Testimony of John J. Howard

Commissioner Union County, Oregon before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management

Thank you Mr. Chairman for the opportunity to testify regarding the future direction of our National Forests. Before I respond directly to your questions, I would like to make an overall point about why the subject of this hearing is so important to the people in my county.

As a County Commissioner I recognize and appreciate the role that the U.S. Forest Service has performed in forestry in United States. I am not alone in this appreciation. I have talked with many people in my county and throughout the region who also appreciate the hard work of local forest managers.

However, complex federal laws and regulations have made it nearly impossible for our local federal forest managers to do their jobs. Whatever good intentions might have been behind some of these regulations, they do not work now. They often contradict each other and they invite legal challenge. These laws and regulations have caused gridlock.

Litigation, administrative appeals, and institutional fear have resulted m bureaucratic paralysis. This inaction is unsafe for our forests. In my area virtually all efforts to manage the forests have been obstructed. Yet roughly half of the 6,000,000 acres of forest in the four National Forests in the Blue Mountains--3,000,000 acres of trees--are infested with insects and dangerously overcrowded. Previous hearings have already discussed the forest health problem. Suffice it to say that grid lock has allowed the perpetuation of a forest health time bomb, an invitation for catastrophic wildfires that will damage these ecosystems to the point where it will severely limit their return to a healthy status.

Congress needs to rework the appeals process for forest management. The process of consultation among multiple federal agencies, the National Forest Management Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act as they relate to planning regulation, as well as the Endangered Species Act. Each of these components should be working together to protect the environment while allowing the public lands that we all jointly own to provide for the needs of our nation. The land management agencies should carry out their management with minimal consultation with the "regulatory agencies".

With that in mind, I will now respond to each of the twelve questions you asked us to consider in our testimony.

1. How would an alternative design improve on the serious problems with the current system identified in our oversight hearings?

One way to identify potential improvements is to analyze what's wrong with the present system. From my observation and discussions with the public there are four basic problems that need to be solved:
  1. The system lacks uniform objectives. There is no central vision of what the agencies are trying to accomplish. The federal land management agencies get mixed signals from Congress. Without a clear vision, both the public and private sectors have only limited opportunities to make wise investments in the future.
  2. There are too many intermediate steps for the local forest manager to follow to accomplish quality forest management. There are too many federal agencies involved. The land management agencies are fully capable. The less the regulatory agencies are involved, the better. The result is that resource managers are process-oriented, rather than results-oriented.
  3. Current federal laws are conflicting and complicated structures which make it nearly impossible for our local federal managers to do their jobs.
  4. The whole forest regulatory process has been built on restrictions that do not encourage agency ownership and accountability. These restrictions constrain management options instead of encouraging innovative solutions. The process has too many "DON'Ts" and not nearly enough "DOs."
How can we design a solution to these problems? Our local forest managers need the support of a clear vision, expressed as specific objectives and backed by incentives for action. They need flexibility so they can make good local decisions. Their decisions need to be evaluated based on their actual outcomes. It is more important to achieve results than it is to stay within some list of restrictions.

We have some examples that show these concepts in action. One of these programs is Oregon Benchmarks.

If the objective of Congress is to improve the efficiency and the performance of the Forest Service, I would strongly recommend that you review the conference report of the Association of Oregon Counties Eastside Forest Health Conference. This conference included Forest Service managers all the way from our local area up to the Chief, other federal regulatory agencies, the State Forester and county commissioners. The conference discussed forest management operations and identified legal barriers to the implementation of forest health management . The conference generated a legislative action plan to allow public land managers to move forward in forest health management. The top five priorities identified in the Legislative Action Plan include: (1) the inflexibility of the Endangered Species Act, (2) the manipulation of resource management through litigation (3) budget inadequacies and uncertainties, (4) hindrances to public involvement caused by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and (5) susceptibilities of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to legal challenge and administrative appeal.

One approach, besides the Benchmarks, would be for Congress to allow the federal lands to be part of the Oregon Option Plan. This Plan would allow Oregon to manage the federal public lands so they would be free of federal red tape such as the conflicting, overlapping laws that have hindered quality forest management solutions in the past. In turn, Oregon would be accountable for results in terms of achieving forest management outcomes.

