<B>USFS decision to move called 'premature'</B>
- Bill Sheehy
- Central Oregonian - Features
>The work of the 7-member ad-hoc committee looking into the proposal to relocate the Ochoco National Forest leadership has resulted in what is sure to be a controversial report (The full text of the committee's report follows this story)
Apparently, the proposed relocation of the Ochoco National Forest office from Crook County to some yet-to-be-determined location in Deschutes County has everybody's approval.
Last April, when pressure from various local entities was brought to bear on the three members of the Oregon Congressional delegation, the decision was made to study the proposal further. Toward this end a seven-member 'working group' was formed to look into the move. Late yesterday that group completed its report.
Well over a year ago, the decision was made to combine the leadership of the Ochoco National Forest with that of the Deschutes National Forest. The plan was the result of cost-cutting measures mandated by Congress.
Originally, it was announced that the combined Ochoco-Deschutes national Forest headquarters was to be located somewhere in Bend, Redmond or Prineville. Local officials complained that the decision had been made without taking into account the impact on Prineville. Crook County Judge Scott Cooper wrote a letter to Forest Supervisor Leslie Weldon expressing his "grave concern regarding the integrity of the decision-making process" as well concern for the potential economic and social impact of the removal of 50 jobs from Prineville.
Copies of that letter were forwarded to the Oregon Congressional delegation and, with the level of complaints at a high pitch, the delegation responded by forming the working group.
Called the Forest Service Ad Hoc committee, the make-up of the membership included two Forest Service employees, District Ranger Art Currier and the transition leader for the Ochoco-Deschutes National Forests David Summer. Another member was a retired Forest official, Mike Lunn, former Supervisor of the Siskiyou-Rogue National Forest.
It is important to note that all members of the committee signed off on the final report.
After meeting many times in the past three months the committee, presenting their preliminary facts, suggested that more work needs to be done. However the report starts out with the statement that, in their view, the decision to exclude Prineville as a potential site for a combined Supervisor's Office was premature and poorly communicated.
Virtually no analysis of costs or impacts was documented leading up to the choice to combine the Ochoco and Deschutes National Forests, and to move the headquarters of the Ochoco NF from Prineville. The Forest Service did not, the committee found, consider ways to keep the Ochoco National Forest viable by restructuring it to be a financially stand-alone forest.
The combination of units and headquarters move potentially would seriously impact the community of Prineville, yet no involvement of citizens or community leaders was done, or any analysis of the social, cultural or economic impacts was documented.
The Prineville BLM and Ochoco National Forest worked together for five or more years, the committee found, developing an organizational model to manage public lands effectively and deliver services efficiently through sharing expertise, programs and staffing. This widely supported, innovative model, which received national recognition, was suddenly and unexplainably halted by the Forest Service in favor of a totally different approach with no public notification.
The committee reviewed information, asked questions, and engaged in lengthy discussions. We have wrestled to understand the context and complexities behind the Forest Service's consolidation decision. With the information that was gathered they concluded that the Ochoco NF can be a viable unit on its own, working in concert with the Deschutes NF and Prineville BLM, and in so doing, more effectively manage the lands in central Oregon and better serve the communities.
Understanding that budgetary cutbacks have affected the Ochoco NF, which dropped from $26 million/year to about $12 million/year in the last decade. However, many other Forests in the Pacific Northwest have experienced similar reduction in budgets in that period, with differing approaches and successes taken to deal with them.
The announcement in early 2001, that the Ochoco headquarters would be combined and moved from Prineville, was an outgrowth of this directive. The Forest Service believed that it would be easier to save money through combination than for the Ochoco to make the needed reductions alone. No documented analysis, the report states, is available to support this supposition, nor was there appropriate community notification or involvement of this important agency choice.
