Institutional Dysfunction: A Closer Look at the United States Forest Service

Jemez Mountains, Santa Fe National Forest, Dye Lumber Company, 1908. Photographer unknown


The vitriol directed at the U.S. Forest Service by several of those who commented on the La Jicarita website surprised even me, a veteran USFS critic. Most of it was directed at the Jemez Mountain Restoration Plan’s proposed use of prescribed fire: one went so far as to anthropomorphize the forests, saying that “fire is as natural to the forest ecosystem as cancer is to humans,” while another implied that if we allow any restoration project to move forward in the Jemez the Forest Service will proceed in “psychopathic” fashion to once again open the door to large scale logging. They also accused Forest Service firefighters of “nursing” fires to ensure bigger paychecks.

As a former seasonal USFS employee I can attest that fire crews have indeed let fires burn because of the financial incentive and that there have been cases in which firefighters actually started fires. The same kind of negligence and malfeasance happens in many bureaucratic and hierarchical institutions when workers are disconnected from the decision making process, the workplace is dysfunctional, and management is unaccountable. (Sound familiar? I could be writing about LANL.)

However, we need to put the systemic institutional dysfunction of the Forest Service  into historical context to address their claims that any use of fire is a “cancer” and that any logging will be corporate or “huge.” From 1996 through 2011 La Jicarita News covered USFS policy issues throughout northern New Mexico that affected forest dependent communities and land and water resources. Let’s break down some of these policies and see how they have affected both the institution and those it supposedly serves.

Timber Policies

Originally called forest reserves, the Forest Service was established by the federal government to protect large areas of western lands from the unabated mining, timbering, and grazing abuses of the late 19th century. Various interests debated the kind of management the reserves should see—preservation as esthetic resources or preservation for commodity resource production—but until the passage of the original National Forest Management Act and Teddy Roosevelt’s transfer of the reserves to the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry, the debate was largely academic. When Gifford Pinchot was appointed head of the reserves, and changed their name to national forests, the management philosophy advocating long-term timber and resource production prevailed.

Before World War II the main business of the Forest Service was essentially the same as when private interests held sway—timbering, grazing, and fire control—and lands under Forest Service management were extensively altered and abused. After the war, as skyrocketing timber demands devastated even more forest resources, the government was forced to take a closer look at the state of our public lands. The Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act was passed in 1960, introducing the concept of multiple use for the first time in Forest Service management. This act required that all renewable forest resources be managed so their productivity not decline. The Forest Service image was deliberately altered to present a picture of preservation—conservator of wildlife and wilderness as well as timber and rangeland—rather than a purveyor of clearcuts, silt-filled streams, and eroded hillsides.

In reality, until quite recently multiple use did little to change the way the Forest Service did business because the multiple use that remained at the heart of Forest Service activity was timbering—its raison d’etre. In any forest, on any mountain, in any state, you can see the devastating results of Forest Service timbering. Hundreds of years are required for a forest to recover from a clearcut, if there is a chance of recovery at all. Natural succession—the growth of grasses and bushes, next aspen and hardwoods, then pines and fir—will eventually recreate an area with its original flora (and hopefully fauna), but the Forest Service, in an attempt to imitate nature, has replanted many of the clearcut areas with one kind of tree, precluding any kind of natural succession. The trees become susceptible to the disease and fire that a normal, diverse forest can tolerate.

A typical USFS clearcut. Wikimedia photo

Even-aged management, the most utilized method of timber harvest, perpetuated this process. Essentially the same age trees within an even-aged stand were harvested by a rotation system of removal at 10 to 20 year intervals, utilizing both shelterwood (leaving some of the cone bearing trees standing) and clearcutting techniques.

The Forest Service not only defended its specific timber policy but promoted timbering in general as the foundation for all multiple use activity. Despite heavy subsidization and millions of dollars lost annually on timber sales, Forest Service officials claimed that timbering activity supported and made possible these other uses, justifying the timber losses. Ironically, one of the most egregious claims was that large-scale timber harvests were necessary to counteract the effects of 80 years of fire suppression. The Forest Service also claimed that without clearcuts and other extensive timbering operations there would no longer be the visually appealing and preferred wildlife habitat of the open meadow, once cleared by wildfire. Wildlife specialists pointed out that the various forest management plans, promulgated in the 1980s (as stipulated by the National Forest Management Act of 1976) calling for double and triple timber yields were not justified in wildlife terms. The increased use of cable logging on slopes of over 40 percent (using a winch system to haul the logs up the steep slopes) allowed harvests of older timber, some of which had never been previously cut, leaving fewer snags for wildlife and reducing the habitat of rarer species, such as the black bear and spotted owl, which require a 70 percent crown cover. Wildlife specialists felt that as one of the multiple use resources of forest planning, their field was rarely given equal consideration. Because it’s harder to put a monetary value on wildlife than timber or minerals, and the name of the budget game was to prove your worth, this particular multiple use had a harder time competing.

