I think it did a lot of good. Congress passed a number of environmental laws aimed at sustainable management for the long-term health of the land. Science contributed by laying the basis for new multidisciplinary, ecosystem-based approaches.

With the help of science, we began basing much of our management on watershed health. Today, the Forest Service no longer focuses on the most efficient, cost-effective way to remove timber. Instead, we focus on long-term ecosystem health, measured in terms of healthy watersheds.

Zero-Sum Game

So the battle is over—or, at least, it should be. But there are still some folks who seem to want to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s a common misconception out there that all logging is one thing—that the primary goal is economic and the focus is on providing timber to mills for a profit off federal lands. We need to help people understand that there are different types of tree removal. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

On the national forests, our purpose for tree removal is not what it was 40 years ago. Today, long-term ecosystem health drives everything we do. It determines whether or not—and where and how—we decide to cut trees. That’s part of what we mean when we talk about the desired future condition of the land.

I wish I could take you out and show you some of our vegetative management projects. They are guided by the principle that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. It’s the exact opposite from the old high-grading philosophy of “take the best and leave the rest.”

That’s why the debate today—focusing on limits to diameter size—is so irrelevant. It continues to focus on what we take, not on what we leave. On a landscape scale, diameter size doesn’t matter. The number and size of the trees we remove doesn’t matter. What matters is the number, size, and type of trees we leave on the land to achieve healthy landscape conditions. The goal is to meet the desired future condition.

But these debates keep us stuck in the past. I think that’s divisive and destructive. It doesn’t get us anywhere. It’s the politics of scarcity, a zero-sum game. In the zero-sum game, folks measure their own success in terms of the misfortune of their adversaries. So if you’re in the timber industry and you see something the environmentalists like, you automatically think it must be a bad idea, even if it’s really no skin off your nose. Or if you’re an environmentalist and you see some folks getting some jobs from materials we need to remove, you automatically think we must be in bed with the timber industry. Your focus is not on the land and what it needs. Instead, your focus is on how well your adversaries are doing, because if they seem to be winning, you must be losing. That’s the zero-sum game.

Now, I don’t mean to stereotype anyone or any interests. A lot of folks out there on both sides understand just how divisive and destructive the zero-sum game is.

Forest Health Problem

The fact is, we can no longer afford to play the zero-sum game. Our problems are simply too pressing. They’ve been building for a long time. Fires started getting bigger in the 1980s, while we were still removing record volumes of timber. In 1987, for the first time in almost 70 years, we saw more than a million acres burn on the national forests. Since then, the problem has just kept on growing. Today, we have some 73 million acres of national forest land at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity.

The problem didn’t develop in the last 10 to 15 years. It took generations to develop. For most of the last century, we focused on removing big trees and suppressing all fires. In the process, we altered the land. I’m talking now mostly about the ponderosa pine forests of the Interior West, from the Sierras and eastside Cascades to the Rockies and Black Hills. That’s where some of our worst fires are occurring.

In these forests, we’ve created conditions where trees have grown much faster than fire, harvest, and mortality have combined to remove them. Let me just give you a few facts:

  • From 1952 to 1997, net annual softwood growth more than doubled in the West.
  • On the national forests, net annual softwood growth also more than doubled.
  • In the next 10 to 20 years, we expect the upward trend to continue.

Just to give you some idea of what that means, in the Southwest—in Arizona and New Mexico—net annual growth is enough to cover a football field 1 mile high with solid wood. Recent removals have only been about 10 percent of this.

Historically, these forests were relatively open. We’ve literally changed the landscape by creating forests overcrowded with trees. Under stress from competition, the trees are more susceptible to disease and insect attack than ever before. Under the drought conditions we have right now, we are getting fires that are more severe than ever before. Maybe you heard about the McNally Fire in California, the Hayman Fire in Colorado, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona, and the Biscuit Fire in Oregon this year. These are perfect examples of the record-breaking fires we are now seeing.

This situation is simply not sustainable—not socially, not economically, not ecologically. Socially, our communities are increasingly disrupted by catastrophic fires and the associated evacuations. Economically, these fires cost jobs and income from recreational activities on federal lands. Besides, they can sweep from federal lands onto state and private lands, threatening jobs and futures there, too. Ecologically, sensitive species cannot find suitable habitat in overcrowded forests, and catastrophic fires can destroy the few remaining refuges they have.

