Could the Forest Service be shared by the Departments of Agriculture AND Interior?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

Above: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks before the Public Lands Council March 28, 2017. Photo: @SecretaryZinke

The new Secretary of the Interior has considered having his department SHARE the U.S. Forest Service (FS) with the Department of Agriculture, where the FS currently resides.

There have been many discussions and some serious proposals about transferring the FS from the Department of Agriculture to other departments such as Interior, or creating a new Department of Natural Resources (or Conservation).

And there has been idle chatter about siphoning off the 13,000 wildland firefighters (who usually have job titles like Forestry Technician) in the Agriculture and Interior Departments to form a new National Wildfire Service, or moving them all to the Department of Homeland Security.

At the recent Incident Commander/Area Commander meeting in Reno, it was pointed out that 13 out of the last 16 Administrations had proposed some version of merging the FS with the DOI and the four primary land management agencies in the DOI, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service. But the atmosphere this time is different — there are reports that the Trump Administration is receptive to a wide scale reorganization and an alignment with leadership that is very interested in land management issues. The word is that new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is well informed and engaged in fire and natural resource issues.

Up until now none of the reorganization ideas have made it very far through the bureaucracy, but when then Montana Representative Zinke was nominated in December as President Elect Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, moving the FS was again in the conversation. As Rep. Zinke made the rounds talking with Senators before his confirmation hearing his interest in moving the FS into Interior worried some Democratic lawmakers.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden was more vocal than most and expressed his displeasure with the proposal. When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted on Rep. Zinke’s confirmation as Secretary of the Interior on January 31, Senator Wyden abstained, citing the movement of the FS as a problem. Rep. Zinke was approved in the committee on a vote of 16-6-1 (yes-no-abstain).

A source we talked with on Capitol Hill who asked to remain anonymous told us that after the committee vote Senator Wyden extracted a pledge from Rep. Zinke that if confirmed as Secretary, he would not pursue reorganizing the FS. With that promise, on March 1 the Senator voted for the confirmation in the full Senate.

Just after that vote, the Senator issued a statement, saying in part:

After several discussions, I received an assurance that as secretary of the Interior, Rep. Zinke will focus on doing his job, which includes protecting our special places and managing the forests already within the Interior Department’s control, instead of engaging in senseless reorganization of bureaucracies.

Our Capitol Hill source said now that Secretary Zinke is on the job, he still can’t completely let go of the desire to move the FS.

In fact, when the Secretary spoke before the Public Lands Council on March 28, he talked about a “joint command” of the FS according to E&E news:

“I may not get the Forest Service, but we’re going to work with the Forest Service and figure out how to not be so stove-piped,” the Interior chief said. Zinke indicated that he and Agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue had discussed a “joint command” model like the ones used by the Pentagon to manage personnel across the military services.

Secretary Zinke may be thinking that this arrangement would not violate his promise to Senator Wyden. However, the Senator expressly mentioned he did not want to see “senseless reorganization of bureaucracies”.

As the new administration very slowly fills jobs vacated by the Obama team, there are hundreds of vacancies remaining, and many of the new hires or appointees have little or no government experience. A reporter we talked with today said some agencies are still in a “think tank” mode, as the personnel lack the knowledge, skills, and experience to hit the ground running, so they are often throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. In some cases they can’t tell a good idea from a bad one, or how to implement a new decision or policy.

OUR OPINION

bad ideaThere are some compelling reasons for placing the major federal land management agencies under one umbrella, but a co-managed, shared, or jointly commanded agency is not a great solution. When a big decision has to be made, which department’s hierarchy gets to make it? When policies and procedures within the departments differ, how do you choose? Who would set priorities? Which department’s budget system would be used? Which Secretary testifies before Congress regarding the FS? Who would the Chief of the FS report to? A bad, half-assed decision is worse than no decision. It would be like cutting the baby in half.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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9 thoughts on “Could the Forest Service be shared by the Departments of Agriculture AND Interior?”

