Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Former Deputy Chief of the United States Forest Service Speaks

The New West
A Former Deputy Chief of the United States Forest Service Talks
Congressman Steve Pearce finds Forest Service Agreement
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            As residents of Glenwood and Ruidoso, New Mexico and Ft. Collins, Colorado watched monster fires devour the landscape in their front yards this morning, the United States Forest Service expanded the public relations plan to educate Westerners on their newest plan for next generation fire suppression. Even an upscale ad agency has been contracted to get the message out in a manner that even common folks would understand.
            Common folks …!
            The Americans who have been on the bayonet end of the actions and policies of the United States Forest Service have a pretty good idea of any next generation plan might be if the agency alone is left to conceptualize and implement the plan. It will require a bigger budget and there will be many important rules and regulations. More dedicated staff will be required which will require at least a new fleet of vehicles.
            How would the Americans … the common folks know all this before the plan is unveiled? It is because they witnessed the same process in generation one, and two, and three, and even the most recent, improved plan.
            The New West
            The approach to the unveiling has been led by a publicity campaign reminding the public to discover ‘the forest’ and all of its wonders. One profiles a young voice that accompanied his parents into the woods, and they saw all kinds of neat things including water, real frogs, and, of course, solitude.
            What is missing from the ad is the likelihood that the nearest forest will be slapped with a conditional access policy at the time that young person and his family could attempt to enjoy the outdoors. The threat of fire has grown so acute that every western forest faces the likelihood of active fires being engaged throughout the traditional summer vacation period.
            As a result, whole or partial forest closures will be the norm. This was just demonstrated in the famous Smokey Bear District in the Lincoln National Forest where the Little Bear Fire is burning private property investments in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. The District, from the forest where the icon Smokey the Bear was rescued from a fire and subsequently made world famous, has been closed because of the risk of forest fires. The closure will continue until at least July 31. It is the most easily accessed district in the Lincoln, and it is also the mostly likely opportunity for visiting families to experience.
            The problem has long been known by New Mexico Congressman, Steve Pearce. Congressman Pearce, who has become increasingly critical of Forest Service management, preaches to his constituency that it isn’t a matter of if New Mexico forests burn … it is a matter of when.
            The same warning has now come from Bill Rice, a retired Deputy Chief of the Forest Service, living in Colorado. Speaking from his home while observing the growing danger of the fire on the outskirts of Ft. Collins, Rice lamented the conditions that now exist in western forests.
            “There is a whole new dynamic that is not going to go away with the practices now being applied in our Forests,” Mr. Rice said. “If the public thinks this is bad, wait until Colorado’s Western Slope starts to burn.”
            Rice’s comments apply to a full spectrum of managerial decisions that have taken place. He recognizes the errors and makes no bones about the outcome.
            “We operated for 80 years with the assumption that natural fire was the public’s enemy,” he continued. “We were lulled to sleep by the wiggle room we had in the capacity of our forests to absorb our incorrect assumptions.”
 “We all ought to recognize the ability of our forests to weather the conditions we imposed artificially, and make that the starting place to go forward,” he counseled. “The requirement now is to make hard decisions that avoid the deadly consequences of political agendas that have put us in this predicament.”
The Disclosures and Reminders
Congressman Pearce led a public demonstration nearly a year ago to symbolically seize control of the Lincoln National Forest by the Otero County Commission and commence a new approach to Forest management. The Congressman found little support from the local, progressive press, but he found a sea of support among his constituents who must live in the presence of the Forest Service.
His contention that the American psyche has been persuaded to accept a rosy, grossly misconceived premise that our forests are warm, fuzzy lands of Oz has put us all in a calamitous precipice that will have to be bridged. “We are not going to wish our way out of this problem,” he repeats constantly. “When we have 2500 trees per acre where historical balance demonstrates we need 150 or less, we have to get to that historical balance with firm resolve or we are going to see fires burn it all to zero!”
“We have loved our forests to death!” he concludes.
Rice offered a parallel point of fact.
“The enabling legislation for our forest system was not adorned with the side shows that we now endure,” Rice lamented. “The political debacle has paralyzed the agency, and its original mission of caring for the land and serving the people no longer exists.”
“The actions that have put us all in physical peril have also divided our communities and those families that must live in those natural surroundings,” he continued. “I totally agree with your Congressman (Pearce) concerning the Forest Service and lack of management … I have known that ...”
Finally, a statement of truth exists, and … a place to start has emerged.
 The Mission
            The Congressman and the retired Forest official now have a mission. The Forest Service cannot and should not be allowed to forge its own new mission plan. It has demonstrated that its self rule and a public scoping process driven by the Environmental Front have grossly failed the American public. It has denigrated any suggestion of adherence to the original mission of the agency set forth by Congress.
A national debate is in order. Not only must states be welcome at that table, but the common people who have duties, responsibilities and investments on the land administered by federal agencies must finally have a voice.
Mr. Pearce and his colleagues must also assure their constituencies that the Forest Service must not be allowed to use this calamity to further elevate public restrictions to forest use. They must now restore management that will return health to the forest system, economic reality to communities, and grown up supervision to local controls.
Mr. Rice’s final comments emphasized a truth that too many Westerners have long known, but rarely hear from Washington. He said, “The results of these fires have put citizens in a desperate situation for years into the future. Forest and watershed health as well as the physical, financial and emotional health of people will be dramatically impacted. The Forest Service must be forced back to its original mission!”  
The process must also reveal the onslaught that Americans have endured from dealings with the agency. Historical industries, real stewardship, and economic gain for local communities are hallmarks …not dirty words. It is time for a complete, meaningful overhaul, or … it is time for the Forest Service to go away.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Bill Rice insisted his comments are without influence, but I know for a fact he was urged by colleagues to remain silent. I am proud of him for his courage to finally support common Americans. Indeed, it is a place from which to build.”


