Eleanor S.Townes, Regional Forester
USDA Forest Service, SW Region
517 Gold Ave, SW
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87102
Congratulations on becoming Regional Forester, and becoming the first female Regional Forester in R3! Although we have not met, I've heard great things about you. Some people suggested I come see you in Alamogordo last week, but I thought it best to leave that as a happy and upbeat day when you visit the Lincoln NF. What I have to say is disheartening, so I figured a letter would be better.
On April 27, 1998 I resigned from my position as a wildlife biologist on the Lincoln NF after 20 years of employment, all in Region 3. I resigned for personal reasons related to job stress, resulting from what I believe is gross mis-management of people and natural resources. I have decided to share some of them with you in hopes that you can affect them.
My resignation from the Forest Service came on the heels of 6 months work to evaluate the effects of on-going livestock authorizations on threatened and endangered species. During this process, it became vividly clear that the FS has trouble doing what it knows is right and best. For example, implementation of allowable use monitoring has been exceedingly slow. Allowable use is a management tool used by range scientists for decades. It is set professionally by range conservationists in virtually every allotment management plan in the region. Despite on-going litigation pressure, not only haven't these been implemented, FS management is still finding ways to avoid and delay doing so. This appears to be partly due to shortfalls in manpower/funding to monitor and partly due to concerns about the actions that will be needed to avoid exceeding the allowable use (e.g. destocking or reduced animal numbers).
During the range assessment, I expressed concern about the adequacy and consistency of proposed allowable use monitoring for some range allotments with federally listed species. On April 10, 1998 I was told in no uncertain terms by the Forest Supervisor: (1) not to question any range conservationist's proposed actions (regardless of content or quality) and (2) to ignore information that management does not have the capacity to implement the proposed actions. I believe this was intimidation to do my job professionally. I should not be asked to sign a biological assessment with my professional credibility on the line, that is based on unclear, erroneous, unprofessional or inconsistent information.
My resignation came less than 3 weeks later. It was triggered by a proverbial last straw. When I was perceived as offensive by a peer who did not like the range management guidance and direction I provided, I was told by my supervisor that I must have been part of the problem. I believe that I was blamed for something I did not do and was not responsible for. When my supervisor said he would meet with the individual to give him the direction I was trying to give but failed, I asked if I could be a part of that discussion in order for my direction to be supported and upheld in person. I was told no. Because it was my job to give this individual technical direction and guidance, I felt that this lack of support would undermine my future effectiveness with him. Why would he ever come to me again for guidance, when he can go directly to the boss? Upon leaving, I suggested to the Forest Supervisor that I would retract my resignation if someone would acknowledge mis-handling of the final incident and he declined the offer. This last straw came on top of alot of frustration. The following describes a few of the more recent incidents and observations which led to my disenchantment with the agency.
When working on range allotment management plans, I requested contemporary field data about the vegetative conditions when data were over 30 years old. This was received as heresy. I was told that I was out of bounds to tell another professional when he should collect data. I totally agree with the outgoing deputy Forest Supervisor who said range management is a corpse on life support and no one will pull the plug.
Motivation to get the job done appears to come and go with litigation. When the region was under litigation regarding the retroactive nature of LMP decisions, the proposed action for the biological assessment was to implement allowable use on all allotments on the Lincoln NF. When the region was upheld in court that LMP standards are mainly prospective, the proposed action changed to implement allowable use with new decisions only. If it was feasible before, why change? If we know this is right and best for the ecosystem, why should I have to "fight" to get this proposed on allotments with endangered species as a minimum, which are only about half or less of the LNF allotments?
Despite on-going regional litigation, the Forest seems to maintain a business as usual attitude. For example, allotments which were vacant and without permittees during the last year were stocked by new permittees this year, even though the Forest Service had knowledge that: a ) grazing would not be in compliance with the ESA and b) that the district did not have the resources to implement allowable use monitoring. This is outrageous. In my opinion, allowable use monitoring is the cost of responsible stewardship. It is the cost of authorizing cattle on public land in the first place. I can understand that to begin monitoring and managing on-going livestock grazing may be difficult, but to solicit a new permittee on a vacant allotment knowing that proper management and legal compliance could not be provided is an outright sham!
The Integrated Resource Management (or NEPA/NFMA) process is not alive and well in this region and certainly is not even alive on the Lincoln NF. ID Teams there are used as document writers and not process participants, contrary to what we are led to expect from trainings. Specialist input is not used in developing proposed actions and any input that detracts from proposed actions is either ignored or watered down. I came to the FS as a specialist believing we were all commissioned to work together as professionals, to prescribe what is best for the land while also serving people's needs. What I found was each functional area devises their own ideas and then pushes them up through a more-or-less political system. Whenever this lack of integration was identified as a concern during program reviews I was involved in, line officers denied it and had all statements stricken from the records. Ellie, this situation results in total discord. How can we defend actions to the public if we are not united (or even coordinated!) as a group of professionals?