2. Who else besides the federal government effectively manages substantial areas of forest land? States? Counties? Special Jurisdictions? Private entities?

There are 27.8 million acres of forest land in Oregon (all owners) Of this amount, federal lands contribute 16 million acres, private lands, 10.8 million acres, state lands 85,000 acres, and other public lands 123,000 acres.

Particular resources that now receive forest practice protection include environmentally sensitive sites, riparian areas, and stream corridors. air, soil, and water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat. These protections are included in a family of rules known as the Oregon Forest Practices Act. The Forest Practices Act was the first of its kind in the nation, and continues to be one of the most effective among states with similar regulations. The act applies to all commercial forest operations on state and private forest lands in Oregon. Monitoring shows a high degree of compliance with the act.

Under the leadership of the Oregon Board of Forestry and State Forester Jim Brown, the Department of Forestry enjoys strong support from a broad cross section of stakeholders It seems the State of Oregon realizes that good science is a necessary basis to solve issues concerning the management of forests in Oregon. This is also true of our neighboring states of Washington, Idaho, and California. The need for scientific information does not mean that social processes, including policy-making, must stop until science achieves some perfect, final answer. The process is one of successively improving approximations.

The Forest Trust Land Advisory Committee was created in response to provide an important forum for county government before the Board of State Forestry. The membership is comprised of three members, appointed by the Governor, who are elected officials of county governing bodies from counties containing state-owned lands. The Committee is working with the state do address the trend of reduced timber harvests and associated timber tax revenues. reductions in timber revenues are coupled with state property tax reductions at a time when increased costs for running programs associated with forest health, fire, and Forest Practices Act and Endangered Species compliance are being realized.

The State of Oregon chooses to look at the various programs and operations of the Department of Forestry as a series of interwoven businesses all working toward the goal of providing stewardship for Oregon's forests. An overview of the "businesses" is:

  1. Protection from Fire
  2. Forest Practices
  3. Forestry Assistance
  4. State Forest Management
  5. Nursery
  6. Agency Administration
Other states, for instance Washington and Idaho, also have developed successful forest management programs using combined regulatory and nonregulatory approaches to ensuring land stewardship.

3. What comparison can you make about the costs, outputs, and environmental standards followed by other owners relative to federal agency performance?

As I have just indicated, given the chance, private landowners and state forest managers could do a great job of helping to manage public lands. These lands do not have burdensome federal regulation that federal managers have, therefore it is difficult to make cost comparisons.

The private and state forests in Oregon are generally healthier, more resilient and more productive than the federally managed lands. When I say more productive, I mean that those lands are more attractive to look at, offer opportunities for recreation, have diverse habitat and support varieties of wildlife and vegetation. These lands are also more productive in terms of providing commodities and jobs.

4. How do other managers' management constraints compare to those faced by federal managers as a result of federal legal requirements?

In Oregon, the state lands are managed under the Oregon Forest Practices Act which has had extensive public involvement, and science that has resulted in greater flexibility than allowed by federal policies.

The Oregon riparian zone rules are based on stream evaluations of actual local conditions and help managers find solutions, rather than restrain them and prevent them from managing the forests under their charge. PACFISH has similar language, but the interpretation of the language has been confused by the public, and somewhat within the Forest Service. The Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project is charged with developing a replacement to PACFISH with a process performance based strategy cognizant of local conditions and site capabilities. Their challenge is to develop a workable strategy that results in flexible management within the riparian zone.

5. Do other managers operate more efficiently than federal managers?

In most cases, private forest lands are well managed. According to a recent assessment of Oregon's forests and wood products industry by Dr. John Beuter, Oregon is not in any danger of running out of trees or timber. In fact there is little doubt that Oregon can sustain timber production under the state Forest Practices Act, as well as near levels of the recent past. In spite of billions of board feet lost to fires, insects, and disease, Oregon's forests are thriving and vigorously producing raw materials needed to supply the wood products industry, and other socially desired outputs.

