Q&A: Forest Service leaders look to stewardship contracts
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
In his career as a forester, Jay Jensen has spent a lot of time in the political thickets of Washington, D.C., where he has served as a forestry policy analyst and adviser.
Last year, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed Jensen as deputy undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, a role in which he oversees the U.S. Forest Service.
Under his leadership, the agency is currently revising a planning rule that will establish a new framework for managing the nation's forests. Public collaboration and forest restoration are major components of the rule, he said.
Jensen recently stopped by the Capital Press office in Salem, Ore., to discuss the issues confronting the Forest Service. He was joined by Cal Joyner, the agency's deputy regional forester for the Pacific Northwest. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CP: Projects pursued by the Forest Service, even those aimed at thinning and restoration, often come against legal challenges from environmental groups. How does litigation affect the agency's decision-making process?
JJ: There's always going to be entities that feel like decisions are not taking into account all the considerations that are out there. We want to encourage people to come to the table with us early.
Our approach to lawsuits is to really encourage people to come on the front end. We want to make sure people invest their time and energy helping us shape the right kind of projects instead of coming at the tail end of the process through some kind of appeal or through some lawsuits.
CP: How much of the Forest Service's time and resources are devoted to litigation?
CJ: People who have the perception that these lands strictly need to be preserved and not be actively managed, particularly with a commercial intent, then their choice is to litigate if they're not able to work out their differences with us.
We work really hard to minimize that, but a very small percentage of projects ends up being litigated. But because of that litigation, (in the Pacific Northwest) we spend 40 percent to 60 percent of the money that we get for vegetation management on planning, because of the need to have a very strong environmental document that can withstand litigation.
CP: Could you give us a broad overview of the changes in the planning rule for national forest management?
JJ: It's trying to refresh and update it in the context of the latest thinking about forest management. There's a real strong focus now from the Secretary on forest restoration. This is something the agency has been doing for some time, but the guidelines, regulations and policies haven't reflected that in some sense.
This is a really strong pillar for the Secretary in terms of the approach we're taking. It's our belief we can work through some of these challenges we've found on the legal side by focusing on this pillar of forest restoration. It's our experience and belief that will lead to more work, will it actually bring more jobs. We're going to see cleaner water, more habitat and more species protection. I think we're going to see more timber, actually see more board feet come off.
CP: The U.S. is facing constraints on spending, with the federal government feeling pressure to reduce the national deficit. How does the Forest Service expect to fund restoration activities, given the budget outlook?
JJ: One of the key tools we're emphasizing is called stewardship contracting. These stewardship contracts allow for up to 10-year contracts. That gives some certainty to the private sector to come engage with the agency. You can invest in the people and equipment to get that work done.
We're not going to have enough public dollars to pay for all the work that needs to get done. We've got to work with the private sector through things like these stewardship contracts. It's something I call building the forest restoration economy.
CJ: The real benefit of the stewardship contracting is you have a commercial stand, and that generates receipts to the government. We take those receipts and that's what does the work on the non-commercial stands or does wildlife habitat improvement.
The same company buys the entire suite of work. They may subcontract the pre-commercial piece or the wildlife habitat work and do the main thing themselves, which is the harvest of the commercial logs. It's a pretty happy symbiosis.