Of owls, RIFs, and gridlock – managing the Pacific Northwest’s federal forests; reduction in force

Of owls, RIFs, and gridlock – managing the Pacific Northwest’s federal forests; reduction in force – Editorial

Neil Sampson

The challenge of managing the remaining old-growth federal forests in the Pacific Northwest continues to grow in spite of (or, some might argue, because of) the strategy put forth by the Clinton Administration. Though most of the sentiment within AMERICAN FORESTS (as expressed in this column in the last issue) has supported the President’s concepts and political courage, we have also been well aware of the enormous risks and problems involved.

Some of the most difficult challenges seem to be transitional. Agreeing on a long-term management strategy may be a lot easier than getting from here to there. The Forest Service, for example, is being asked to do considerably more, and different, assessments to back up its management decisions. But today, additional studies simply create another layer of work that must be done.

At a time when the agency appears to need more staff and a somewhat different mix of skills to do the field work for ecosystem management, budget cuts accelerated by the sharp drop in federal timber sales will force staff reductions in many of the national forests most seriously affected by the old-growth controversy. The most dreaded possibility, according to agency managers, would be the need to do an official “reduction in force,” or RIF. A RIF creates an enormously disruptive game of musical chairs. The costs of moving employees, losing continuity in jobs, and losing younger employees likely to have the new skills needed add up to an enormous drain on talent, morale, work efficiency, and money.

Recognizing this potential hazard, the Administration and Congress are moving to try to cover the need for downsizing with additional authority and money for early retirement “buy-outs” and other means to accomplish the reductions without forcing a RIF.

Even without a RIF, downsizing agency staff during this transitional time is an enormous shock. A study by Forest Service managers identified another $162.5 million needed to meet the Clinton plan’s needs. Congress responded by adding $29 million in the Senate version of the appropriations bill. In addition, many of the needs could be met by “reprogramming” existing budget line items–switching from the activity in the line item to the one needed in the forest. Congress has been reluctant to allow this practice in the past, but the pressures are high this year to ease controls in the appropriations bill and allow greater latitude for agency managers. AMERICAN FORESTS has for many years called for fewer line items, less Congressional micro-management, and a different method of budgeting and progress accounting. We’re hoping this emergency will spur Congress and the Administration to devise a long-term solution to this problem.

There are significant transitional problems, however, that agency budgets and personnel levels won’t address. For example, the Clinton proposal to establish a timber-harvest level of 1.2 billion board-feet in 1993 drew howls of protest from the timber industry on the basis that it was a drastic reduction from previous levels. The real facts, however, are that less than 10 percent of that target–something under 100 million–is likely to be met. As we pointed out last issue, the real prospects for 1993-’94 were close to zero because of legal gridlock. The promise of the Clinton proposal was to untangle those knots and establish a more predictable and sustainable program.

The Forest Service’s inability to move even the greatly reduced timber-sale program is traced by many observers to environmental groups’ unwillingness to release legal “holds” on many sales, to the slowness of the legal process, and to resistance to change within agency staff in some places. We don’t want to get into the “blame game,” but it is important to point out that whatever the reasons, this inability to meet even greatly reduced timber targets is sure to cause serious backlash that could scuttle the entire management strategy before it gets going.

For several years now, it has been apparent that the problem in the Pacific Northwest had very little to do with spotted owls, which were mainly a handy legal pawn. Increasingly, the problem is transcending the forests as well and focusing on whether or not–and how–American government works. Can the public make reasoned decisions and carry them out on the public lands? Can we create and direct public agencies that can provide long-term management and stewardship based on an evolving combination of scientific understanding and social values? At one time, we were convinced we could. Do we still share that conviction?

The prospect that gridlock has captured our system, that even national leadership cannot untangle it, and that valuable public institutions and agencies are becoming casualties in a battle of irreconcilably opposing forces within our democratic system should become our major concern. If the Clinton forest proposal fails, the damage is going to reach far beyond the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Forests

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