Interview of Regional Forester Cal Joyner, February 20, 2018
LWVNM Members: Barbara Calef, Lynn Jones, Judy Williams, Chris Furlanetto
The Southwestern regional office of the USFS covers NM, AZ, OK and TX with 2,700 employees across the four states. Most employees are in NM and AZ where the 11 national forests in the region are located. NM, TX and OK have grasslands under USFS management.
Multiple-Use, Sustained-Yield Mandate
With regard to the multiple-use, sustained yield mandate, Joyner referred to FLPMA (Federal Land Policy and Management Act, 1976) and the 2012 Planning Rule. Mining in the forests has changed over the years. Copper is dominant now but there is an application for renewed uranium mining near Mt. Taylor. Mineral mining at Questa has recently stopped. Grazing and logging have less economic impact than mining.
In terms of economic value of Forest Service lands, Joyner stated that recreation and tourism now contribute far more than mining, grazing and logging combined. Water is also a major component of the economic value of USFS assets as the agency is tasked with headwaters management.
Joyner also talked about the social value of USFS assets. Our region is the 2 nd largest in terms of grazing permits but most of the permits in NM are for small herds, especially in the Carson NF. Because of NM’s history of land grants/ownership, many families in small Hispanic communities have very little land but continue to own small numbers of animals. They are not full-time ranchers and need year-round access to the forests. Generally, the Forest Service and BLM require that ranchers own sufficient property to pasture their herds, but to maintain the existing social structure of these communities, base property ownership criteria have been waived.
Normally, but depending on the climate in the area, grazing permits only cover part of the year. Permits are issued based on the number of animals and for specific time periods. They are assigned to the land, not the landowner, and therefore go with the property when it’s sold.
Joyner talked next about Forest Plans. These are planning and zoning documents that set standards and guidelines for each forest. Plans for all regional forests are in revision mode with those for Cibola, Santa Fe and Carson forest furthest along in the process. Those three draft plans are available online. The plan for the Gila NF is undergoing assessment.
The Forest Service is trying to establish collaborative agreements with local organizations to work on different landscapes. For example, the Cibola NF has six separate areas where they are looking for synergies with user groups.
Joyner said the Forest Service budget has not kept up with its needs. The big problem has been a flat budget while fire suppression and firefighting have taken increasingly large chunks of the budget. Congress and OMB force the agency to pay for fire as a 10-year rolling average of the cost; with the increasing number and severity of fires, there is less and less money for other budget line items. Joyner said the Forest Service is really good at its fire-related responsibilities but the increasing costs have a serious negative impact on other necessary activities.
For example, there were 39% more non-fire activity employees in the past than there are currently. The lost positions include hydrologists, geologists, wildlife biologists, soil experts, etc. This decreased diversity in the agency’s skill base coupled with fewer financial resources means that activities such as endangered species recovery, maintenance of roads and campgrounds, watershed maintenance and restoration are severely understaffed.
The recently passed (February 2018) spending bill gave the Forest Service a budget increase, but the largest part of the increase is dedicated to fire-related activities. Joyner believes that the administration’s proposed budget for FY19 would be a disaster. He also pointed out that the Forest Service is the only federal agency that has to pay for natural disasters out of its annual budget; other agencies get supplemental disaster relief funding.
As with the BLM, the Forest Service remits PILT (payments in lieu of taxes) to local governments from timber, mining, recreation ( e.g . ski areas) revenues but these are typically not large amounts. They are also forming Resource Advisory Committees at the local level to provide recommendations on recreational fee proposals.
When asked about enforcement of federal rules within the forests, Joyner said the budget cuts have also impacted enforcement. There are efforts to partner with community volunteers who can be eyes and ears for the Forest Service, reporting infractions and areas needing attention. The Forest Service is also trying to direct traffic to better roads, with the goal of reducing the number of roads (and their maintenance) and, importantly, improving watersheds.
Federal vs. State Land Management
We asked about the differences between state and federal public land management. Joyner said the major difference is that state public lands are trust lands managed for revenue generation while federal lands have a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate. He said states invest far less per acre than federal agencies do. The USFS spends $260 million on the 11 national forests (20.6 million acres) in the Southwest region; this works out to just under $13/acre. The Forest Service also significantly outspends the states on fire suppression: for example, in Arizona in 2017, the Forest Service spent $200 million on fire suppression, while the state spent $16 million.
The discussion came back to fire-related activities. Fire control is complex, involving a coalition of agencies. The SW Interagency Command Center, covering NM and AZ, is physically at the 333 Broadway SE, Albuquerque address. They handle dispatch and coordinate responsibilities. The Forest Service responds to fires on all federal lands and, when asked, responds to fires on other wildlands. Everyone who is physically able can be sent out. Most funds now are used for containing fires and protecting houses and communities.
