FSEEE: Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics

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Letters

FSEEE encourages readers to submit brief letters to the editor. All letters are subject to editing for length, style and grammar.

 

Spring 2010

 

Readers' Respond to Print Magazine's Demise


FSEEE received dozens of letters in response to our decision to discontinue print publication of Forest Magazine. Here are some excerpts:

—I was disappointed to read that the Spring 2010 issue of Forest Magazine will be the last. As a library internet user who shares the computer service with other library visitors, I will not be able to take sufficient time to sit and read a magazine on-line.

—Call me old fashioned, but I regret the discontinuance of the print magazine….Because it is so precious, you want to believe that only the best researched and written articles on the most important subjects are in your hand…a distillation of what would otherwise be too much information.

—Extremely sorry to see this VERY fine magazine go away.

—I was looking at your web site and noticed that this was your last print issue. I applaud you for having the courage to make what is an inevitable decision for many media outlets. That said, I'm perfectly aware of the irony when I ask if there's any chance I could get a copy of your last magazine?…I'm eager to see the new site.

—I don't really like reading off a monitor screen, but I accept the inevitable. The magazine is a good one and very well written, and always to the point.

—I do applaud your effort to save the trees by going to an on-line only version of your magazine; however, this makes it extremely difficult for those of us who are still on dial-up and an excruciatingly sloooowwwww dial-up at that….Oh well, we're saving the trees!

—Just read the horrible news that I have the last copy in my hands. I belong to a dozen environmental orgs but yours is the only publication I read from cover to cover. I wish you well, but I tally this as one more loss which I've seen too many of in my 77 years.

—I regret to see that Forest Magazine is ceasing publication. Although I am somewhat computer-literate, I dislike reading extensive articles on the small screen, so I regret that we will be parting company….Thank you, however, for what you have been.

—That’s it folks… you have put out a wonderful magazine! Now you want us all to go out and buy a personal computer. I don’t own one. I don’t want it in the house. Invasive species! I can understand your desire to follow the adage “reduce, reuse, recycle.” I shall miss the bedside companion that magazine has been for me all these years.

—I hope you will hastily rescind your dumb decision.

—I was sad when I learned the spring issue would be the final print edition…but if the money saved can be more wisely spent protecting our national forests then I fully support your decision.

—Here’s a whole list of reasons why this is bad: I’m old enough to write you a nasty letter, instead of an email, but I give money; My wife will delete anything from FSEEE before I see it, thinking it’s for Viagra; You might just make more old people mad and they’ll forget to give money; If it’s on the website, why do I need to be a member? The internet is all free, right? Therefore, you must do your job for free; I really enjoyed reading the mag in front of the fire, not as good a place for a computer…

—I do not have internet access at an affordable price. Postal rates must be reduced to serve the public good.

—I can read it in the kitchen while eating, in the bathroom, on the Subway, in bed.

—Killing the magazine is a big mistake – GOOD-BYE!

—I really appreciate your efforts for America’s forests, and will continue to support you, but I will miss your publication.

Thanks to all who responded. Please watch your mail boxes and this site for upcoming news from FSEEE.

Spring 2010

 

Tongass National Forest and Glen Ith Case

Biomass and the National Forests

Carbon Storage in Forests

Mining and NEPA

Cerro Grande Fire

Recreation Fees


Tongass National Forest and Glen Ith Case

As a retired U.S. Forest Service employee, I am appalled to hear, once again, about the Forest Service being involved in conspiracy activities regarding employees who have the integrity to be first and foremost, noble public servants, and second, Forest Service employees.

The conspiratorial behavior on the Tongass National Forest is only a symptom of the malady consuming this agency. What I have witnessed over my thirty years of employment with the Forest Service is a cultivated attitude among its leadership of putting the agency first, and the employee second. This attitude has alienated many dedicated employees. The inability of the Forest Service to nurture their talented and gifted employees and use their skills to advance the quality and delivery of their natural resource conservation programs has kept the Forest Service from achieving the plaudits it thinks it deserves from Congress, the public, and natural resource conservation organizations from being a leader in public land management.