  1. Hopefully this happens and the big pay gap of Forestry techs vs firefighters closes somewhat…. at least at the rate if inflation

  2. Hopefully, the idea of placing wildland firefighting under Homeland Security (FEMA) gets dropped. Otherwise, firefighters and citizens alike will die due to their in company indecision as they do in All Risk incidents. While towns will burn. Let the sane, knowledgeable decisions prevail.

  3. I’d like to point two things out:

    1. Specifically to “Rob’s comment – How would merging two organizations increase pay? This tytype of mythology may have been the reason voters were keen to elect the current populist administration.

    2. There is no “firefighting 2.0” There will always be a demand to employ wildland firefighters. aircraft and all the support that goes with it. The color of the uniform will never mater except to the GS Double digits and the SES-ers.

    Bill – I think your opinion is short sighted. All of the dificult questions that you propose would be inefficiently addressed in a joint organization are organizational inefficiencies that currently exist.

    I like the status quo – simply for the idea of being able to benchmark other organizations who do the same thing with similar budgets and policies in place, but are unique enough to perform experiments that may or may not be incorporated into the entire system. Similar to the open market, competition breeds greater quality for less cost – within the Federal Government, “competition” breeds experimentation with less cost than putting all the “experimentation eggs in one basket”.

    Whether you are a lumper, a clumper a bagger or a boxer, Any organization would struggle to answer questions like:

    How do we deal with transporting aquatic invasive species outside of watersheds during an emergency?

    How do we maintain the autonomy of the District Ranger while still validating the opinions of the Washington Office?

    How do we both study and preserve endangered species across jurisdictional boundaries?

    What happens when the fire crosses onto or Off of Tribal lands?

    How do we temper natural resource extraction vs, recreation vs. preservation?

    Are local jobs more important than the subjective value of resource preservation?

    The other side of the coin: I would love to be able to share a google doc with a Forest Service buddy the same way I can with one who works for the DOI.

    Blah Blah Blah – one dudes opinion.

  4. Maybe if firefighters got out from all the other departments our budget would not continue to get robbed. My hotshot crew came online in 2001 when the forest service went ino MEL for firefighting. Maximum Effeciency Level. Currently we use an okd house for a station with one restroom for a 20 person crew. The garage is condemned and the house foundation is sinking !
    Crew was supposed to get new housing and training facility and nohing yet. Shortly after 911 the federal Govt propped up an entirely new Agency ! DHS …. think they have our facility and budget problems ?
    How bout that !!!

  5. It doesn’t matter much what Department of “Government” the FS is located under, what matters is getting the FS and other land management agencies back into the business of managing the federal lands. Currently the FS, BLM, and the other land management agencies are so wrapped up in politics, and addressing social issues that they has become a big joke and have become worthless when it come to conserving the nation’s once productive and highly valued public lands. Fighting wildfire has become a big scam used to bolster agency budgets and the egos of a bunch of want-to-be-heroes. The current “fire adapted ecosystems” and “returning fire to the landscape crap” is the biggest scam ever implemented. It makes about as much sense as burning your house down so you don’t have to worry about ever having a house fire.

    1. “The current “fire adapted ecosystems” and “returning fire to the landscape crap” is the biggest scam ever implemented”

      How is this a scam? Seems to me this is exactly the type of management that needs to be done, and is an actual improvement of FS policy. I’ve seen with my own eyes the landscape improvements that reintroducing fires has brought.

  6. Having worked for both the BLM and the FS, combining those to organizations makes some sense. These 2 organizations have essentially similar mandates to manage the peoples land. The problem is that the FS has created a totally unwieldy system to accomplish work. If you could take the best of both organizations and manage the peoples land scientifically instead of by political expediency everyone would benefit. The laws governing how the land is to be managed are fairly clear, but we keep screwing the system up with political decisions instead of scientific decisions. Most of the people who work for the FS have no idea what the laws say, but rather how they feel things should be managed.

  7. Having two departments managing one agency could only make sense to the current administration who does not seem to understand what these agencies are supposed to be doing. They are having enough problems managing public lands without the kind of mentality that is in charge.

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