Because of the current drought conditions, fire crews will start gathering at the Command Center at the end of February rather than in the usual end of March timeframe. Joyner offered the League the opportunity to tour the Command Center once it is staffed for the upcoming season.
Interestingly, the city of Albuquerque is in better shape than most of the SW – the water table is actually rising because of conservation efforts.
Effect of the Transition from Obama to Trump
Joyner believes the biggest change with the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration has been in priorities. He pointed out that it’s typical for each new administration to make changes. The Forest Service is now to prioritize jobs and communities first, with management of lands the second priority. This appears to be a big change, but Joyner seems to think they are doing the same work. He used the SW Jemez project as an example; it’s a small lumber mill in Jemez Pueblo that provides about 30 jobs.
Joyner said they are working on getting the forests back to their original state, before fire suppression activities. They want to re-establish the original landscape pattern of ponderosa pines with little undergrowth. That pattern, an open forest floor, promotes growth of the healthy, large trees that can survive fire. Current forest thinning projects are aimed at that goal. Other projects include restoration of springs and streams, planting native species and recovery of endangered species such as the Meadow Jumping Mouse.
Joyner noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS, under Department of the Interior, DoI) is responsible for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but there is close cooperation between the USFWS and the Forest Service.
We asked about possible reorganization of federal land management agencies, based on proposals from Secretary Zinke (DoI). Joyner said there had been discussion of merging the BLM and Forest Service under the Clinton/Gore administration. The work is quite similar, with the BLM focus on rangelands and the Forest Service focus on mountains. Today, Zinke would like to bring the Forest Service under DoI, but Agriculture Secretary Perdue is strongly opposed. When asked about the proposal, Perdue said, “over my dead body.” Perdue believes the Dept. of Agriculture would collapse without the Forest Service.
If the FS went to Interior, it would not stand out; it would risk being ‘lost’ within Interior. Joyner also said that Tom Vilsack (Agriculture Secretary under Obama) was the first secretary who really paid attention to the Forest Service. Perdue is also an advocate, possibly because Georgia is the largest forest producer in the U.S. although most of the forest in Georgia is private land.
Joyner’s primary current concerns are 1) a fix for fire funding; 2) funds to hire more non-fire employees so there will be sufficient staff to perform the required work; and 3) filling appointed positions at the federal level. For example, there is still no permanent Undersecretary; the Associate Chief of the Forest Service is currently filling that position.
NOTE: Since our meeting with Cal Joyner, passage of the Omnibus Spending Package in March 2018 will address the problems he cited. New firefighting funds are provided for the Forest Service and, starting in 2020, it will be able to draw from billions of dollars in new disaster-relief funding to pay for fire fighting. Previously, the Service has had to use cash intended for other purposes.
Joyner does not see a Congressional push for the transfer of federal lands to the states, but did point out that the 2016 Republican platform included a plank in favor of such transfers. In addition, there continues to be activity at the state level. As background, Joyner emphasized that the federal lands were never private and never belonged to the states. When the state enabling acts were signed, the federal government retained ownership of these lands.
Wilderness and Habitat Management
The Forest Service does not have Wilderness Study Areas (a BLM term) but they do undertake similar studies. There has been some friction with the state game and fish agencies in NM and AZ, especially in some wilderness areas. Roads are one bone of contention. For example, the Prescott NF has some old, very rough routes in what is now a wilderness. The Forest Service would like to reclaim those roads, i.e ., not maintain them and let them disappear from disuse. The state would like to maintain them as a matter of “rights.” (Note: this is also happening in Utah.)
Another area that creates friction between federal and state agencies is habitat management. The federal government manages habitats while the states manage hunting and fishing permits based on species and seasons. The USFWS identifies species of concern (ESA) and the Forest Service aims for a mature assemblage of native vertebrate species living in our forests.
There was a brief discussion about wolf recovery efforts. Joyner believes the recovery plan (managed by USFWS) needs to be reworked. One issue is that the current plan limits Mexican wolves to south of I-40 although the native habitat extends north of I-40. There is a pending lawsuit. Colorado and Utah don’t recognize gray wolves as an allowed species at all.
There was also a brief discussion about wild vs. feral horses. The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 designates very limited areas as wild horse habitats. Feral horses, those outside the designated areas, and generally horses that have escaped from Indian reservations, have become a huge political problem. They are destroying landscapes, but there is no agreement between federal and state agencies on how to manage them, although the agencies are making an effort to collaborate. They can’t be processed as a food source and animal rights groups are clearly opposed to culling herds. In some states, efforts by horse advocates to round up the feral horses and adopt them out have had some success. Joyner noted that the populations of feral horses rise when the economy becomes worse and vice versa. Sterilization programs would be logistically difficult to implement on a widespread basis.