It’s not a surprise that the Forest Service is hiding their response to the sequestration. Simply put, modern projects treat more acres and cut numerous small trees. They cannot accomplish this work without temporary employees. My last year’s Ranger District currently has TWO permanent timber employees, and two others shared with another (larger) Ranger District. I wonder if our Collaborative funds will be returned to the Treasury if projects aren’t completed.
I guess the only way to find out how bad it will be is to welcome the collapse, then decide how to fix it. Meanwhile, the best of the temporaries will find careers (or jobs) elsewhere, and they won’t be coming back. It is hard enough to live on just 6 months of work, each year.
Much government policy and some law resides in a realm philosopher Henry Frankfurt labels “bullshit”—in earlier times called humbug or balderdash. Much US Forest Service policy falls here too: regulation, manual and handbook directives. At least that’s the way I’ve seen it for a very long time.
Early in my Forest Service career, a colleague and I were conscripted into a week-long Forest Service Manual/Handbook writing exercise, specifically focused on the Forest Planning sections. A quick survey of the materials led us to conclude that our week had to be spent making sure that there was nothing in the FS planning manual that could possibly harm anyone. We knew that we could not ‘fix’ the manual, so we spent our week in a second-best endeavor.
A few years later a FS Planning Director asked a group of us for policy ideas at an economists conference. I suggested a bold move: Throw the Forest Service Manual and Handbook in the Potomac. I made the recommendation in the main because both the FS Planning and Economics Manual/Handbook materials were pretty much bullshit. Note that I immediately added that people should be able to swim out and retrieve portions of the policy manuals they deemed useful, and then upgrade them as necessary to help advise program development, project design and work generally. The point was to decommission the whole mess, and free the agency of both the manuals/handbooks and the mini-bureaucracy that oversaw them. Of course I didn’t believe that the FS would act on my suggestion, at least not then. But one can always hope. [Note: I wish there were electronic copies of earlier FS Manual/Handbook materials to point to for historical (hysterical?) purposes. ]
I suggested “tossing” the FS manual and handbook to both Chief Dombeck (via Chris Wood) and Chief Bosworth. Both were somewhat warm to the idea, but nothing happened. I’ve once again raised that issue with FS top brass, suggesting that collaborative adaptive governance can’t work if everybody shows up with several yards worth of “holy writ” that must be followed.
Later I called bullshit on the Forest Service’s initiative to tie planning (and pretty much all else) to environmental management systems—chronicled in my Forest Environmental Management Systems blog (Oct. 2005 – April 2007). That particular mess went away, with EMS rightfully retreating to a minor place (facilities and fleet management) in Forest Service administration. I’m sure my blogging did not influence the outcome. But at least I left a record, so that we might learn from the mistake.
Common wisdom says, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Let’s pause a moment and explore special characteristics of what we are digging through.
What is ‘bullshit’?
Before anyone gets too upset with my BS terminology, maybe we ought to delve into Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit—an essay really, which you can read online. Frankfurt’s little book adorned a special shelf in my FS office bookshelves, accompanied by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Something Happened, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and some other classics. Frankfurt begins On Bullshit with,
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. … In consequence we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.
Frankfurt attempts to tease out a ‘theory of bullshit’ for us. I’ll not bore you with all Frankfurt’s building blocks, but I at least we need to know that he distinguishes bullshit from lying, in part as follows:
The essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony. … The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong. [But it does mean that they don't quite ring true.]
How much FS policy falls in this realm? Politicians tend to create bullshit to pander—to curry favor. Bureaucrats create bullshit for very different reasons. Frankfurt says,
Bullshit is unavoidable when circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. … [This is] common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.
Think about how Forest Service teams are put together, often without asking for volunteers and without too much regard for seeking out the most knowledgeable team members. It always seemed to my jaundiced eye that team members were selected to construct manual and handbook materials in the main because they were ‘good soldiers’, and particularly not ‘radicals’ who might rock the boat too much.
Why I’ve tried to stop the BS
I know that it is pretty much a fool’s quest, but I’ve always tried to get the Forest Service bureaucracy to ‘swing for the fences’ and pull itself up from the morass of its own policy, manuals and handbooks. But, like many American institutions the Forest Service will not take a hard look at itself. Maybe it’s due of fear. Maybe it is due to ennui—stuckness, lack of hope. Maybe it is something else. Maybe it is just because they don’t realize that bullshit might be outright harmful, even toxic to the organization.
This proves especially true when bullshit policy is brought into court, “for the record,” when people challenge federal actions, which must be based on federal policy. At the point federal policy bullshit makes an appearance in court, federal judges are not pleased to have to wade through it—so we too often get strongly-worded federal decisions against the Forest Service.
