With 12 months of work in an 11-month year, U.S. Forest Service Region 1 Forester Leanne Marten faces major challenges as her agency attempts a new strategy for managing wildfire, logging and recreation across Montana.
Catching up with Marten remains its own challenge. After initially seeking an interview after last winter’s federal government shutdown lifted in January, the Missoulian and Marten did not connect until this week. And then it was only by emailed questions, which are printed below. Marten was not available for follow-up questions, although Region 1 spokesman Dan Hottle provided some additional responses included in parentheses after the answers.
The federal shutdown left much of the Forest Service inactive for a month. How will that affect its workload for the rest of 2019? How is it accounting for required activity such as timber sales or National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses that were completed during January by unpaid staff? Has the Forest Service assisted any private contractors affected by its furlough in R1?
During the 35-day lapse of funding, timber sales being implemented on the ground remained active. This was also true of other activities such as critical health and safety services, ski operations and so forth. Assessing the entirety of potential impacts will be ongoing, although we do know that there are timing delays. For instance, some of our timber sales that would have been sold in January or February were delayed by a month or so due to the lapse of funding. Same with some of our project planning (NEPA) decisions and on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and Custer-Gallatin National Forest forest plan revisions. Overall, however, we have been able to adjust and ensure that critical conservation work is continuing to meet the needs of the resources and communities we serve.
We are immensely grateful for the outpouring of kindness and generosity from people and businesses all across our region that helped our employees feel valued and helped them get through an incredibly difficult time. We are very aware that the lapse of funding and resulting partial shutdown presented special challenges not only for our employees and their families, but also for contractors, partners, volunteers and communities throughout the Northern Region and continue to be humbled by how everyone continues to pull together during times of need.
(Projects completed during the shutdown were paid for using prior-year funding that was not part of this year’s appropriated funds)
Region 1’s national forests have had a “musical chairs” of temporary supervisors and reassignments for much of the past year. Why has this been happening? Has this period of interim leadership affected decision-making activity in the forests? When can the public expect to see a return to long-term stability in top administration?
There has been quite a bit of flux in leadership across the Region over the last 6 months. There is no one specific reason. Positions become vacant for a variety of reasons such as retirements or people deciding to take a different position. As we are working through the hiring process for vacant positions, as/if needed we have other highly experienced personnel temporarily fill in to ensure critical activities and decisions move forward.
Recently we have announced new permanent Forest Supervisors for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo, and Bitterroot National Forests. As of now all R1 Forests have permanent leadership with the exception of the Kootenai (National Forest), which is in the process of being prepared to go out for advertisement.
The Forest Service’s “Toward Shared Stewardship” report from last August and numerous other studies indicate the national forest system has a massive amount of noncommercial hazardous fuels to manage. The report notes the agency is treating about 1.9 million acres of hazardous fuels a year, but faces a fire deficit of 35 million acres. How does Region 1 envision tackling its share of this challenge?
Working with our partners and stakeholders through a collaborative Shared Stewardship approach, and with an emphasis on utilizing the best available scientific information, we are identifying opportunities in fire-adapted forests to reintroduce the right kind of fire at the right times to reduce hazardous fuels, especially near our communities. To better manage fire risk, we are increasing the use of prescribed fire and managed wildfire in concert with mechanical treatments and timber sales through the national restoration strategy to make meaningful progress toward achieving more resilient landscapes and a safe and effective wildfire response. Closer collaborative work through the National Cohesive Strategy is helping us better align fuels management priorities across the landscape regardless of ownership. This close cooperation will continue to develop as the agency works to support the leadership of Montana as they, along with other states in the country, work on the development of their statewide action plan.
(We are actively working with the state as we speak to identify priority landscape areas to treat to try and tackle those deficit areas. We aren’t expecting the state to do our jobs for us on federal lands, but rather pool resources and funding to figure out ways to address those priority areas together. No specific funneling of funds has been specifically targeted for that work on a region-wide level yet, but we are actively doing some Good Neighbor Authority projects in several places in the region)
Region 1 faces growing recreation pressures as tourism, bicycling, and motorized use all rise on national forest lands. Forest Service partners tell the Missoulian the amount of agency assistance and participation has steadily declined as fire activity has taken priority. At the same time, both congressional and agency statements seem focused on increasing timber harvest, with little mention of ecological or recreational uses. How would you describe Region 1’s division of labor among these multiple-use missions?
Outdoor recreation continues to be an important part of our conservation mission and customer service. We have seen increased interest in desires to be able to recreate on national forest and grasslands within the Northern Region. Providing access for the public to their lands and offering a variety of opportunities for recreation is part of everything we do including improving forest conditions and addressing the forest health conditions. Federal managers of forests and rangelands face a range of urgent challenges, including catastrophic wildfires, invasive species, degraded watersheds and epidemic proportions of insects and disease. Community impacts from wildfires in high-use areas puts much of our recreational opportunities at risk, so improving ecological conditions throughout our forests is a critical part of us having a successful outdoor recreation program for the future.
We recognize that we not only have an increase in demand for more recreation and tourism but we also continue to have an increase in demand for different types of recreational uses of our Forests. We are working collaboratively with our partners to deliver a shared stewardship approach to recreation and trails issues. That’s because similar to forest health, wildfire and other natural resources, recreation demand and issues are not confined or defined by ownership and administrative boundaries. Our programs and the way we deliver them need to evolve along with the community’s needs. Region 1 has a sustainable recreation strategy involving our partners, and we are working to come up with an integrated implementation plan to better serve the public and meet many of these recreational needs.
(We’re assessing what our recreation programs look like under Shared Stewardship and our other timber and hazardous fuels priorities to find out where we can identify projects with the state that benefit overall forest health while improving the conditions of habitats as well as trails and recreation areas)
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen has stressed the need for the agency to improve its treatment of women and minorities within its ranks. How has that played out specifically in R1?
The Northern Region continues to work to improve and sustain a workplace culture where all employees feel safe, valued, respected and supported. Under our national leadership we have implemented many employee development programs including Conflict Management and Prevention, Mindfulness and Resiliency and Bystander training and other special emphasis programs that provide employees awareness, education, resources and support across all levels of our agency.
As employees we must be trusted in doing right in how we treat each other as colleagues. That same trust with each other translates into the trust and inspiration we seek to increase within the communities we serve. Therefore we are committed to treating each other with respect, empowering one another, investing in our relationships, modeling integrity, protecting one another and learning from our past mistakes across all levels of our agency.