From a purely economic standpoint, the timber industry readily defended its Forest Service subsidization by listing the contributions the industry made to the public economy. It accused critics of failing to credit the industry’s impact on local economies through jobs, and county economies through paybacks. It liked to act tough and threaten that any cutbacks in the industry would prove disastrous—despite the fact that 85 percent of the nation’s lumber came from private timber stands. Most of the 155 forest plans promulgated in the 1980s called for dramatic increases in timber production, and the Reagan and Bush administrations hoped to see a doubling of the national cut.

Logging in New Mexico

David Correia’s three-part series on the commons provides an overview of the devastating consequences of Forest Service practices in northern New Mexico. Part II details the history of how the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests acquired over three millions acres of former Spanish and Mexican land grants and changed the nature of forest use from subsistence grazing to commercial timber exploitation. In Part III he discusses the resistance to these Forest Service practices, focusing on the Vallecitos Sustained Yield Unit on the east side of the Rio Grande Valley.

In this section I’d like to take a look at how resistance to Forest Service policies throughout northern New Mexico devolved into a protracted battle between forest dependent communities and urban environmentalists, with the Forest Service smack dab in the middle.

In the 1970s and 80s, in response to the USFS policies calling for increased timber production and its cozy relationship with corporate logging, both environmentalists and local communities began challenging its policy: the communities with the history of their ownership and access to forest resources as land grants and the environmentalists’ biocentric argument that these forest lands should be protected and “preserved” as pockets of biodiversity sin gente. On the community side, with the rise of La Raza Unida and the Alianza Federal de las Mercedes that culminated in the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid, La Floresta tried to deflect criticism by issuing the Region Three Policy Statement, or the Hurst Report, declaring that it was the duty of the USFS to manage the forests for the benefit of the unique culture and communities of northern New Mexico. On the environmental side groups like Santa Fe’s Forest Guardians and Forest Conservation Council and Arizona’s Center for Biological Diversity began to use the power of the courts to shut down land based activities.

By the mid-90s we were locked into battles over sustainable timber cuts, firewood accessibility, range management protections, ski area expansions, and the role of wildfire.The ideological differences between forest dependent communities and urban environmentalists were extreme, and the Forest Service quickly became bogged down in appeals and lawsuits as various interest groups fought over management prescriptions.

In his Commons article David Correia detailed how members of the Vallecitos Association worked to kick Duke City Lumber, subsidiary of a multinational corporation, out of the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit (VFSU) and get the Forest Service to set sustainable harvest levels, while the enviros used lawsuits based on the Endangered Species Act to force the local loggers out of the Unit. La Companía Ocho, a community based logging company (Ike DeVargas was one of the owners), sued the Forest Service in 1994 claiming racism and abrogation of its fiduciary responsibilities in the Unit, and in 1996 the FS was forced to adjust its management policies and award the company 75 percent of the La Manga timber sale and 80 percent of the Agua Caballos timber sale without competitive bidding. But meanwhile, the environmentalists also sued the Forest Service over the Mexican Spotted Owl, which had been declared a threatened species  and an injunction shut down the entire Region Three to logging and firewood gathering, including La Manga (there were no confirmed sightings of the spotted owl in the VFSU and no consensus on what constitutes suitable owl habitat). And then they sued Carson National Forest specifically over La Manga.

Ike DeVargas of La Companía Ocho and John Talberth of Forest Conservation Council. Photo by Eric Shultz

The carnage continued as the environmentalists sued, over and over again, any and all timber sales to realize their goal of Zero Cut, or no commercial logging on public lands. By the time they got around to suing the Forest Service over the Agua Caballos timber sale, which had gone through four revisions and numerous consultations with community groups and other environmentalists for 13 years, La Companía was out of business and other small community forestry groups, none of which had the capacity to log the Agua Caballos sale, were too busy fighting each other and the Forest Service, which failed to provide small enough sales, to build any capacity or get the Vallecitos sawmill up and running to process the timber.