In any case, meaningful links between process and outcome in the Forest Service often simply don’t exist in any practical sense. They are too encumbered by bullshit. For example, we often hear that if the Forest Service can’t fix the Forest Planning process (for example) in ‘rulemaking’ then we’ll fix it in forest plan implementation—as if that can happen. Isn’t such talk just administrative governance denial?
I keep the pressure on, hoping against fate that a miracle will occur, as it did with General Electric not too long ago, just before GE was to fall in to a bureaucratic quagmire from which it would not, could not escape. Make no mistake, the GE rebirth was brutal. But the company is arguably much better today than before—now that fierce conversations are standard practice innovation is center stage, and people are required to challenge each other to do better, and to be better. Maybe someday the same will happen in a government agency, even perchance to the Forest Service. But I’m not holding my breath.
This is reprinted with permission from the Forestry Source, one of my favorite publications.
When a Tree Falls in a Forest, Does it Make a Decision Memo?
By Steve Wilent
The Forestry Source, February 2012
This is the story of a tree that fell in the forest. Actually, two huge trees that were “joined together at the base, appearing as one for approximately 30 feet,” according to the Sequoia National Forest. But in any case this was not just any tree or trees. On September 30, a Sequoiadendron giganteum in the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California fell across the popular Trail of 100 Giants, a paved, half-mile path through a grove of truly awesome trees, harming no one, but blocking the trail.
“These two trees were truly giants, each about 240 feet tall, as much as 18 feet in diameter at the base,” wrote the editors of the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta in an editorial a couple of weeks later. “They were estimated to be as much as 2,000 years old. A fire about 200 years ago created a recess at the base of the trunk of one of the trees that was so large that groups of tourists frequently posed inside it.”
The Sequoia National Forest, which manages the monument, promptly and properly closed the trail until the debris was removed and the trail deemed safe for visitors once again. End of story? No, the beginning of the planning process.
Imagine a fantasy world in which federal foresters are allowed to make significant decisions based on their education and experience with a minimum of planning and documentation — in some cases, no formal planning or documentation. If in such a world a giant sequoia fell across a trail, a forester might walk the site the next day and admire the fallen giant(s), talk with coworkers, and then go home and have a beer or a drop of single-malt whisky (only to aid in the process of deliberation, of course). A few days later — or maybe in the next week or two, since this is not an average tree — the trail would be repaved or rerouted or both, and interpretive signs about the tree and its demise would be installed. Maybe they’d opt to cut a section from the tree and roll the “cookie” to a nearby area for viewing and ring-counting by legions of park visitors. In any case, a few weeks later, the job would be done.
However, this particular tree and trail are on US Forest Service land and thus are subject to the requirements of myriad laws and regulations, and the agency must seek public input, produce scoping documents, and jump through numerous other planning hoops. So it was that on October 22 about 100 people gathered at the site, according to the Porterville Recorder, to offer their input to the agency about what ought to be done. At least two environmental groups were represented — the Sierra Club and Sequoia Forest Keeper.
The Times-Delta praised the agency for its “open-minded approach” to dealing with the trail: “With enough input,” the editors wrote, “the Forest Service will certainly find a way to make the right decision.”
On December 9, the forest issued an eight-page scoping letter noting that it had received more than 150 verbal and written comments and suggestions about the fallen trees and the trail. The letter described the existing condition, the desired condition, the purpose and need, and so on. The desired condition, the letter stated, is that “The main loop provides an ADA-compliant trail for all visitors to enjoy…. The trail passes near the fallen sequoias so visitors can see them and learn about what happened there, while not contributing to unnatural erosion or resource damage.”
The letter included six alternatives and indicated Suggestion 2 as the Proposed Action: a boardwalk, meeting ADA requirements, that routes the trail around the fallen trees. This is a perfectly reasonable plan, developed under a planning process carried out by the book and executed very well by the Sequoia’s staff — no one could have done this better, under the current system. The forest expects to announce its decision in March. Some time thereafter, a contract will no doubt be advertised and awarded. By the time work begins on the trail, it will be at least six months since the trees fell, probably longer.
I suggest that such extensive scoping, analysis, and documentation in this case is excessive, as is the time it will take, due to all that planning, to complete this relatively simple project. If this were an isolated case, there’d be nothing for curmudgeonly editors to write about. The trouble is that at any one time there are hundreds of minor (but important) projects in various stages of planning. For example, the Mount Hood National Forest’s Schedule of Proposed Actions lists these projects, among others:
• Relocation of short sections of trail and reconstruction of walking trails above Timberline Lodge to the Pacific Crest Trail, involving the removal of broken asphalt and replacing it with packed gravel.