Twelve years ago, Ric Frost with the Range Improvement Task Force at NMSU testified to the House Resources Committee:

...In February 1999, the USFS of that region contacted our department to help them develop plans to bring back the loggers as the USFS has a substantial area that needed to be worked or a catastrophic fire equal or greater than the Yellowstone fire of years ago would occur. They had a contract for sale and had no takers or even inquiries. Our reply was that it would take tens of millions of dollars and at least 2 years to put the logging infrastructure back in place. The loss of the economic structure due to endangered species has created the situation that when the USFS has timber to harvest, there is no one to do it.
    Roads need upgrading. Equipment needs to be brought back in. The whole area would have to start from scratch in rebuilding the infrastructure to help the Forest Service do its job in managing for catastrophic fires and fulfill the original mission of the Forest Service found in the Organic Act of 1897: to manage for timber production.
    Concerns over endangered species litigation has so overwhelmed the federal agency and has been infiltrated with environmental idealists, that this agency has lost sight of its original purpose. Managers are now so hesitant to use common sense in their approach to manage rationally, they irrationally make decisions or make no decisions out of fear of incurring litigation from non-profit environmental agencies such as the Forest Guardians, The Southwest Center for Biological Diverstiy, the Sierra Club and a host of other groups. They are unable to manage effectively with sound silvicultural practices. Thus we have the catastrophic potential for wildfires that exist today...


Anonymous said...

The battle is not so much to 'fix' the FS it is to enjoin the environmental groups from appealing and/or litigating well planned restoration projects the agency wants to implement, but can not because they spends millions fighting groups like CBD or WEG.

Help your neighbors, local communities, and the FS by filing lawsuits against these groups to make them think twice about appealing or litigating ever again.

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to an article I wrote in 2007 for Range Magazine on this issue about the firestorms coming to New Mexico and the West. I thought you might be interested in it. Feel free to read and pass this around to anyone else that may be interested in it.

Also, here is the research that was started from the Congressional testimony of 12 years ago cited on this fire issue. It was also published in 2007.

Ric Frost