Public Lands and the Public Good: Firefighting, Outsourcing and Other Threats to Sound Public Land Management: An Interview with Andy Stahl

Andy Stahl is executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), a non-profit organization founded in 1989 by a timber sale planner who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. It is an employee-citizen partnership of over 12,000 members, about 500 of whom work for the Forest Service. FSEEE's mission is to forge a socially responsible value system for the U.S. Forest Service based on a land ethic that ensures ecologically and economically sustainable resource management. Stahl is a forester who has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Associated Oregon Loggers, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

Multinational Monitor: Why was Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics founded?

Andy Stahl: It was founded during the Bush senior administration, when there was concern that the Forest Service was overemphasizing timber production at the expense of other environmental values on the national forests

MM: And that remains the animating motive of the organization?

Stahl: No, I wouldn't say it does. FSEEE has changed no less than the Forest Service itself. One would be hard-pressed to say today that timber is the lifeblood of the Forest Service. Harvest levels are at their lowest levels since the 1920s. The current administration in its three budget proposals to Congress has proposed the lowest level of logging that we've seen in at least two generations. Logging is down to around 2 billion board feet in the national forests, compared to 12 billion board feet at its peak in the late 1980s.

MM: What accounts for that shift?

Stahl: There are a lot of things--prominent among them that people did not want to see their national forests turned into tree farms. That expectation was changed through the spotted owl litigation of the 1980s. That litigation alone, and the Northwest Forest Plan that it led to, directly accounts for about half of the reduction in logging. Related environmental issues of spotted owl protection in the California Sierras and Arizona and New Mexico probably account for another third. What in essence happened was that the promise of Hubert Humphrey--who in 1976 wrote the National Forest Management Act, and declared that that act spelled an end to timber dominance on our national forests--was finally realized, some 20 years later.

MM: What does the Forest Service do, and what should it do?

Stahl: The Forest Service does a lot of things. Prominently today, the Forest Service fights fires. Fighting fires has replaced logging timber as the raison d'etre of the Forest Service. It has become the cash cow, as timber was a decade ago. Fighting virtually all fires and stamping them out has become the unquestioned priority of the agency. Yet ecologically, we know that fire plays an essential role in most forested ecosystems. Stamping them out only creates larger, more catastrophic forests later, as forests become overgrown, no longer thinned naturally by fire. So with regard to fire, the Forest Service ought to be putting out less of them.

MM: What is Reddy Squirrel?

Stahl: Reddy Squirrel! She's got an attitude. Reddy Squirrel is an icon of intelligent forest management. Reddy has a master's degree in fire ecology. Her motto is: "Forest Fires Happen. Be Ready." Her audience is homeowners who have chosen to live in the fire plains of our forests--like floodplains, these are places where fires happen, where notwithstanding our best technological efforts to wage war against fire, millions of acres still burn. Reddy advises homeowners to make their homes fire resistant, and to clear the brush from their backyards, so that they don't become a wildfire statistic.

MM: Who created Reddy?

Stahl: Reddy is FSEEE's invention, our way of providing a more ecological sensible and intelligent message for people than Smokey Bear's message. Smokey's message still has a place; it is appropriate that people not play with matches, and be cautious about their use of power tools during the high fire danger season. But it is even more important that people learn how to live with fire, that as a society we end our war against wildland fire. It is a war we've been waging for almost 100 years now. 1910 is the year the war started. We are the first society, in 10,000 years of human habitation on this continent, to have declared war against fire. What we've learned in 100 years of waging this war is that it is a fruitless war, self-defeating and insane. It has taken the lives of hundreds of fire fighters. It is as ridiculous as standing on the coast of Florida and blowing into the wind to try to stop hurricanes, or drilling massive holes in the ground in northwest California to try to relieve the tectonic pressures to stop earthquakes. Fire is a natural force. It will always be with us in North America. We have to learn to live with it, rather than fight it. It is that recognition that Reddy Squirrel is trying to get across to people who have been brainwashed by Bambi and Smokey and Lassie over the years.

MM: Are there institutional interests pushing the focus on firefighting, or has it just evolved?