The community and leadership of Prineville only became aware of the situation when it was announced that up to 50 people would be moved to a new headquarters location in Bend or Redmond early this year. At a meeting with community leaders on March 9, 2001, the Forest Service characterized the decisions as an internal matter not requiring public process. The Committee's discussions with the Forest Service make it clear that the overriding goal has been to address the financial shortfall of the Ochoco NF, with service and effectiveness secondary, and very little consideration for the impacts on the community
The committee states at one point in its report that they believe it is now time to focus efforts on how the agency and the community can best create an effective organization to administer the Ochoco National Forest while, to the extent possible, mitigating negative impacts on Prineville and Crook County.
The committee's report will be forwarded to US Sen. and Congressmen Ron Wyden will also be sent to President Geo. Bush, Ann Venneman, Secretary of Agriculture and Chief Dale Bosworth, head of the USDA Forest Service.
The work of the committee is not, in the member's opinion, completed. But from its preliminary findings, it might safely be said that the decision to move the Ochoco National Forest leadership away from Prineville is not final either.
Full text of the committee's report
Dear Senator Smith, Representative Walden and Senator Wyden:
The Forest Service Ad Hoc committee, appointed by the delegation to review the impacts on Crook County resulting from the Forest Service decision to consolidate the Ochoco National Forest and the Deschutes National Forest, respectfully submits a summary and preliminary findings of fact for your perusal. The committee has met in full and in subcommittee over the past three months. We have reviewed information, asked questions, and engaged in lengthy discussions. We have wrestled to understand the context and complexities behind the Forest Service's consolidation decision. We have invested time identifying and discussing the local impacts upon timber-related businesses and upon the communities and citizens of Crook County.
Throughout this process, the committee has had the benefit of working with two Forest Service committee members. I would like to commend Art Currier, District Ranger and David Summer, Transition Leader, for promptly producing information requested by the Committee. David and Art have been forthright about conveying the Forest Service perspective. They participated as full members of the committee in discussions that were at times difficult, given their dual employment and community allegiances.
The enclosed document represents a summary of the salient information that was digested by the committee. The summary synthesizes the information, and outlines and justifies recommended courses of action. It also identifies the impacts on the community. The preliminary findings of fact support our conclusion in the summary. Our conclusion is that the current consolidation effort of the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forest is unsupported and should be immediately reversed. The Forest Service should halt all efforts to justify their decision. We recommend that all efforts should be refocused on retaining the Ochoco National Forest, as a viable unit.
At the last committee meeting, June 28, 2001, we learned that the Forest Service had applied for approval for consolidation from the Chief. This action was met with concern from the committee members. A majority of the committee members felt that this was not a good faith action, and would further negatively impact the relationship between the community and the Forest Service. The Forest Service has learned of our concerns and responded. David Summer notified me on July 10, 2001, that the Forest Service is putting the application for consolidation approval on hold. He assured me that the Forest Service would contact the committee should they decide to either proceed with the approval process or withdraw the proposal. This action and these representations are encouraging, as they are responsive to the committee's findings. These actions are also responsive to the central, compelling issue that has surfaced in the committee - the need to retain the Ochoco NF as a stand-alone unit with its own leadership.
Frankly, the Committee does not believe that its work is completed. We request direction from the delegation as to whether or not you would like to see us to continue to meet as a committee with the Forest Service. For example, the Forest Service has sent inquiries to Forest Supervisors and Deputies in Region 6 asking them to participate in a two-day session, July 19 and 20, 2001, to review and share their consolidation experiences. We view this as important information that needs consideration by the committee in view of the summary and preliminary findings of fact. This committee also identified many areas of potential collaboration and innovation within the Forest Service organization and with the community, which are not addressed in the current summary. Exploring these areas with the Forest Service, offering recommendations to the delegation, could be productive for the organization and the community. The committee's work sets the stage for a working group of community members to begin regular dialogue with the Forest Service.
Should you require clarification or assistance as you review these documents, the Committee stands ready to assist you. Please contact me with respect to the disposition of the ad-hoc committee.
Diane Bohle, Ph.D.