What I view as the heart of the agency's ailment is what I label "career egocentrism." This condition finds line and staff officers willing to make any sacrifices they have to in order to advance their careers. I have witnessed many situations where the best-qualified employees for a job have been over-looked to favor someone a superior officer was promoting. I have seen the affirmative action program abused beyond legality. I have seen conspiracy behaviors designed and used to damage the reputations of highly regarded professional employees who were not viewed as team players, to bring such employees in line with district, forest and regional office administration's thinking. The willingness of line and staff officers to sacrifice their consciences for another career step is not only a disservice to their subordinates, but a breach of trust to the public they serve. If career egocentrism continues unchallenged in the Forest Service, there is no hope of improving the leadership in this agency.

It would be fitting for the Glen Ith case to prove that conspiratorial behavior was used in orchestrating evidence against Glen and conspiracy also found to be a common practice used to demean employees who are viewed by line and staff officers as not being team players. It is commonly understood by Forest Service employees that a team player is not defined as someone who can work with others toward a common goal. It has come to mean someone who will support the organization, regardless if it is wrong in matters of moral responsibilities to the public.

It is my hope that this case leads to an investigation, or more fittingly, a diagnosis of what is plaguing the Forest Service from being a morally responsible servant to its tax-paying public. I further hope that the public becomes aware of the effects that "career egocentrism" has on the ability of the Forest Service to perform its duty as the steward of this nation's most precious natural resources. It is totally irresponsible, in my opinion, for line and staff officers in the Forest Service to put their own interest (careers) above the interest of our nation's citizenry. I prey that the enlightened public will have a hand in finding a panacea for what ails the Forest Service before it is too late to save this once noble agency.

Laurence G. Kolk, Tallahassee, Florida

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Biomass and the National Forests

I read and re-read the editorial opinion piece in the latest Forest Magazine, "Wood Won't Save Us" (Winter 2010) , hoping that I was simply missing something.

The central premise appears to be that woody biomass from National Forest System lands will not be a major contributor to "renewable energy dominance" in the U.S. No disagreement there.

However, some of the boldly stated "facts" in the editorial were jaw droppers, at least for someone who works with woody biomass issues everyday.

Here is one example: "When compared to solar, wind, geothermal or hydropower, woody biomass is an expensive electricity source." What happens though, if the impact of tax subsidies is considered? Based on several sources, solar-photovoltaic energy appears to average twice the cost of biomass energy once tax subsidies are stripped out (Lazard 2008, "Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis" and Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, January 8, 2010).

I also did not see any consideration of the economic and environmental costs associated with the back-up power required to sustain additional solar and wind energy development. When the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow, power has to come from somewhere. Currently, most of that power comes from fossil fuel plants. Biomass power, however, is available virtually year-round, 24/7.

Finally, nothing was said about other benefits of biomass power, such as reducing open burning and uncontrolled release of associated emissions, partially defraying the cost of improving forest health and hazardous fuels reduction where environmentally responsible projects can be implemented, conserving landfill space, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from decaying woody waste in municipal landfills, and greater number of jobs associated with biomass power generation (4.9 jobs/MW per 1999 National Renewable Energy Lab sponsored study).

This is not to say that woody biomass is the least expensive option or that there are no environmental impacts, but once tax benefits are stripped out, and environmental and economic impacts and benefits are taken into account, woody biomass power competes quite well in many cases with most renewable energy options, especially wind and solar.

Then the real jaw dropper-I have no idea what economic textbook provided the rationale for the following statement-"Only a dramatic drop in fossil fuel use would increase energy prices enough to make national forest biomass economically competitive." I read and re-read the statement at least five times, and I might be misinterpreting, but it still appears to conflict with basic supply and demand theory, as well as common sense.

Larry Swan, Forest Products Utilization & Marketing Specialist. U.S. Forest Service

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Carbon Storage in Forests

"Carbon Clarification" (Winter 2010) states that "Mature Forests act as carbon sinks, sequestering large amounts of carbon."

This common misconception confuses understanding of the role of forests in influencing atmospheric CO2. An example is the claim that "turning one-third of farmlands into forest 'plantations' could offset 10 percent of the country's carbon emissions, equivalent to doubling the fuel efficiency of every car and light truck on American roads." ("To Thin to Store" Winter 2010).

A young, growing forest is increasing its biomass and is thus a carbon sink, sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. However, a grown, mature forest is in equilibrium with the atmosphere. There is a balance between uptake of CO2 through photosynthesis and release of CO2 by decay. Forest biomass is essentially constant with no continuing net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Converting farmlands to forests would sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. This could be considered to temporarily offset some CO2 emissions from cars-but only until the forests mature. Then they must be maintained permanently to store that carbon. They do not continue to sequester CO2. (Unfortunately the article did not state for how long the new forests would offset carbon emissions from cars.)