Some good examples come from Colorado, where the Hayman Fire affected habitat for five threatened species: the Canada lynx, bald eagle, Mexican spotted owl, Preble’s minnow jumping mouse, and Pawnee montane skipper. The skipper is a butterfly, and there’s some question as to whether the species will even survive.

Active Management

Some folks say we ought to just leave the land alone to heal itself. But it’s an illusion to think that just leaving nature alone will restore the open old-growth pine forests that once dominated lower elevations across the Interior West. Competition for limited resources will keep the dense trees that are there now small forever—or until the next catastrophic fire. In fact, the original open forests were probably never entirely natural; they evolved together with American Indians and their land management practices, particularly burning.

Historically, the fires that burned in these open forests were relatively cool and low to the ground. Today, that’s all changed. Today, the fires that burn in these dense stands are like nothing the American Indians ever saw. They burn extremely hot and destroy entire stands, with catastrophic results for soils, waters, and wildlife habitat.

Our American Indian heritage teaches the need for active management. We’ve got to remove some of the small materials that are threatening the health of our forests and fueling our worst fires. We have two choices: The excess trees can either go up in smoke or out on the back of a truck. The most important thing we can do in a good part of the West is some thinning and burning in a controlled manner.

We’ve been saying that for years, so it’s sort of amusing to read in the Seattle Times that we’ve finally come around to that point of view. In fact, we’ve been doing forest health treatments for years. It just hasn’t been enough. Through the National Fire Plan we’re picking up the pace. This year, the Forest Service and Interior Department together plan to treat about 2.5 million acres. We’ve already treated more than 1.5 million acres. That’s a 30 percent increase from last year. But it’s still not nearly enough. We’ve got to do much more.

Fire is part of the solution. Today, we no longer practice fire exclusion. Our policy is to restore fire’s ecological role on the land. We do that by allowing natural fires to burn in remote areas and by conducting carefully controlled burns in other areas. In both cases, we can only do so where conditions permit and where we have an approved fire management plan in place.

Where we cannot burn, for whatever reason, the only alternative is to remove the excess trees. In such places, we need to carefully thin the forest before restoring fire to the land. Some areas will require a combination of thinning and controlled burning. These days, we have the tools, techniques, and technologies for low-impact tree removal. We aren’t talking about clearcutting majestic old-growth stands. We’re talking about thinning and burning where it’s needed to restore the healthy, fire-adapted forests that historically existed in the Interior West. I think there’s widespread agreement on the need to do that.

There’s also widespread agreement that our first priority should be treating the areas most at risk, which are where people live and work—in the so-called wildland/urban interface. Homeowners need to take responsibility for making their properties firesafe, and we’re doing what we can to help by working with our local communities.

But it’s not enough just to thin right around homes and communities. You might save your house from a catastrophic fire, but you’ve lost your home if it’s surrounded by a blackened landscape. You probably can’t even sell and move, because who would buy?

Besides, values most at risk include municipal watersheds in the backcountry. This year’s Hayman Fire, for example, burned much of the area that supplies Denver’s water. The wildland/urban interface is really much bigger than most people think.

We know that our treatments work where the areas we treat are big enough. When a large fire enters a treated area, it will often drop to the forest floor and leave most trees unburned. But a large fire can throw firebrands a half mile or more, so it can easily ignite dense forest beyond a small treated area.

Anyway, the treated areas must be large enough for a fire crew to have enough time to get in there and contain it while it’s still on the ground and not too dangerous. The Hayman Fire burned right through some small treated areas; it just dropped to the ground and came out the other side. Some of the treated areas were so small that the fire didn’t even drop down. It just blew right through.

But when the Hayman Fire reached the Polhemus Burn, it was stopped cold. It was an area about 8,000 acres in size that we prescribe-burned pretty recently—last October—so there weren’t too many fuels. The fire hit the area and dropped down, giving us a chance to get in there and construct fireline. In some places, we didn’t have to do anything. The fire went out on its own. Hundreds of homes were saved. It’s a great example of the kind of treatment that works.

Adaptive Management

It’s true that we don’t have much long-term experience yet with our forest health treatments. Traditionally, forest science has not really focused on the long-term effects of thinning and burning. In the past, we’ve mostly asked questions related to timber harvest. For example, what’s the optimum level of growth, the point where the returns are greatest if you harvest?