Convener and Facilitator for the Committee
Statement of Issue
Senator Smith, Representative Walden and Senator Wyden:
Your letter of April 20, 2001, asked our committee to review ways in which the Ochoco National Forest and other central Oregon Federal lands could be managed more effectively and with less overhead costs. In part, your letter stated:
"While we all support that worthy goal, we have expressed concerns with the impacts that the proposed move would have on the community of Prineville and on Crook County. These impacts include loss of jobs; the perception that important differences in the local economy and culture are not fully appreciated by the Forest Service leadership; and a concern that the administrative reorganization will cause a further deterioration in the agency's ability to deliver land management services that are vital to the community and to the forest.
Further, we share the local concern that the decision to exclude Prineville as a potential site for a combined Supervisor's Office was premature and poorly communicated, unnecessarily fueling local concerns about the agency's long-term agenda for the Ochoco lands.
We believe it is now time to focus efforts on how the agency and the community can best create an effective organization to administer the Ochoco National Forest while, to the extent possible, mitigating negative impacts on Prineville and Crook County."
Our committee was asked to conclude our work by July 1, 2001. We are now reporting on our work to date in this document, but recognize that much work remains to be done by the Forest Service and BLM as well as our committee if desired by the delegation.
After several formal meetings and a number of informal meetings with Forest Service and BLM officials, it is the conclusion of the committee that indeed the decision to combine the two units and move the headquarters from Prineville was premature. We also find that the process of decision-making has been seriously flawed over the past year. Virtually no analysis of costs or impacts was documented leading up to the choice to combine the Ochoco and Deschutes NF's, and to move the headquarters of the Ochoco NF from Prineville. The Forest Service did not entertain ways to retain the Ochoco NF, by restructuring it to be a financially viable, stand-alone forest. The combination of units and headquarters move potentially would seriously impact the community of Prineville, yet no involvement of citizens or community leaders was done, or any analysis of the social, cultural or economic impacts was documented.
The Prineville BLM and Ochoco National Forest worked collaboratively for five or more years, developing an organizational model to manage public lands effectively and deliver services efficiently through sharing expertise, programs and staffing. This effort included the Deschutes NF in the last two years. This widely supported, innovative model, which received national recognition, was suddenly and unexplainably halted by the Forest Service in favor of a totally different approach with no public notification. Based on a review of information and on discussions, the committee believes the Ochoco NF can be a viable unit on its own, working in concert with the Deschutes NF and Prineville BLM, and in so doing, more effectively manage the lands in central Oregon and better serve the communities.
It is acknowledged that a major reduction in budget has affected the Ochoco NF, which dropped from $26 million/year to about $12 million/year in the last decade. Numerous cost reduction approaches have been conducted, but in the past few years, it has been increasingly difficult for the Ochoco to live within its reduced budget. A shortfall of approximately $1 million existed in 1999-2000, which prompted the consolidation decision according to Forest Service officials. Many other Forests in the Pacific Northwest have experienced similar reduction in budgets in that period, with differing approaches and successes taken to deal with them. (See Preliminary Finding of Fact).
In July 2000, Regional Forester Harv Forsgren for the Pacific Northwest Region, directed that the Ochoco be combined with the Deschutes NF. The announcement in early 2001, that the Ochoco headquarters would be combined and moved from Prineville, was an outgrowth of this directive. The Forest Service believed that it would be easier to save money through combination than for the Ochoco to make the needed reductions alone; in essence trading "the devil you know for the devil you don't know." No documented analysis is available to support this supposition, nor was there appropriate community notification or involvement of this important agency choice. The community and leadership of Prineville only became aware of the situation when it was announced that up to 50 people would be moved to a new headquarters location in Bend or Redmond early this year. At a meeting with community leaders on March 9, 2001, the Forest Service characterized the decisions as an internal matter not requiring public process. The Committee's discussions with the Forest Service make it clear that the overriding goal has been to address the financial shortfall of the Ochoco NF, with service and effectiveness secondary, and very little consideration for the impacts on the community.
