Recently, Sonny Perdue, the Trump-appointed Secretary of Agriculture, sent a memorandum to all of his agencies, encouraging them to promote the concept of “customer service.” In response, Alice Carlton, the Umpqua National Forest Supervisor, and James Pena, the Forest Service’s Regional Director for the Pacific Northwest, have made an attempt to reconnect with “stakeholders” in Douglas County. Carlton held a handful of local meetings, including one in Canyonville, which focused on the Tiller Ranger District, and Pena, with his regional team, conducted interviews with “key stakeholders” throughout the area (including those of us in the Tiller area). Our group Responsible Forest Initiatives made our presence known at both events, and I would like to share our takeaway with the rest of you in Douglas County.
First, let me say that our group has been promoting a professionally-designed, forest-wide system of roadside fuel breaks, ever since the Stouts Creek Fire. We want to pay for it with extensive commercial thinning in areas that are predisposed to high-severity wildfire, and over-stocked with merchantable timber. We also want to see much more salvage logging following large fires and other high-mortality disturbances (blow-down and bug-infestations). This would greatly reduce the “dead and down” fuel loads like those that contributed to the impossible conditions encounter in the Chetco Bar Fire last year. We want to make these elements part of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan for the Tiller District, and we have provided a viable method of doing so in the form of two proposals with a “pilot program.” We have become “a voice crying in the wilderness,” but will they listen? If we are not the customers that the Forest Service wants to serve, who is?
This is exactly what I asked Carlton. She opened her speech (after a one hour “meet and greet”) by explaining how important the Umpqua Forest (and its unique habitat) is to people throughout our nation, and, for that matter, throughout the world. Then she emphasized the concept of “customer service.” I asked her to explain her understanding of who was included as a “customer,” and whether she thought that the “service” should be extended equally to all. She didn’t have a clear answer to these questions, and it became obvious that “customer service” was a buzzword that had unlimited meaning and therefore no meaning. I reminded her that when an uncontrollable wildfire event erupts in the Umpqua Forest, the people in New York City don’t burn, we do.
Later I found out that during the meet and greet, one of our other group members had asked a Tiller Ranger District biologist the following interesting questions: What defines forest restoration and what does a restored forest look like? These questions had also received no clear answers. Why? Because forest restoration is “a matter of opinion,” and a restored forest can look very different depending on who you talk to. Some folks like to talk about a “pre-contact forest” as a basis for defining restoration. This type of restoration effort attempts to return the forest to a condition similar to the one encountered by the first white man to arrive here. It’s a forest that none of us have actually seen, but one that would certainly be defined by 8,000 years (or more) of management by primitive hunter/gatherers who, like ourselves, were not native to these forests. They were, however, opportunistic in their use of fire to promote food-sources and ease of travel. That being said, the bottom line is this: Forest management is simply a choice, and we, as a society, must now choose our best course of action, having made a number of bad decisions in the past that have led to the current, extremely volatile conditions. We have a responsibility to all of the creatures that depend on these unique habitats, and to all of the lifeforms that make up these unique eco-systems.
We also have a responsibility to all of the stakeholders who hold the Umpqua National Forest dear (for whatever reasons), but when it comes to “customer service,” who among us has paid the highest price for forest management policies that have been at best poorly thought-out, and at worst, disastrous? And who among us stands to lose most if we continue to allow nature to “take its course” and ignore the obvious threats to communities like ours here in Tiller?
That is exactly what two of us from ReFI recently told Pena’s “regional team.” The two women that we met with listened carefully and took notes. We presented our plan and gave them five packets that detailed a very realistic course of action. In the end, they asked us for our opinion on how the agency was doing and we affirmed that it had always been “service with a smile.”