Ensuring the practice of sustainable forestry is in the broad public interest and can be achieved through a partnership among diverse landowners, contractors, and the companies that purchase wood. Most large private landowners subscribe to sustainable forestry practices in some form. The most common practice is for industrial landowners to conform to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative of the American Forest and Paper Association, which establishes the industry as the leader in progressive forest management in the United States. Through adoption of such forestry principles the industry's commitment to sustainable forestry is clear and complete. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative will have terrific long-term payoffs for improved forest conservation in the United States, and provides a workable flexible model of forest stewardship for all landowners

All landowners have responsibilities which require protection of resource values for theirs and future generations. To ensure that forest landowners may use but not diminish the value of forest land, modern forestry programs should be designed to protect the environment effectively at modest costs to owners and taxpayers. Regardless of forest ownership type, laws and regulations of many kinds are contributing to increasing management costs: implementing forestry best management practices, Endangered Species Act compliance, general wildlife and amenity protection interests, sustainable forestry programs, and perhaps ecosystem management advances. We need to allow landowners flexibility to meet their management objectives and environmental concerns with compromising their ability to cover costs.

6. Could some federal forests be sold, leased, or otherwise transferred to states or other public managers on some sort of cost reimbursement or revenue-sharing basis?

One current proposal in Oregon is to introduce legislation to turn over 3 million acres of federal lands to the state to ensure successful management. The Association of Oregon Counties and the public at large support the effort. Governor John Kitzhaber has ordered the Board of Forestry to study the proposal. An important benefit would be recovery of depressed payments in lieu of taxes to counties while maintaining sound forest management practices.

Part of the answer to this question must come from you; the members of Congress. We need your help. You must ask yourself whether you will be able to repair the conflicting and contradictory regulations and laws that are at the heart of our federal forest management problems, rather than pass the problem off to the states.

Oregon is well positioned to take the challenge of managing the public lands, especially the Oregon and California Railroad Grant Lands (O&C) that are contained within the state. The Oregon Department of Forestry and the State Forestry Board have a solid working relationship with county officials and the public. In making such transfers there are several areas which would need attention and discussion.

  1. Oregon has an initiative petition process which could result in ballot measures which could adversely affect land management. Examples of this potential are the Oregon Scenic Waterways, and most recently an initiative which bans the use of dogs for the hunting of bear and cougars. These transferred forest lands would have to be exempt from this threat.
  2. It currently takes about $450 million to run Region 6 on an annual basis. In a normal fire season, add many tens of millions more. About two-thirds of this is focused on Oregon national forests. Even though there may be efficiencies by others managing the forests, it is still a big ticket item. A financial evaluation would have to be carefully reviewed.
  3. The Forest Service administers thousands of agreements, permits, rights-of-way, and special uses; including the mining program that is founded in federal law. These agreements have some degree of legal stature and would need to be honored. A shift in management responsibility would surely cause an awareness of these parties to protect their interest in any prior agreements.
  4. In Oregon, hundreds of permittees graze cattle or sheep on the national forests. The State generally has different regulations, and charges significantly higher fees to permittees. These differences would have to be settled between the state and the permittees.
  5. Just about all of the lands east of the crest of the Cascades managed by the Forest Service are lands that were ceded by treaty to the federal government by tribes in which tribes reserved rights, and the federal government took on trust responsibilities. On Forest Service lands, these generally relate to habitat and access management, along with other cultural interests. Treaties supersede state laws. Many of the changes in Forest Service management are the results of tribal influence in holding our feet to the fire to meet the trust responsibilities. These would probably create major discussion within the Tribal Councils. Some lands west of the Cascade crest also have strong tribal interests as well.

7. Could some federal forests be sold, leased, or otherwise transferred for management by private interests at their own cost or on some sort of cost reimbursement or revenue sharing basis?

You used the word transferred here. That implies an actual exchange of ownership. I would only comment that this approach could be quite controversial and could meet with high resistance because of the perceived loss of public input. It might be more practical to consider a stewardship approach where private interests participate in management of public lands--an innovative partnership solution.

8. What sort of transfer system could be utilized that would free these lands from some federal land management statutory/regulatory constraints?

Under the direction of the Oregon Department of Forestry, the transition team would involve the public in cooperative effort to arrive at a solution for the future. It won't be easy, but it would be worth it. There should be clear incentives for all sides in the discussion to come to agreement and a clear deadline for results.

9. Even without any land transfers or reductions in federal land management constraints, could the Forest Service contract out certain land management functions?