Stahl: It has both institutional and ideological origins. In this case, I think they are somewhat separate but complementary. The war against fire has been hugely profitable for the Forest Service. The agency's budget is today larger than it has ever been. About half of it is fueled by the war against fire. At a time when the Forest Service recognized that logging in the national forests was coming to an end, fire proved a convenient lifeline for the financial future of the Forest Service. Congress has always been willing to write a blank check for firefighting, and the Forest Service has been adding zeroes to that check, ever since. Ideologically, foresters--at least conventional foresters, middle-aged and older--have been trained to regard fire as an enemy and destroyer of forests. They were asleep during fire ecology class. Certainly society has venerated fire fighters in general. The Forest Service regards itself as being on a heroic mission to stamp out the evil demon of fire from our forests.

MM: How important is the role of private interests--homeowners in fire-vulnerable areas, or timber companies looking to use fire prevention as a rationale for logging?

Stahl: Homeowners are poorly organized. I don't think they have a major influence in federal land policy. But the private timberland owners have two interests that are significant. One is that they want to keep fire out of their private forests. They go to great lengths to fireproof their forests, converting forests to industrial tree farms, removing as much fuel--wood--as they can. They are usually uninsured; when fire burns their forests, they do lose commercial value. Fire doesn't recognize property boundaries; so to the extent the national forests are a source of fire, they can threaten private timberland owners. Then there are still a few companies left in the West, where most of the national forests are, that would like to buy federal timber. To the extent that they can use fire as a justification for logging these forests--under the theory "log it to save it"--log the forests so that the fire doesn't kill the forests--then they can profit from those logging sales.

MM: Should there be any logging on federal forest land?

Stahl: Sure. There's no reason that there shouldn't be logging on federal forest lands. There is logging in national parks. I doubt that you could point to a forested landscape in North America where it would make ecological sense to take a complete hands-off approach to it. We humans are too ubiquitous in North America to afford not to tend our garden in some way. The question is not between no logging and some logging, the questions are: if you are going to log, how, when, why and where? Those are questions that have to be informed by a good basic ecological understanding of forests.

MM: In the aggregate, is the amount that is going on now appropriate?

Stahl: It is a question that doesn't really make much sense, because you cannot talk about forestry in the aggregate. The practice of forestry is so site-specific, that it makes little sense to average it across disparate landscapes and disparate ecosystems.

MM: FSEEE put out a guide to free speech. Why does a forest employees' group need to put out a manual on free speech rights?

Stahl: We find that the quality of public land decisions increases the more open the workplace is to a variety of ideas, the more open the workplace is to employees speaking their minds. This is not unique to the Forest Service. Large bureaucracies--federal agencies, state agencies, large private corporations--tend to discourage dissenters. We think perspectives different from business as usual are valuable, and ought to be listened to--not necessarily followed, but aired, and included in the public debate. So we counsel Forest Service employees on how to most effectively make their views known within the agency, and be effective participants in this experiment in democracy that we call public land management.

MM: What kind of things do Forest Service employees highlight that run counter to business as usual?

Stahl: Forest Service employees are all over the map. I'd hesitate to speak for employees generally. Speaking for FSEEE members who are Forest Service employees, they believe that the Forest Service is well served by environmental laws on the books that require thoughtful planning before land management actions occur, promote citizen collaboration and participation in the decisions that affect our public lands, and hold the Forest Service accountable to the public and our environmental laws, through the court system or otherwise.

MM: What is an example of a prominent whistle-blowing case with which you've been involved?

