By Jack Petree
The USDA Forest Service has a new Chief. Sworn in September 1, 2017, Tony Tooke, a career forester/bureaucrat is the first “easterner” in years to head up the Forest Service. Tooke takes charge as the Forest Service stands balanced, one foot in the future and one foot in the past, at the cusp of change regarding how the nation’s forests are to be managed in response to changing public perceptions about why those forests exist.
The decisions Tooke makes in the next handful of years will define forestry in the United States for decades after his departure. An important issue Tooke will deal with is a Forest Service initiative titled “Forests on the Edge,” an approach to ecosystem management that could dramatically expand the service’s influence and/or control over the private forests of the nation.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s comments on announcing Tooke’s appointment point to some of the dichotomies the new chief will have to address almost immediately.
“Tony has been preparing for this role for his whole professional life, and at a time when we face active and growing fires, his transition into leadership will be seamless,” Perdue announced. “He will oversee efforts to get our forests working again, to make them more productive, and to create more jobs. His focus will be on ensuring we are good neighbors and are managing our forests effectively, efficiently, and responsibly, as well as working with states and local governments to ensure the utmost collaboration.”
Broad brush generalizations are dangerous, but can also allow for a better view of the big picture. In broad brush strokes, the national forest system was established as a sort of non-identical twin to the national parks system in the latter decades of the 1800s and the early years of the 1900s. The national parks were set aside to permanently preserve spectacular and unusual lands (Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc.) in fairly pristine condition for the enjoyment of future citizens.
The national forests, on the other hand, were set aside to assure the resources a growing nation requires (especially, but not exclusively, timber) would always be available; parks were managed for preservation purposes while the national forests were managed for ongoing resource sustainability, with timber and water being of special concern.
After World War II, driven by the building boom created as veterans came home, married, had families, and wanted homes, production became a focus for the Forest Service. For the next several decades, maintaining sustainable forests for sustainable harvests was at the forefront of the Forest Service’s management of national forests.
Beginning in the last decades of the 20th Century and continuing today, a variety of “environmental” movements made their influence felt.
In a recent essay for the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), Roger Sedjo, a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., succinctly described the impact the environmental movement has had on the Forest Service:
“Today, the Forest Service might reasonably be viewed as an agency with two main purposes: maintaining biodiversity and serving as a wildfire-fighting organization. There are also concerns about the role these forests may play in sequestering—or, in the case of wildfire, releasing—carbon…One result of these changes has been a de facto remaking of the Forest Service’s mission. With the decline in timber production on national forests, the major function of the Forest Service in the future could become tourism, habitat maintenance, and wildfire control. This is the direction the Forest Service has moved in recent years.
Of concern to some, one of the service’s initiatives over those recent years has been the Forests on the Edge program. In recent years, the program has spent an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy producing a huge amount of material detailing perceived threats to the larger American forest coming as a result of activity (especially “development”) on privately held forests of the nation. The effort has slowed in recent years, possibly due to budget shortages caused by wildfire response, but the tools and the philosophy are ingrained and in place.
Reading through hundreds of pages of documentation, it is clear the Forest Service has intended to dramatically expand its cooperation with local, regional, tribal, and state governments concerning the regulation of private forests in coordination with the forests the service is directly supposed to be concerned with. That coordination and direct participation in influencing public policy can be viewed as either good or bad depending on the viewer’s perspective, but it is certainly something new for the service; something private forest owners should be tracking from a regulatory perspective.
Tooke has been a major player in the Forest Service’s development of an Ecosystem Management approach to forestry. An ecosystem approach requires management coordination between all the forests in a system, including those on the edge. It remains to be seen where Tooke stands on expanding the influence of the service regarding activities that will be allowed (or not allowed) on privately owned forested lands.
Both private forest land owners and environmental groups seem to like and respect the new chief. Hopefully that respect will enhance the odds that Chief Tooke may be able to resolve some of the dichotomies pointed out by Secretary Purdue.
On the Cover
Photo taken by Andrea Watts of the Buck’s Logging operation.
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Tooke to Take Charge