It’s only been fairly recently that we’ve begun asking questions about forest restoration. And forests are long-lived, so it takes a very long time—decades or even centuries—before some of the answers are known. Besides, ecosystems are tremendously complex. My predecessor Jack Ward Thomas used to say, quoting Frank Egler, “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.” So I would never say we have all the answers.

But does that mean we should kick back, put up our feet, and do nothing? I would say no. At least we’re starting to ask the right questions now, and we do have some preliminary results. We’ve been working with the Ecological Restoration Institute in Arizona, for example, to test burning and thinning treatments against control plots. Dr. Wally Covington, who’s in charge of the program, put it this way. He said we used to think we had enough time for the answers to come in, but now we see that we don’t. We no longer have that luxury. We’ve got to move forward and act now. Then we’ve got to carefully monitor the results, see what works and what doesn’t, and change our management accordingly. It’s called adaptive management, and I think it’s the only way that makes sense.

Sustainable Solutions

Let me just summarize what I think we need to do. We’re not talking about treating every acre at risk of catastrophic fire—all those 73 million acres of national forest land, for example. Even if we had the means, it might make more sense in some cases to leave the land alone. We’ve got to strategically focus our projects where they will do the most good—where they will help us achieve the desired future condition of the land.

Some of the highest priority areas are where the risk to people, property, and wildland resources is greatest. Those are often the areas next to or near to the wildland/urban interface. For example, the burn that stopped the Hayman Fire backed up to a settlement and protected it. Other high-priority areas are in or near our municipal watersheds. Some projects might be designed to restore a healthy landscape mosaic or the original open pine forest. For all of our projects, we’ve got to carefully monitor the results and adapt our management accordingly.

I want to stress that we can’t do it alone. The days are gone when we could just narrowly focus on national forest land. Today, we need to think strategically on a landscape scale. That means connecting our fuels and forest health treatments to our efforts to help homeowners make their properties firesafe. It means engaging our state and local partners, including our local communities, in deciding what our priorities should be.

I think we can find common ground by working together. Today, we have amazing new opportunities for collaboration. New technologies such as the Internet allow us to work together with partners all across the landscape. We’ve got some good examples in place, such as the Blue Mountain Demonstration Area in Oregon or the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership in Arizona. Our partnerships are based on broad areas of agreement, such as focusing on reduced risk, using multidisciplinary science, managing at the landscape level, measuring success in terms of watershed health, and monitoring results for adaptive management.

So we know what to do, and I see a lot of opportunities in it for everybody. Ecologically, we can benefit the land by restoring ecosystems to something resembling their historical condition. Socially, we can benefit our local communities by helping folks make themselves safer from wildland fire. Economically, we can benefit our citizens by providing jobs and by helping them take advantage of local business opportunities to utilize excess trees and brush.

Besides, we would much rather see Americans use products from our forests and in turn get jobs out of it than import the wood from countries with fewer environmental protections. We would also much rather see wood used than most substitutes; wood takes far less energy and water to produce, and it is a better insulator than steel or aluminum. Best of all, it is renewable.

Process Gridlock

So what’s stopping us? Well, we’ve got a big problem. The Forest Service is caught in a bind. On the one hand, we strongly encourage collaboration through partnerships on a landscape scale. On the other hand, when it comes to delivering on our partnership commitments, the Forest Service often finds itself mired in process and unable to move forward with actual projects on the ground. When we can’t fulfill our promises, all the trust and goodwill we spend so much time building evaporates overnight.

A few months back, I testified on this problem before Congress. There are many reasons for it, including the way we’ve set up our process for appeals. Lately, people have focused on the appeals process, and there’s been a lot of finger pointing going on. I don’t think that helps us move forward, so I want to say a few words about that.

I believe that people ought to have the right and the ability to question our decisions. But I also believe that the right to appeal should carry with it a responsibility. It’s a responsibility to all the other folks who are involved in the decision or have a stake in the outcome. It’s a responsibility to engage upfront in the discussion instead of waiting in the wings while others hammer out an agreement, then using procedural or legal maneuvers to torpedo it.