Stahl: Mary Dalton, a forester in Southeast Alaska on the Tongass National Forest, was the first woman to lead a field crew that does surveys in advance of logging on the Tongass. The purpose of her surveys was to identify environmental hazards to be avoided during upcoming logging operations. She would identify steep slopes that had unstable soils, bald eagle nesting sites, salmon streams and the like. Some years ago, she submitted her crew's field notes to the office-based planning team that was to use those notes to write the environmental impact statement for upcoming logging. The draft environmental impact statement came out. She took a look at it and realized that the team had ignored virtually all of her findings. So she wrote a public comment letter, pointing out the discrepancies. Where her field notes had shown steep, unstable slopes, the draft environmental impact statement said, "flat ground, don't worry." The final plan came out unchanged. The Forest Service had ignored her comments. She appealed that plan, as she thought any citizen had a right to do. Unbeknownst to her, there was an obscure Forest Service regulation that barred Forest Service employees from appealing Forest Service logging decisions. As a result, her appeal was dismissed without a decision, she was given a 30-day suspension for disloyalty, and she was given a directed reassignment from the Tongass, forcing her to move to the Mexican border near the Coronado National Forest or to resign. At that point, we learned of her plight and intervened to help her. We brought suit on her behalf, and we prevailed. The regulation barring employee appeals was rescinded, her suspension was rescinded, her pay was restored, and a settlement package was reached in her case. She continues to be a well-respected Forest Service employee.

MM: How is the Bush administration's push for privatization and outsourcing affecting the Forest Service?

Stahl: It is probably affecting morale more than on-the-ground management. Outsourcing--which is a government-wide initiative of the Bush administration, predicated on the notion that the private sector can fulfill government functions better than government can--in many ways breaks the social contract between employer and employee within the Forest Service. The Forest Service throughout its 100-year history has regarded itself as a family--you'll find multiple examples of sons and daughters who have followed in their father's and grandfather's footsteps to pursue careers in the Forest Service. There are many married couples who are both Forest Service employees. Outsourcing has said to these workers, you are just cogs in the machine. You are interchangeable with a temp agency worker. We don't care about your passion for your work, we don't care about your years of expertise, we don't care how much you know about the land and love it--as far as we are concerned, you can be replaced at the drop of a hat. Forest Service employees wonder whether the Forest Service is an agency that cares anymore about anything--about the land, about its employees, about anything but its own bureaucratic survival.

MM: Where do the privatization and outsourcing efforts stand with respect to the Forest Service?

Stahl: They are on the way. The Forest Service has quotas that it is seeking to meet to competitively outsource a percentage of positions that they have classified as commercial in nature. The Forest Service has classified 75 percent of its workforce as "commercial"--that is, eligible for outsourcing. Each year, the Forest Service will study a percentage of those workers, to determine whether their jobs could be performed more efficiently by a private corporation. Those studies are ongoing right now for workers who manage the Forest Service's computer systems, and workers who analyze the public's comments on timber sales and rules and forest plans. In the future, when you write a comment letter to the Forest Service expressing concern over a timber sale in your backyard, it may be that no Forest Service employee will ever see your letter. Instead, it will go to a P.O. box that will be picked up by a temp agency employee. They will take it to a room where some other private consultants--who might have timber industry clients--will analyze your letter, reduce it to bits in a computerized database, and then submit an expurgated report to the Forest Service. That's the future of public participation under outsourcing.

MM: In what other ways will outsourcing impact Forest Service activities?

Stahl: We're going to see outsourcing of what are called stewardship contracts, where logging companies are given direct authority to decide which trees should be cut on tracts of national land. In other words, you take a 10,000-acre tract, enter into a long-term contract with Weyerhaeuser or Potlatch Corporation, and private industrial foresters from these companies will decide how that land should be managed.

MM: Are there any prospects for stopping or reversing this trend?

Stahl: I think so. The basic federal law that outsourcing is proceeding under is about 20 years old. This White House has been the first in 20 years to very assertively try to use this law to change the makeup of the federal workforce. A different administration could look at the law differently than this administration. So a change in the White House would change the way outsourcing is proceeding.

This law was intended to correct problems in the Department of Defense with overpriced toilet seats and airplanes and things like that. It was never intended to replace federal managers of our public lands with private corporations. And yet that is how the administration is using it.

There's substantial concern in Congress regarding how outsourcing is affecting the Forest Service and the National Park Service, and in this year's Interior Department appropriations bill, Congress has provided some limits on how much outsourcing the Forest Service and the other Interior Department agencies like the Park Service can go forward with in the coming year. Those limits derive from the House and Senate Republican leadership, which has split from the White House on how aggressive outsourcing should be.

© Multinational Monitor November 2003.