Stewardship contracting in its various forms could relieve the management burden on federal agencies and place responsibility in the hands of professional forest management companies that have potential to improve efficiency while attaining environmental conservation standards. In implementing management actions, the federal agencies could enter into multiyear contracts, including service contracts, for cultural treatments of forest stands to achieve a defined forest health objective. One approach has been called "Forest Ecosystem Stewardship Demonstration," which has the potential to improve and restore the health of forest resources through implementation of forest management, to provide for employment opportunities and economic health and viability for rural communities near units of the national forest system, and to provide flexibility in procurement and funding practices to enter into stewardship contracts to achieve management objectives and requirements prescribed in federal laws. This type of program could greatly relieve a federal obstacle in providing support to resource-dependent economies (currently, the federal agencies have difficulty perceiving their role in sustainable development, which is an impediment to implementing federal forest management programs).

10. Could land management to be contracted out on a results-oriented rather than task oriented basis?

Yes, that too is already being done. For example, reforestation is performed on a results-oriented basis.

11. What incentives currently motivate federal forest management activities? If the Forest Service were funded differently, how might these incentives and management activities change?

My impression is that there are very few incentives. Local managers are governed by restrictions rather than incentives. Congress and the Administration need to recognize good managers.

In my experience the local federal forest managers take their jobs seriously. They take personal pride in their local area. One good incentive would be to return the results of their labors to their local area. Right now, a manager who does a good job sees all the visitation fees and harvest venues go to the general funds. It would make clear sense for a manager who has been achieving good results to be motivated to continue to do a good job by returning a portion of these funds back to the local area to support additional quality forest management efforts. These incentives do not need to be based purely on harvest outputs. Managers who sustain forest health over a period of time should be rewarded for that performance.

I have known the Chief of the Forest Service for years. He is a personal friend. Forest Service officials have great ideas and much experience. They could, and would, do a better job if they were given more discretion. This would allow the professionals--from the Chief on down--to do the kind of job they can, and want to do.

12. What demonstration projects could test any of these possibilities?

I would propose a demonstration project for the La Grande District of the Wallowa Whitman National Forest in Oregon, located in my county, to document how this incentive-based management could work. The manager would have clear objectives and his or her performance would be monitored and measured by a local monitoring body. The District would answer directly to the Washington office and bypass the burdensome decision-making steps. The District would also be allowed to have maximum flexibility in making management decisions and budgeting of funds.

If Congress is interested in the Pilot Project, I would be more than eager to submit a formal proposal. A number of pioneering pilot projects have been conducted for the forest in our area. The Blue Mountains forest health study, as well as the Upper Grand Ronde conservation Strategy for the Endangered Snake River Spring Chinook Salmon, was conducted in our area. Currently, the Grande Ronde Model Watershed Program, which started in 1992, is the latest initiative between Union and Wallowa counties..

Another demonstration project would be for Congress to pursue the transfer of the management of O&C lands to the state. You should keep in mind that doing so will not improve the management of these lands if the current conflicting and complicated structure of Federal laws is kept in place. Whatever the course, the current, conflicting and complicated structure of federal laws must be corrected

This brings us to the heart of the problem. Congress must correct the current structure, rather than give it to someone else to deal with. Congress must still reform the burdensome laws which have created this crisis for land managers in order to enable a pilot project, or demonstration project to be successful. If you decide to transfer lands to the state to be managed without any significant changes in federal laws, we would be in strong opposition to those efforts. The states would need to be fully empowered to implement forest management programs consistent with current state laws.

Union County has enjoyed a strong working relationship with both the Federal and State land managers. It is our belief that federal land managers are capable resource professionals if they are given the opportunity. They should be given that opportunity. Federal laws have simply produced a situation which puts federal land managers in an impossible position and potentially impose additional regulatory constraints to state and private lands.

Congress needs to rework the appeals process for forest management, the process of consultation among multiple federal agencies, as well as the Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act as it relates to planning regulations. Each of these components should he working together to protect the environment while allowing the public lands that we all jointly own to provide for the needs of our nation. And first and foremost, the federal land management agencies should be given the authority and responsibility to manage the people_s land with clear policy guidance from Congress.

Thank you for this opportunity to present local and regional views on federal forest land ownership and management. We appreciate your commitment to resolving current gridlock problems. It will be a daunting task.

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