The Forest Service has just begun the analysis of staffing, infrastructure, and other organizational approaches to identify potential cost savings that might result from the consolidation; the results of this analysis are months off into the future. After-the-fact analysis has cost the Forest Service credibility with the committee and with the community.
The citizens committee believes an appropriate first step for the Forest Service, is to give serious consideration to how the Ochoco NF could be retained as viable, effective unit, with its own line officer and leadership. This kind of baseline analysis is expected by the committee and by the community. Without this analysis it is impossible to be able to identify potential future savings or compare organizational alternatives. An analysis of the viability of the Ochoco NF recognizes the forest as an important economic, social and cultural part of the community. Its employees are an important source of human and social capitol for a community undergoing major economic strain. Crook County's dependence on wood products is the highest in the state of Oregon and overall unemployment is the highest in Central Oregon. The Forest Service decisions have compounded this strain.
There are many ongoing and potential opportunities to share staffing, expertise and services with the BLM and Deschutes NF, but the committee does not believe that a combined unit can effectively deal with the large differences in culture, communities, user activities, landscapes, and issues. Bend and Prineville are not far apart in miles, but are leagues apart as communities of people and preferences. The July 2000 Priester Study, commissioned by the BLM and FS, supports this conclusion. Retaining management of the Ochoco National Forest in Prineville would entail hard choices about current staffing levels and other cost reduction approaches, but numerous National Forests similar to the Ochoco have budgets of $12 million or less (See Preliminary Findings of Fact). The committee believes that the first choice should be for the Ochoco NF to remain a single unit, and until that is fully and honestly explored a decision on the consolidation with the Deschutes NF cannot be made.
The committee appreciates the candid and honest discussions provided by the Forest Service during our deliberations. Supervisor Leslie Weldon and her staff have been available and forthcoming with information that has helped us better understand this complex and challenging issue. The Forest Service needs to immediately halt implementation of the combination of the two forests, and work collaboratively with the community of Prineville to retain the Ochoco NF as a single unit and to recognize our potential futures.
An important positive outcome from the committee process is the recognition by the Forest Service that the people of Prineville care deeply about its heritage and linkage with the Ochoco National Forest, and the Forest Service employees who are an important part of our community. The Committee believes that polarization between the community and the Forest Service is not an acceptable outcome and that there is an obligation on behalf of the community to be involved with and support the Ochoco National Forest so that it can be fully successful. The Committee firmly believes that great things could occur if we work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Diane Bohle, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Prineville-Crook County Chamber of
Convener and Facilitator for the Committee
Community member, Prineville
Director, Crook County Commission on Families and Children
Community member, Prineville
District Ranger, Ochoco National Forest
Community member, Prineville
Chair, OSU-Crook County Extension Service
Community member, Prineville
Retired Supervisor, Prineville Bureau of Land Management
Community member, Prineville
Retired Supervisor, Siskiyou-Rogue National Forest
Community member, Prineville
Resource Manager, Ochoco Lumber Company, Prineville
Community member, Prineville
Transition Leader, Ochoco-Deschutes National Forests
The Associates Real Estate
Chair, Chamber of Commerce Economic Development
Community member, Prineville
Preliminary Findings of Fact
The Consolidation Decision
The decision to combine the Ochoco and Deschutes National Forests was based on the declining budget of the Ochoco NF (ONF), the ONF's high overhead costs, and the conclusion that there was a budget shortfall of approximately $1 million dollars per year. The remedy was to consolidate the two Forests. The consolidation decision was not, however, supported by sound (or any documented) financial, organizational, or social analyses. Specific areas of cost-saving have not been identified. Actual cost-savings were not penciled out prior to the consolidation decision, thus there is no way to measure or compare different approaches.