On the other hand, increasing the fuel efficiency of cars reduces CO2 emissions for as long as the increased fuel efficiency is maintained. Temporarily offsetting some emissions from cars is hardly "equivalent" to permanently eliminating those emissions.

Reforestation-and ending deforestation-are desirable short-term efforts, but neither is a long term offset for the release of carbon from burning fossil fuels.

Dick Walton, Billings, Montana

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Mining and NEPA

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently met with proponents and opponents of the proposed Oak Flat Forest Service campground congressional land swap copper mine in Arizona. He heard Senator McCain and other mine supporters, but also heard the protests of Native Americans, local townspeople and conservation groups.

McCain's land swap bill requires that the mine's environmental and Native American cultural studies be truncated and time-limited. This is a step backwards. Since 1969 when the National Environmental Policy Act was passed by Congress, all new U.S. mines (some 182 of them) have followed NEPA. President Eisenhower permanently withdrew Oak Flat from mining because of its unique natural qualities.

The mine would be built by the world's two largest, richest mining companies, Rio Tinto (British) and Broken Hill Proprietary (Australian). One glance at the web reveals two companies with horrendous human rights and environmental and cultural violations throughout the Pacific. That McCain would curtail the application of our nation's environmental and cultural protection laws to facilitate a mine for these two notorious scofflaws in this sensitive area defies reason.

Bob Witzman, Phoenix, AZ

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Cerro Grande Fire

I read with mixed feelings my friend Kate Parker's piece "Predictable Disaster ten years after the Cerro Grande Fire" It accurately portrays many of the salient events that led to the loss of some 240 homes (with most of their belongings because they were not warned in time). But it left out many important points. For example, it gave the impression that the high winds, which blew the fire into town on Wednesday, May 10, were a surprise to the fire fighters. This is patently false. Those winds were forecast from Sunday on, and everyone knew Wednesday was the crucial day. This is important because fire fighters know from multiple experiences that their methods are completely inadequate in the face of such winds (it might not be an exaggeration to point out that firefighters never have stopped a windblown fire).

Now, with this experience and the "dress rehearsal" of the high wind event on that Sunday that showed what the fire would do again when the wind came up, it is inconceivable (and I might add reprehensible) that the Fire Boss on Sunday didn't know the battle was lost and tell town and laboratory officials that on Wednesday the fire would most likely overwhelm firefighters and enter the town. Having been evacuated on Sunday from the Western Area we looked at a map that evening, put down where the fire was and the wind direction predicted for Wednesday. It clearly showed that the fire would brush by the Western Area and slam directly into the Northern Community (where subsequently the largest loss of homes occurred). And we asked ourselves, why don't they evacuate the North Community since it's going to take the full force of the fire? I submit that, given what the Fire Boss knew (and his experience from failure to control most other windblown fires), that it was irresponsible for him not to have alerted the town that, if the winds blew as predicted, firefighters on Wednesday would be unable to keep the fire out of town. Yet even Wednesday around noon the fire spokesperson, Jim Paxon, was saying they thought they had a good chance to stop the fire. One hour later they finally evacuated the entire town!

Another point the article makes is that firefighters thought the wind would blow the fire right through the town. In view of the fact that the town was nearly all leafy trees, grass lawns, and open spaces this is silly. In fact the crown fires didn't penetrate the Western area at all and only two blocks of the North Community were hit (excepting for a few sporadic homes which could have been saved had the Urban firefighters been there). A study done by a forestfire researcher done a few days after the fire pointed out that over 90% of the homes were lost to creeping ground fires!

The true legacy of the Cerro Grande Fire experience is the nearly total lack of change in what is in the end a set of outmoded fire suppression activites, all of which don't work if the winds are high.

Instead of two or three air tankers which drop retardant only a few times during the height of a fire (they never appeared over Los Alamos until after 10 am by which time winds were high--why couldn't they have been there from first light on?), what is needed is a fleet capable of successive ten minute drops for hours. Actually what is needed is such aircraft drops before the winds come up such as might have been done on Monday and Tuesday of the Cerro Grande fire, and those drops need to be done not in the middle of the day when winds are at a maximum, but rather all night long (nightime flying even around complex terrain is well within the capabilities of the country now). Such a program of massive drops (only water would be necessary because there would be so many) would in most cases put the fire out before the day that the wind came up.  Such drops would be supported by remote infrared observations from drones, which would tell the fire boss where and how hot the fires were. High level computer models (already in existence) can tell us what kind of drop protocols would be best suited to the particular fire, etc.