During the recent (2/98) GAO review on Forest Health on the Lincoln NF, the Forest was asked how much of a problem there is. They created a definition for the purpose of that review which surprised me, since we were doing many activities in the name of forest health. Shouldn't we already have a handle on this? The definition of forest health hazard used at first was any stand with a basal area over 100. This is such a low BA for a total forested stand that its absurd. A regional director suggested the true definition is any acre that has not been treated in the last 10 years. When it was suggested that cutting more trees would benefit riparian health, the forest hydrologist's input to the contrary was refuted at every opportunity and ultimately omitted from or diluted in the report.
The acres most actively managed on the LNF are in pinyon-juniper woodland, which is not a fire hazard like the pine and fir forests and is not near urban interface areas. The risk of catastrophic fire in the latter two systems and especially around urban-wildland areas has been widely recognized and managed in the west for the last decade. Despite implications and beliefs, the Mexican spotted owl Recovery Plan does not conflict with fire hazard reduction objectives, and yet the pace for treating acres where it is needed most has been exceedingly slow and a small fraction of the Forest's vegetation accomplishments. Too much personal freedom is tolerated for the manner in which data are collected and management proposals are approached and executed, at the expense of the greater good. Priorities have appeared to be inconsistent with an otherwise urgent situation to manage this fire risk.
In fact, priority setting is a problem at the Forest level, at least on the LNF, although the Leadership Team does try. For one, the FS can-do attitude continues to get us in trouble. There are far too many priorities for anything to realistically be a priority. The Sacramento Salvage is an example of how the LNF manages priorities and land. (1) Instead of conceiving proposed actions based on current conditions and short and long term goals for an area, it was conceived as an opportunity to cut trees anywhere possible. (2) The ID Team was told to find 2 million board feet of salvage (dead or dying trees), in response to insect and disease outbreaks on one district. Although not a very large or complicated project, the team floundered for lack of direction, guidance, and priority setting. Although salvage is usually urgent due to a limited period of utility and all of the forest's resources were available to assist the group in the LNFs number 1 priority, Sac Salvage took over 2 years from assembling an ID Team to decision. This is because no one was accountable for the progress and fate of the project.
During project planning, Forest staffs recommended an EA because of the geographic proximity of many of the units within one watershed. When the project got further behind-schedule due to lack of personnel management, an EA was scrapped in favor of a categorical exclusion. This was appealed, remanded, and reworked into an EA in the third year since the forest started the project. The EA is now under appeal and in the years it has taken to go through this, the value of the salvage is questionable. If this is the way we manage our highest priorities, we have a problem.
I believed Jack Ward Thomas and others who said the Forest Service is the "premiere conservation agency in the world". Yet in 20 years, I have yet to see us put our best foot forward. Don't get me wrong, Ellie, I understand the complexities of our work. But what we are desperately lacking is a bottomline ( a "company line") that the FS will stand for at all times. Does the natural resource come first or doesn't it? Was Ecosystem Management (EM) really a passing fad? Customer service does not equate with good resource management, but at least it would provide a basis for decisions.
In reality, we have the company line already and there is nothing wrong with it. We have a mission. We have laws, regulations and policies. What we lack is the implementation of that company line. I used to think the problem was people and I had alot of disdain for individuals. But I've come to believe that it is really the system. The de-centralized agency structure, nature of the accountability system, the line organization, the tolerances and the reward system we have are not working to get the American public and the earth's biodiversity what they deserve. It is within the realm of feasibility that a serious reform in Region 3 could stop some, if not all, of the lawsuits. That would allow the FS to get on with its mission.
Finally, I want to comment on the current management of personnel on the Lincoln NF. Despite all of the internal efforts to reform our behaviors (e.g. CIP), there is reprisal for speaking out. I chose resignation over use of the grievance process because I would not have prevailed. There is blind support for all staffs by virtue of their position. This may be a vestige of the military organization. If a staff officer is incompetent, ineffective or criticized, they are upheld nonetheless. The Lincoln NF lost a professional engineer this year for these same reasons. Why is it that a policy that is found flawed and costs the FS an extra sum of funds for payments due to grievances is not changed or investigated? How many good professionals, especially women, will it take?
The saddest part of working for the FS the last 10 years, has been the lack of cooperation between staff units and professionals. The FS has enormous skills and abilities at their service, yet the ability to tap these resources effectively appears to be wholly lacking. Maybe it is just Region 3. More money and more funding is not the answer, but effective management of skills and time, including priority management and accountability, could be.
Ellie, I was offended by the way my longterm supervisor treated me but we are all human. I remain angry that the system tolerates so much poor resource management both in managing human skills and the environment. I'm also frustrated at being repressed for so long and ultimately I feel disillusioned or maybe betrayed about the management of our public lands. I hope you can help make the future brighter by helping to bring Region 3 into the 21st century. I believe the FS has the ability-just not the know how and direction- to be the premiere conservation agency. It urgently needs reform with leadership to do so.
If you have any desire to discuss details of my experiences, or know of a way I can be of service to such a mission, please let me know and we can arrange to meet. Thank you for your attention and all the best to you in your new job!
cc: Mike Dombeck, FS Chief, WO
cc: Jose Martinez, Lincoln NF, Forest Supervisor
cc: Don DeLorenzo, Lincoln NF Wildlife Staff