The Viability of the Ochoco NF and Snow Mountain Ranger District
There was no analysis to determine if the Ochoco National Forest could stand-alone when the choice was made to separate the Snow Mountain District, joining it with the Malheur NF. When the consolidation was done, it was part of a larger, overall Ochoco/BLM organizational model that was derailed by the choice to consolidate with the Deschutes. This choice resulted in loss of approximately $2.5 million/year to the Ochoco, exacerbating the financial problems. It is the understanding of this committee that similar smaller forests across the U.S. have remained financially viable and are efficiently managed (Lincoln NF, Cibola, Lewis and Clark, Fishlake, etc.) The decision to remove Snow Mountain from the Ochoco NFS jurisdiction contributed to making the Ochoco National Forest financially unviable according to former Ochoco NF Supervisor, Tom Schmidt, at the June 1, 2001 Committee Meeting.
The decision to relocate and combine the Forest Service Headquarters was a decision that was based on the consolidation of the two forests, earlier decided by the Regional Forester with no input from the community or considerations of social, economic or cultural effects locally. The choice was based on speculation, assumptions and undocumented analysis that savings and efficiencies would be generated, but with no p1an outlining what those savings would be or how those efficiencies would be accomplished. Information generated in discussions and presentations within the committee indicate the likelihood of significant cost reductions for infrastructure and staffing are unknown, especially considering the disruptions that will occur. Moving a National Forest headquarters, with its official records, communications technologies, furniture, etc. is no small affair; and impacts on the employees and their personal lives are even greater. A complete civil rights analysis of all that is proposed would reveal major potential impacts on working parents with day care needs, single parents, the commuting patterns of nearly all involved, and other disruptive activities. However, since the Forest Service has not analyzed any of these factors, this is mere speculation at this time. The current programs of sharing services and expertise are extensive and effective; the only identified savings to date are the Forest Supervisor position and potentially one or two GS-13 staff officers.
Recognition of Distinct Forest Cultures
The Forest Service recognizes that the Ochoco and Deschutes are distinct and different forest and community cultures. This is well documented in the July 2000 study by Priester, which was commissioned by the FS/BLM. The FS acknowledges that consolidating the two forests will require two distinct forms of management to respect and preserve the character and culture of the Ochoco and Prineville. Currently, however, there is no concrete plan in place outlining how the culture and identity of the Ochoco Forest would be preserved in the event of consolidation. There is no plan or analysis displaying the effects on the numerous services and activities currently available in Prineville. The Committee offers the observation that two distinct forms of culturally appropriate management may not be implemented without incurring additional costs. It cannot be assured that staffing reductions would occur without analysis.
Engaging the Community
Clearly, the Prineville-Crook County community was not engaged before the decision to merge the forests was made. Initially, the Forest Service characterized the decisions as an internal process that did not require the agency to seek out community involvement. Supervisor Leslie Weldon has been open and candid about the lack of collaboration, or even simple notification of the community about decisions that would have major social and economic impacts. The after-the-fact engagement of community leaders has damaged the Forest Service's reputation and credibility in the community. Regardless of future decisions in this matter, this relationship needs serious attention from the Forest Service. The agency speaks loudly about the importance of collaboration and involvement; in this case it failed to even make meager overtures before involvement of the congressional delegation.
*Other Unit Consolidations
(*This section is attributed to individual Committee members with knowledge of other consolidations. This information was discussed in the committee meetings).
As noted, budget reductions have seriously affected many units, and differing responses have been undertaken. In Colorado, the San Juan and Rio Grande NF's were combined approximately 6-7 years ago; this was undone in the past two years as it was not being successful in that manner, and instead the Forests joined in partnership with the BLM units in their areas.
The Rogue River and Siskiyou NF's each underwent budget reductions nearing 50% over the last decade, and chose to consolidate leadership while vacating both headquarters offices and moving into owned facilities with the BLM in Medford. Many other factors contributed to the feasibility of this move. But the previous Supervisor of these two units, now retired, is on the committee, and has stated that if he had the opportunity to again choose based on what has occurred since the decision, he would not make the same choice again. While large opportunities appeared evident during the analysis stage, the human element was impossible to predict and it likely will be many years, if ever, before the expected efficiencies and savings occur. Many experienced people in the Pacific NW region considered this one of the most logical of all consolidations. But it isn't about just logic.
