Seven months into her job as leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, Forester Leanne Marten wants to see more even progress at a tumultuous time for the agency.
“You have these bursts of capacity and then it goes down in the next year,” Marten said in an interview with the Missoulian on Monday. “I want to smooth that out and slowly increase our participation over time, so we can maintain pace with our partners. We have much more work on the ground than we have the capacity and resources to complete.”
That said, Marten was pleased to list the accomplishments Region 1 did log during 2015. That included improving 475 miles of stream habitat, removing noxious weeds from 68,000 acres, restoring or improving 135,000 acres of wildlife habitat, reducing fuels on more than 250,000 acres (including 96,000 in the wildland-urban interface around homes and structures) and maintaining 12,000 miles of trail.
Marten takes charge as most of the national forests in the 26 million-acre region have just finished or are in the process of completing their forest plans – the comprehensive rule book governing each forest’s management, land uses and priorities. Six of those forests have recently consolidated into three larger districts.
“I feel there are continual challenges,” Marten said. “We’re looking at more than 50 percent of our annual budget going to fight wildfire. We have a changing climate. That takes some ability away to work on fire or wildlife or aquatics. We didn’t have success getting the fire-borrowing fixed in the last budget. So I see that as a challenge to work through that. What is the priority work to do with the public and communities and agencies and tribes?”
Fire-borrowing happens when the Forest Service must dip into regular budget accounts to cover unpredictable wildfire costs. A plan to pay for forest fires the same way as hurricanes or similar natural disasters failed in Congress last December over disputes about changes to forest timber management policy.
The region manages public forests and grasslands in Montana, northern Idaho, North Dakota and parts of South Dakota. Marten was previously in the agency's national headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she was director of ecosystem management coordination. She also served as national director for wilderness and wild and scenic rivers, and held acting leadership roles for national partnerships and the national forest system.
She replaced Faye Krueger as regional forester, headquartered in Missoula. It’s a homecoming of sorts. Earlier in her career, Marten worked at the Kootenai National Forest’s Canoe Gulch Ranger District and was made district ranger in the Ottawa National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She was forest supervisor of the Huron-Manistee National Forest in Michigan and Allegheny National Forest in northwest Pennsylvania before moving to Washington, D.C.
“There’s a lot of challenges and it takes patience and persistence,” Marten said. “You don’t often see the results you want to see right away. We’re not going to please everyone and meet everyone’s expectations. We’re looking for how we can balance those expectations.”
A recently released strategy to improve the agency’s struggling recreation, heritage and wilderness programs will help guide Region 1’s resource use. But Marten said it doesn’t forecast a shift in the Forest Service’s identity.
“We’re going to take a hard look at all our activities,” Marten said. “I don’t see us as separated into timber and recreation. Forest restoration is vital to everything we do. It’s not either/or. It’s a combination. We can’t have results on the ground without the infrastructure to treat forests. The sawmills, the grazing, the local economies are all lumped in there.”