There were a few successes over on the east side of the Rio Grande valley, with what we called Collaborative Stewardship, largely under the leadership of community forester Max Córdova and Camino Real District Ranger Crockett Dumas. Communities helped identify firewood sales needed in their areas, and some desperately needed thinning was accomplished by a few of the community forestry groups. But after Dumas retired (we always suspected it was a forced retirement; the Forest Service doesn’t like its employees to get too chummy with community people), it was pretty much back to business as usual.

Today, very few community foresters remain. Forests are overstocked, disease ridden, and susceptible to catastrophic wildfire. As for the environmentalists, Forest Conservation Council died an ignominious death while Forest Guardians morphed into WildEarth Guardians, their name indicating a continuing focus on biocentric issues at the expense of the social and economic implications of their work.


Daniel Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana and former mayor of Missoula, wrote in his 2003 book This Sovereign Land (reviewed in La Jicarita News), that the Forest Service has become incapable of managing our public lands. Kemmis advocates real management collaboration among western stakeholders and claims it is time to “begin thinking about realigning sovereignty to give westerners more control over public lands.”

While land grant heirs and community people continue to lobby the federal government for redress of the loss of their land grants, there have also been many efforts made to collaborate with public lands agencies to establish management practices that maintain the health of both the forests and their dependent communities. In the early 2000s, for example, the Nuestra Señora del Rosario San Fernando y Santiago Grant (the Truchas Land Grant) drafted an agreement between the grant and the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) to co-manage Borrego Mesa, which is currently included in the SFNF boundaries but was originally part of the grant. The agreement stated that “The purpose of this document is to provide the framework for a co-management agreement between the Forest Service and the Grant that serves the mutual interests and objectives of the parties involved” and “will ultimately serve the long-term ecological health of the forests on Borrego Mesa.” It also referenced the 1997 International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Conservation Congress’s definition of co-management as “formal, power sharing agreements between government agencies and communities in such a way that both groups have a direct voice in the decision-making process concerning a specific territory or set of resources at the policy, planning, and management levels.”

The agreement called for a Board of Management that would: 1) prepare and approve ecosystem management plans; 2) protect the use rights of local residents and ensure management that supports community activities and needs; 3) ensure long-term sustainable use and management of resources on Borrego Mesa; 4) ensure implementation of the management plan; and 5) promote community involvement in the management of the area through economic development and job opportunities. The agreement also stipulated that any income generated on Borrego Mesa would be reinvested locally.

According to Max Córdova, president of the Truchas Land Grant when the co-management agreement was drafted, the agreement was endorsed but never implemented. “It’s the same thing with the memorandums of understanding we signed with the Carson National Forest, to find areas where we could work together.”

Max Córdova on a tour of Borrego Mesa with Forest Service personnel and community members. Photo by Eric Shultz

In his book Kemmis places this argument in what is essentially the story of the West: the conflict between its development through the expansion of the American empire, or manifest destiny, and attempts at self governing, or local sovereignty. This is the context, then, in which the Forest Service, described in a 1989 memo by forest supervisors as “an agency out of control,” has become increasingly incapable of managing our public lands. The agency is demoralized from within, assaulted by environmental and property rights advocates from without, and, as described by its own chief, suffers from “analysis paralysis.” The agency has also been manipulated from both sides of the political spectrum, by those who demanded it “get out the cut” after World War II at unsustainable levels and by the environmental movement that burdened the agency with endless paperwork and litigation. This has made it impossible for local managers to keep the promises they make to local communities.

In the last few chapters of the book, Kemmis guides the reader through possible solutions to this gridlock. He believes it’s time for the West to seize the moment and create a new regionalism where public lands are managed watershed by watershed or along geographic lines that define communities. He references John Wesley Powell, who, after his western explorations in the 1870s, argued that the West could not be effectively managed under national policies like the Homestead Act, which failed to acknowledge its unique geography and aridity. The only way for the West to devolve is through the collaboration of people and groups who care about the places they live, who are intimately familiar with the ecology, and are willing to devote the time and energy it takes to solve issues such as species reintroduction, timber and rangeland management, and habitat protection.



  1. Because they are NATIONAL Forests, the most difficult thing for a Forest Service employee to do is favor the interests of local people and businesses. We all know the West would be a better place if the forests were selectively harvested by local people and milled at small local sawmills, grazing allowed to local ranchers, and firewood gathering unimpeded for the people who live there. The struggles of the people of Vallecitos with gaining access to the Sustained Yield Area that was created for them shows that no matter how well-meaning the guy on the ground may be the Forests are managed from Washington.

