PENDLETON - Jeff Blackwood assumed the leadership 15 years ago of the Umatilla National Forest, arriving at a time of great change for the U.S. Forest Service and for how people use the forests - both for recreation and industry.
As Blackwood dove into the job, the Forest Service's management of natural resources was evolving to focus on fish and wildlife; logging and livestock grazing were facing mounting scrutiny; and forests themselves were crippled by disease and insect infestation exacerbated by drought and decades of fire suppression.
Fifteen years later, Blackwood is retiring. His last day on the job was Friday. In the final days before he stepped away from his office, he reflected on his time spent on the Umatilla National Forest. During that conversation, Blackwood gave his perspectives on the state of the forest and what the people who live in northeast Oregon can expect in the years ahead.
EO: How are you feeling as you near the end of your career? Do you feel relief?
Blackwood: It is really with mixed emotions, because the Forest Service has been part of my life for so long, even since before I started my career. My dad worked with the Forest Service and I used to go out with him as a teenager. So it's been a big part of my life for quite a while.
I've worked with some of the most incredible people I can imagine and some real challenging issues. I'm going to miss that.
On the other hand, 35 years is a long time. I'd like to try and use what I've have had the benefit of learning in the Forest Service in other ways and continue some activities in conservation. I want to let this sort out this summer. I haven't had a free and clear summer for 35 years. I want to stay involved in conservation in some productive way.
EO: Fifteen years ago when you came to the Umatilla National Forest, we asked you if you had a favorite place on the forest. You didn't at the time. How about now?
BLACKWOOD: Yeah and I'll tell you, on the record, I've always thought that the Indian Rock-Vinegar Hill country (on the North Fork John Day Ranger District) is just fabulous country. Even though a lot of it is burned over, it is still fabulous country.
EO: Specific to the Umatilla National Forest, what do you see 10 years down the road?
BLACKWOOD: When I got here, there was about 360 permanent employees. We're down to about 185-190. I think we will probably lose more before it's done.
Right now, we are dealing with the largest national debt in history. The Forest Service is part of what's referred to as the discretionary budget - it isn't part of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. We compete with military spending and all of the other discretionary parts of the budget.
The best advice we've had, is over the next several years our budget will be very tight, if not declining. We are going to continue to be leaner and that will do two main things: One, it's going to cause us to be mindful of what kinds of projects we take on. Secondly, we are going to be much more dependent getting work done as partners with others.
Recreation trails have always been a lean program on the Umatilla. It's hard for us to compete with some of the big urban forests. But trying to get some partner help to do basic things like maintain trails and keep campgrounds open is on our list. People are going to find our road system is rougher to travel because we don't have the resources we once had to maintain the roads. We are going to concentrate on safety issues and resource protection, rather than some of the comforts.
EO: Where does the forest stand on logging, grazing?
BLACKWOOD: With the logging we are probably at a very sustainable level right now, at about 20 percent of where we were 10 years ago. The kind of logging we are doing is different. We're focusing on what is left behind instead of what we're taking out. In our drier forest areas, where density management is such an issue, that's where we have our insect, disease and fire problems mostly, we have a lot of work to do out there. If we can sustain this level, I think it's going to be a good thing for the resilience of the plant groups out there.
With livestock grazing, we've made significant changes starting about 10 years ago. We started seeing fish listed under the Endangered Species Act and got some fairly significant reductions in the amount of livestock use out there. We've changed around pastures to make sure we don't have livestock on spawning waters at certain times of year. That's going to continue to be a contentious program. There are a lot of folks and interests out there who question the need and validity of either logging or grazing on public lands.
But we are still a multiple-use agency and we feel that through our practices and safeguards that we can provide those opportunities. But those two in particular are going to be contentious.
EO: Beyond logging and grazing, what else is happening on the forest?
BLACKWOOD: There's a lot of good support for the riparian restoration we're doing, the culvert replacements, some of the road obliterations, some of the in-stream work, and the dredge tail piling work we did down on the NF John Day (River) that we are finishing up right now. That's a neat story. They are doing the very last of that now and I don't know how many miles of that work they have accomplished.
Some of the dredge piles were fish-killer traps. This work lets the river be the river.
But we do have some challenges from a recreation standpoint. Who knows what the next toy is going to be. Who knows what the impact will be to plants and to wildlife. Within our lifetime we will probably see personal hovercraft. What does that do to your experience when you hike for three hours to get to Long Mountain Ridge all by yourself and along comes a hovercraft?
As we look to the future, our programs will heavily revolve around watershed health and restoration and the challenges will be involved in trying to manage reaction and water-quality issues. There are a lot less of us. We are stretched pretty thin right now.
EO: How does it make you feel to see these reductions of services on the forest?
BLACKWOOD: It does really tear at you. This year the Forest Service is celebrating its centennial. There are not a lot of agencies that can claim that. We provide some value to public - not just in the short term, but in the long term - so whenever we are having to reduce some of that service, it worries me about the value we provide to the public.
Our recreation program is run by spark-plug personalities. That is not something you can contract out and get same results. People who are maintaining those campgrounds and trails are driven to try to get the most out of it. When you see the time, effort and work they put in, it's really hard when you can't keep up the services.
EO: How much influence will a reduced work force have on limiting the ability to improve forest health? Does fewer people translate to getting less accomplished on the ground?
BLACKWOOD: The fire function comprises about one-third of our work force right now and a little over one-third of our budget. There is a lot of national attention and priority to dealing with fuels and fighting wildfires. Where we see our challenge is that we can take care of that first night (of fires), but we have (traditionally) relied on the rest of the organization to start filling in and backing up and taking that second shift. As that gets leaner and leaner, well, it makes it more difficult.
As for the veg management (prescribed fire and thinning) projects out there, I think we will be doing well if we can sustain what we have right now. Those projects tend to pay for themselves. We get money appropriated to put together those veg projects. If there is some value in the products removed, that money comes back to us and goes into some of our trust accounts that we can use for continuing those types of trust projects.
EO: What haven't we talked about? What's on your mind?
BLACKWOOD: I'd like to see us get a little more predictability in our funding of programs. It's been kind of a roller coaster here the last several years.
The other thing is dealing with fire managers and fire management. Each year Forest Service fights tens of thousands of forest fires, and we're 98 percent to 99 percent successful on initial attack. The large fires that get away are the anomalies. But there are certain days and times when they are going to burn.
Over the last 10 years we have had three fires nationally that have involved fatalities. What has resulted in a series of qualifications, processes and liabilities that have made it very difficult for fire managers to want to stay engaged because that's the type of job where we have some very dedicated, highly skilled people and extremely service oriented. We need to find some incentives instead of barriers to do that job.
I'm going to see what I can do as a private citizen to help that situation. Especially on the liability end. If you, by law, are a manager on a fire where there is a fatality, and it's a Forest Service fire, the fire manager is going to be investigated criminally. That doesn't make a very comfortable place for people to be while they are doing their jobs. Nobody disagrees that we need to be accountable in our actions and it's a high-risk profession. But some of the results have made it difficult for some people to want to stay in this business. And now, more than ever, they are needed.