• Installation and maintenance of a solar-powered weather station, including a weather-proof building, solar panels, fencing, and various sensors and gauges.
• Digging a trench for geologic research on fault scarps. The trench, 100 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 15 feet deep, would be open for 2-3 weeks, after which the site would be restored.
Added together across the agency, the time, effort, and funding — an increasingly limited resource — devoted to the planning process for projects like this, let alone more-complex ones — is exorbitant.
In testimony before Congress on November 15, Chief Tom Tidwell said, “We need a [National Forest] planning rule that has less process and costs less, with the same or higher level of protections.”
I agree, and my take on the forthcoming revision of the National Forest planning rule is that Tidwell’s goals will be met, to some degree (see the interview with the Chief beginning on page 1). I commend the Forest Service for crafting a well-thought-out, if imperfect, rule, one with a good chance of easing what has been an immensely contentious and costly struggle over National Forest planning.
But what about “less process and costs less” when it comes to specific projects? How much time and effort is spent on collecting public input, compiling scoping letters, and producing reams of NEPA documents?
At the project level, the way out of the process thicket is to allow forest-level agency staff to make executive decisions based on their education and experience — and to expect regional and national managers to back them up. This requires a certain level of trust and, of course, accountability, not to mention a willingness to take reasonable risks.
In other words, at least for relatively small projects, a district ranger ought to have the authority to have a trail rebuilt, a skiers’ warming hut constructed, or a culvert replaced, without jumping through a series of administrative hoops. In the case of the Sequoia National Forest, the district ranger ought to have been allowed — expected — to decide on a course of action on her own and then delegate staff to carry out the restoration of the trail as soon as practicable, all without necessarily conducting formal scoping and issuing a Decision Memo.
A transparent planning process is an essential part of managing federal lands. The public’s right to be involved is indispensable. Granted. However, one can have too much of a good thing. Without legal and regulatory reforms that let forest-managers manage, “less process and costs less” on the nation’s 155 National Forests and 20 Grasslands is just pie in the sky.
The idea of moving NOAA to Interior has a certain appeal, especially with regard to their regulatory responsibilities for fish, and so that their scientific research could be better coordinated with others, most notably USGS.
A couple of weeks ago, the Chief visited our office and talked about banding together with USDA to reduce costs of purchased items through the power of numbers. I was reminded of this when I read the below article.
Does it seem odd to anyone else that different federal agencies need to negotiate through separate processes? Maybe we should allow DOE to negotiate a standard price for all federal agencies in a given area with a utility?
Some idle solar energy projects may soon connect to grid
Two federal agencies and Southern California Edison say they’re close to ending a long impasse that has made renewable energy projects sit unused. Negotiations with a third agency are tougher.
By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
January 21, 2012
Southern California Edison and two federal agencies said Friday they are only weeks away from resolving a years-long disagreement over connecting renewable energy projects to the grid.
The parties reached a preliminary agreement one week after Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Edison urging the utility to end an impasse that had frustrated the government because solar projects were sitting idle long after they had been built. Utilities elsewhere in California have signed similar interconnection agreements with few problems or delays.
Despite the progress this week, Edison and a third federal agency, the National Park Service, remain at odds over millions of dollars’ worth of solar projects on the agency’s lands.
Under the tentative deal with the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Edison will use a General Services Administration utilities contract to end the dispute. The contract will apparently resolve the main sticking point, which is the government’s liability for future damages.
“We think we have a solid path,” said Steve Pickett, Edison’s executive vice president of external relations. “Our plan is to continue to negotiate with all the agencies and hope to come to a resolution in the next couple of weeks.”
The Forest Service said Friday that it expected to have its two projects — including a solar facility at the Mono Lake visitors center — connected to the grid soon.
The disagreement has gone on for nearly three years and has hindered the agencies’ ability to meet renewable energy goals at a time when they are rushing to comply with orders to reduce their carbon footprints. Equally troubling is the financial fallout, officials say. The agencies could have saved tens of thousands of dollars in utility bills during the years spent in conflict with Edison, they said.
Negotiations with the Park Service have been stickier.
Pickett said the agency balked at a point involving dispute resolution. Under state law, he said, disagreements about power pricing are to be resolved by the state Public Utilities Commission. The Park Service believes such disputes with federal agencies should be taken up in federal court, Edison said.
Of the two dozen projects currently idle, most are in national parks in Southern California.
Park Service officials were not available for comment Friday.