Understandably, our partners are deeply discouraged by our process gridlock. Governor Kitzhaber of Oregon, for example, has written that “the current procedure-bound, litigious, cumbersome, and glacial process that has engulfed federal land management agencies does not produce sustainable land management.” The way things are right now, I’m afraid I would have to agree.

I would also agree that it’s time to reevaluate our tools and processes if we are truly committed to sustainable land management. That doesn’t mean overhauling our environmental laws; we need the national sideboards they give us for managing healthy lands. But I think we can do much better in terms of how we apply the laws. We need to fix the processes that are so clearly broken, and we’re looking at some of the things we might do.

Healthy Forests Initiative

In August, President Bush announced the Healthy Forests Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to improve some of our processes for more timely decisions and greater efficiency, specifically with respect to fuels treatments and forest health restoration projects. Here are some of the things we are working on:

  • We are improving procedures for developing and implementing projects, in collaboration with local governments.
  • We are reducing the number of overlapping environmental reviews.
  • We are developing guidance for weighing short-term risks against long-term benefits.
  • We are helping ensure consistent NEPA procedures, including a model EA.
  • We are also simplifying our appeals process.

I’ve long believed that we need to fix our broken processes. I am pleased that the president’s announcement has raised the level of consciousness about our forest health crisis. I can tell you that many of our folks out in the field feel the same way. For too long, they’ve been frustrated by process gridlock. For too long, process gridlock has kept them from doing their job of caring for the land and serving people. So now it’s time for us to fix the processes so we can get the job done on the ground.

A Great Experiment

In closing, let me repeat: We need to move beyond the conflicts of the past if we are to strike the right balance for the future. Conservation is about balancing the needs of today against the needs of future generations. I think we owe it to future generations to pass on ecosystems that are healthy and resilient.

When you think about it, the national forests are a great unfinished experiment. One of our retirees, John Fedkiw, published a national forest history in 1995, and he subtitled it, “A 90-Year Learning Experience and It Isn’t Finished Yet.” I think that’s right on.

We as a nation are testing a hypothesis—the hypothesis that a great system of public lands can provide benefits of many different kinds to many different people and still be healthy enough to keep doing the same thing for generation after generation, forever and ever. Do our communities get enough economic benefit from the national forests and grasslands? Do the American people derive enough social and personal benefits? Are ecosystems still as healthy as they were a century ago? Will we leave a legacy for our children that they can be proud of?

We need affirmative answers to all those questions if our experiment is to succeed. Because the jury is still out. People are still watching and waiting. In fact, other countries are watching and waiting to see if what we are doing is the right thing. So there’s a whole lot at stake.

In a great experiment like this, the outcome is never certain. There will always be ups and downs along the way. Despite the best of intentions, we’ve made some really big mistakes. Besides, things change. People’s values and expectations change. So we know that we don’t have all the answers, and we never will. All we can do is do our best, admit our mistakes, adjust to change, and work to make the experiment a success.

I for one believe that the experiment is a success. I believe the national forests and grasslands are a great thing for our nation. I believe we can manage public lands for many different benefits for many different people and still fulfill our obligation to future generations.

But it can only be a success if society works together. If there is anything that will cause this experiment to fail, it will be people’s desire to have it all their own way. If people can’t work together enough to give everyone a stake in the outcome, that will be the end of the national forests and grasslands. And the biggest losers will be the next generation.

So let me end by saying this: It’s a new day and time. It’s time for people to get on with solving the problem. It’s time to stop refighting the battles of the past. It’s time to start finding broad areas of agreement, then working together to strike the right balance for the future. Let’s finally move beyond the conflicts of the past. We owe the next generation at least that much.


Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2002, p. D-2.

Editorial, “Starting Fires to Save Forests,” Seattle Times, August 11, 2002.

Timothy Egan, “Idea of Fighting Fire with Fire Wins Converts,” New York Times, 30 June 2002.

Quoting the noted ecologist Frank Egler in The Nature of Vegetation: Its Management and Mismanagement (Norfolk, Conn.: Aton Forest Publishers, 1977).

Jim Robbins, “Forest Thinning Challenged as Tactic to Control Fires,” New York Times, 27 August 2002.

John A. Kitzhaber, “Sustainable Forestry and Collaborative Stewardship: The Case of Oregon,” The Pinchot Letter, Winter 2001/2002, pp. 3-6.


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