The Olympic National Forest is probably the most heavily impacted Forest in the Northwest, with its budget plummeting more than 60% (estimate) during the 90's. The Mount Baker Snoqualmie NF, in Seattle, also took huge reductions in the past 15 years. Serious consideration was giving to combining these two units, but in the end, it was decided to maintain each as a separate unit while sharing skills.
The Fremont NF, in Lakeview, is now combining with the Winema in Klamath Falls. This occurred only after full sharing with the Lakeview BLM was in place and working; they share an office, administrative officer, fire organization, and many others. There will remain in Klamath Falls a headquarters contingent of the combined Fremont/Winema, in order to minimize impacts to employees and the community. Forest Supervisor Chuck Graham sees little reason to move headquarters employees to a single office. And, in Klamath Falls as well, there will be major sharing and partnership with the BLM.
Consideration for consolidating the Wenatchee, Okanogan, and Colville NF's occurred, and the Wenatchee and Okanogan are joining. The Colville shares expertise with the combination in several areas. Success and progress to date is unknown.
Numerous other sharing arrangements exist across the Region and elsewhere in the Forest Service. Comparing the organizations before consolidation and after consolidation to assess the cost-savings, efficiencies and impacts of these mergers could offer important insights. New consolidations will likely be few under the new Chief, given his stated general opposition to unit consolidations at either the Forest or District level. He stresses the importance of local community contact.
The announcement of the closing of Ochoco Lumber, will further negatively impact the relationship of the FS with the community of Prineville. At the June 1, 2001 Committee meeting, Supervisor Leslie Weldon and via teleconference, FS Assistant Deputy Chief Sally Collins acknowledged that the closure impairs the ability of local timber operations to work with the Forest Service in thinning operations required for Forest Health and to mitigate fire risk. The economic impacts to the community will further exacerbate the high unemployment situation in Crook County. The closing of Ochoco Lumber marks a change in the use of the Ochocos for the community. This closing, coupled with the unpredictability of timber sales on public lands sends the message that production timber operations are obsolete on the Ochoco, community reliance upon the timber industry is no longer viable, and the community needs to shift our economic base away from natural resource management. The Committee does not agree with this message, and acknowledges the importance of working relationships between the Federal Government and private business to implement forest management practices.
Clearly, conditions in the timber industry have changed, but this mill closure and the inability of the Forest Service to be able to put out a predictable funded program, comes at the same time that the Forest Service is receiving additional funds and emphasis to deal with the hazardous levels of fuel build-ups that cause explosive and dangerous fire conditions. While fuels reduction can occur with prescribed fire, pre-commercial thinning, and other methods, the timber industry remains an important and effective tool and ally in fuels reduction/thinning operations. To achieve these goals of fuels reduction and forest health, there needs to be commitment by the Federal Government to provide a predictable supply of wood for companies to incorporate in their business plans. The Forest Service cannot manage the issue of hazardous fuels and unhealthy watersheds without skilled and capable companies and people in the private sector. This is a serious issue throughout the western U.S. that must be addressed by the Congressional delegation and all people concerned about the health and future of these important lands.
Issues Outside the Control of Local Managers
Managing federal lands has become increasingly complex, and outside the control of any given agency. New ways of working together among and between agencies at the State and Federal level are essential, but slow in developing. The ESA, Clean Water Act, and other laws require high levels of technical expertise for compliance, as well as people who are committed to approaching problems at a single government, not agency level. Also, internally generated problems persist, such as the "eastside screens" and other internally imposed management processes. Intended as an interim measure five or more years ago, these still have not been replaced with permanent direction and are overly restrictive. Appeals and litigation pose barriers that require increased staff time and dollars; many of these are basically nuisance appeals with little substance but they still require the same level of attention for disposition.
There is a critical need for leadership at higher levels within the agencies and also in Congress to proactively address these issues. At the same time there is a need for Forest Service leadership to begin organizing and staffing locally for the real work that needs to be done to insure the continued use, health and sustainability of our National Forests.