Not possible? Undoable? Not at all. But you might have to give fire suppression to the U.S. Air Force rather than leaving it in the hands of people not experienced in command and control. Yet this may never happen. Forest fire suppression is fraught with hidebound thinking and outmoded practices.  Also the country is unwilling to make the necessary funds available to provide really effective suppression. To give an idea of just how impotent current fire suppression methods are, just consider that the main tool is the dangerous practice of setting backburns. There is some evidence that one early backburn was the fire that actually burned the town and another burned over the Laboratory which most probably would not have been affected by the main fire otherwise.

Finally, where is the detailed blow-by-blow report on how the fire was fought? Why isn't the Forest Service required to submit one to a panel that questions everything done when such a disaster occurs? Where is the "lessons learned" document so that other communities can learn from this tragedy?

And so there continue to be more and more Cerro Grande fires that destroy more and more homes while all we get are articles like the one you just published which tell us two things, the first which is wrong and the second is irrelevant if you are in the path of a windblown fire--(1) you can't fight Mother Nature, and (2) these firefighters are a grand bunch who are experienced and care about us. What is needed is some hard-nosed evaluations of what is needed to simply put out the fires if they pose a threat to communities. We have the technology today to do this, but for both cultural and monetary reasons we lack the will. Why not publish in your magazine a call to do the work necessary to effectively fight large fires? Now that would be a service to the community.

Chick and Yvonne Keller, Los Alamos, NM


I read with interest the account of the Cerro Grande fire because I grew up in Los Alamos. It is a very detailed account of the fire itself, but I was surprised that the article said nothing about what has happened to the area since the fire. There was extensive restoration work that started immediately after the fire. It would have been interesting to read about how effective the restoration efforts were - what has grown back and what has not.

Indra Frank, via email

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Recreation Fees

I believe Jim Furnish (In the Mail, Spring 2010) is wrong about recreation fees. We are all owners of our national forests. We should not be prevented from visiting our national forests because someone wants to make money. Privitizing campsites, which is what the U.S. Forest Service has done, has ensured that the profit motive rules. Once the process starts I believe, as has happened in some areas, that the public will be charged for driving through national forests or simply hiking on a trail. Why should those who can afford to pay be the only ones who can visit the public lands that we all own?

I want U.S. Forest Service employees at recreation areas and walking in national forests, my employees, and not someone who represents profit hungry corporations. The public and environmentalists, in my view, have not sent the message loud enough to the U.S. Congress, that enough is enough. The national forests exemplify the democratic idea and should remain open for all and not just those who have money.

Brandt Mannchen, Houston, Texas

I take vigorous exception to Jim Furnish's letter about Recreation Fees. He cites the "justice" of U.S. Forest Service recreation fees. Quite the opposite. This is one of biggest social injustices ever perpertrated on the American public.

The heart of the problem is that Forest Service is treating recreation as just another extractive commodity---no different than timber, minerals, or gravel. They are simply mining outdoor recreation for all it is worth. They care only about maintaining their bureaucratic empire. This is a wrong-headed management policy. Unfettered access to backcountry and dispersed forest venues, trailheads and rivers is our birthright. That the richest nation on the planet would levy double taxation on it's citizens to take a walk in the woods, park a vehicle at a trailhead or float a wild river is scandalous. The middle and lower income classes are clearly being disenfranchised with rec fees in this recession. This is all emanting from the same out-of-control-agency that is still trying to sneak back to the bad old days of unregulated and environmentally damaging logging----- all the while evading environmental laws and wasting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars yearly.

Mr. Furnish says fees are "sad" but necessary and that we should pay them happily. That is utter nonsense. We should mightily resist paying them, utilize civil disobedience, demand our rights, and continue to scream to Congress to restore our freedoms.

The current situation is beyond sad-it is patently criminal. Left unchecked these onerous fees will only lead inexorably to ever more insidious commercialization and privatization of our public lands.

Scott Phillips, Hailey, Idaho

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Forest Magazine is published by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, P.O. Box 11615, Eugene, OR 97440. The views expressed in Forest Magazine are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect FSEEE’s position or that of the Forest Service. Copyright © 2008 Forest Service Employees For Environmental Ethics.

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