Throughout my Forest Service career, my coworkers and I took very seriously the responsibility of managing the public’s natural resources. Caring for our forests and grasslands, water, and wildlife populations is a sacred trust that the American people place in the hands of public employees.
With this honor comes challenges. Every action a public resource manager takes is open for critique in the public forum. It is often said, tongue-in-cheek, that the only problem with a democracy is that everyone gets a vote. The public can weigh in on every action affecting public resources, using an agency review and comment process, the news media, the courts, or social media. Sometimes the comments are deceitful, mean-spirited and self-serving, but public employees by the nature of their employment have limited ability to respond.
I was reminded of this recently when reading about the controversy directed at the Oregon Department of Transportation while it removes trees killed or heavily damaged by fires last summer in Western Oregon. Three state agencies teamed up to remove trees along state highways to prevent them from falling on the roadways. Large trees falling on high-speed highways can spell disaster, and the public has a right to expect that highways are safe to travel.
The problem is, it can take several years for trees heavily damaged by fire to die and fall, but danger tree removal needs to happen now. It is not cost effective to return year after year to remove trees as they die. Forest managers use predictive models to help determine the likelihood that an individual tree has sustained enough damage to kill it, and while these models have been verified with research, they still are models and as such are not perfect. If a model is 98% accurate in predicting which trees will die and eventually fall, this still means that on average two out of 100 predictions will be wrong. ODOT estimates that 140,000 fire-damaged trees will be removed from the sides of the west Cascade highways this spring and summer; if 2% of these trees would have survived had they not been cut down, this is 2,800 trees. No wonder it is easy for critics to point out examples of trees that they believe shouldn’t have been cut.
As a result, ODOT has had to defend its work in the media and in legislative hearings this year, and the foresters they hired have had their motives, credentials and expertise challenged publicly. Such is the world of public resource management.
Another example is the use of what could be called ballot box biology to make decisions about wildlife management. In the North American conservation model, state wildlife agencies manage most wildlife populations, taking their direction from wildlife commissions. The agencies have professional, educated, trained biologists to collect information and make recommendations to the state wildlife commission, which in turn takes public testimony alongside the professional recommendations and makes decisions about management of these populations.
Where it goes awry is when legislatures or the public initiative process is used to dictate how wildlife is managed without full understanding of the underlying biology. Several tools that wildlife agencies have used to manage wildlife populations are off the table in Oregon due to successful ballot initiatives; the use of leghold traps for furbearers and the sport hunting of cougars and bears with dogs, for example. Citizens of Colorado recently passed a ballot measure directing the state wildlife agency to develop a plan to reintroduce wolves into the state even though wolf populations in neighboring states were inevitably going to expand into Colorado without any help.
The problem with ballot box biology is, quite simply, the majority rules. What would happen, for example, if the citizens of the state were presented with a ballot measure to ban all hunting? We might be surprised at how much support such a measure would receive from non-hunters and animal welfare groups, and if it were to pass the consequences would affect not only hunters but also farmers and ranchers, foresters and all sorts of non-game wildlife species.
Again, such is the world of public resource management, something that anyone choosing to enter this profession needs to understand.
I am not suggesting the public shouldn’t have a say in the way public resources are managed. Gifford Pinchot, the father of American forestry, counseled public land foresters to remember who they work for and that public support of management of public resources is absolutely required. What I am suggesting is this public involvement be done with civility and humility, recognizing that professionally trained foresters, biologists and other specialists are working hard to do a quality job, and nearly always do it very well under sometimes very trying circumstances.
Hug a forester today.