    Corporations fund politicians and politicians fund programs for corporations. Mom and Pop businesses are out of the picture. Even when Federal contracts were set aside for minority and women-owned businesses they were pitifully few. Small businesses were defined as grossing less than a million dollars when contracts were reserved for them.

    Some people say that the National Forests should be turned over to the states to manage. I can’t imagine it would be any different since they all go to the same schools and listen to the same professors expound on the treatment de jour for the forests.

  2. The Black and White photo is from the confluence of Spruce and Pines Canyons in the Southern Jemez. This exact area was the site of the town of Pines.To the left, outside the picture, stood the great house, which at the time of this photo, was the central Ranger Station, linking up Bland-Bear Springs, Bland-Frijoles, and the old trails that linked homesteads and ranches across the Southern Jemez. Later it became the headquarters of the Tent Rock Ranch. The historic structures, the ranch, and the town of Pines all vanished during the early hours of the Las Conchas fire, June 26, 2011.
    It should be understood that Tent Rock Ranch was upwind of Pines. The fire struck and destroyed the ranch first. Why is this significant? Because a “fire suppression” thinning operation took place the summer before the disaster at the ranch. It meant nothing.
    We are constantly told that prescribed burns are the only way to afford protection from devastating fire. A couple years before Las Conchas, the Forest Service burnt the entire expanse of West Mesa, resulting in anger, panic, and misunderstanding by the local communities. Permittees were desperately searching for their livestock. Local tribal elders spoke out against the burn. I spoke for over an hour to the Forest Service official at the scene. He truly did not understand the local reaction.
    After Las Conchas, the press carried much praise for control burns. It was said that control burns caused the fire to lay down. West Mesa was pointed out as one of those areas.
    The real story is the canyon below West Mesa was ignited deliberately, and this fire was driven by wind down canyon. Where it reached the mesa, it burned the trees there with the same glee that it burned the canyon, however, wind patterns were changeable, and the fire lost much of its steam once it reached the mesa top. It wasn’t the control burn that halted the fire, it was the lack of driving wind.
    The Forest Service never mentioned, not once in all the press I perused, that they ignited a new blaze on West Mesa via helicopter, after the fire on the mesa, and the canyon below were out. This blaze proceeded to leap into a new crown fire, which wiped away the forest from the heel to the instep, to the toe of the boot shaped mesa. The control burn did nothing to lay this fire down.
    I suppose it is somewhat sad, the current state of the Forest Service. It is true, that I have known several career FS people who were swallowing the guff until they could take their retirement and bid adios. Yet no matter how much we may want to play the little violin for their sorrow, the torture and abuse they have heaped upon the land, and the people goes unreported here in the South Jemez.
    There is no more room for stupid decisions. There is no more room for looking at the forest as a commodity, devoid of intrinsic value. The spiritual and ethical poverty of humanity leads directly from a savage profiteering drive, where a false mechanistic mythos is forced upon life and land, and a land ethic is nowhere to be found.
    We are stuck with an agency that publishes pages of “guidelines”, which direct forest officials to “consider” various impacts of their decisions, the same way a child might consider the stomping of an ant. Today, the Forest Service moves its people around, preventing them from having any knowledge of the land. Nor, from what I have observed, do they have much motivation to enlighten themselves.
    Ultimately, it is their lack of accountability and transparency, together with their hidden actions which serve to demote them from their previous position as an agency of efficacy. Their botched mismanagement of travel management, taking a tool of resource protection, conflict reduction, and safety promotion, and perverting it into a lawless, chaotic free for all, which is doomed to fail spectacularly in my beloved Jemez, is enough to make one shed tears of frustration.
    We can support the so-called “restoration”, and mourn afterward, or we can demand that the insanity stops right here, right now. If the forest service is serious about making this plan work, then they will direct and open channels to local people. If they want to remove trees, then these trees must first go to local needs, and they must begin a practice of forestry that removes the diseased and the dying, not the healthy best. Fire, if it is to be used at all, must be done only during fire season, and only on a very small scale. No more burning in the fall, the early spring, destroying and disturbing wildlife, ruining fodder and habitat, stressing the forest even more as it struggles to survive.
    I’d like to see the Forest Service step up to this challenge, first they must prove they can do more than follow hidden agendas and evade responsibility. Until this time let it be known that opposition to the Jemez “restoration” is strong, and unyielding.

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