Stewardship pact gives Wyo more say on national forests

Gov. Mark Gordon signed an agreement Aug. 25 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that gives the state more say in “active management” of national forests in Wyoming including logging, firefighting and invasive weed control.

Critics immediately panned the agreement as a tool for increasing timber sales and agricultural use, redirecting national resources toward short-term local gain and restricting public participation. The state’s leaders hailed the pact, saying it would improve forest health and increase local control.

The three-page Agreement for Shared Stewardship outlines how the state and U.S. Forest Service will identify priorities and work to combat insect infestation, wildfire threats, invasive species and to improve degraded range and watersheds. The “new approach” to forest management seeks to find common ground between local and national goals. 

“Everyone wins when we work together,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said during the announcement and signing of the agreement in a Zoom meeting. Gordon, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney welcomed the agreement.

“This is something Wyoming has wanted for a long time,” Enzi said. He cited past obstacles to logging beetle-killed forest stands that he said resulted in their eventual burning by wildfire.

Logging such stands, “that’s stewardship,” Enzi said. “Not letting it burn down.”

In hailing the measure, Cheney told Perdue the Trump administration has demonstrated “the extent to which you understand how important it is to enhance local control.” The agreement ensures “that our local folks have the kind of say and input and management responsibility that we know makes all the difference.”

Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, said she finds the agreement disturbing. “I think [shared stewardship] greatly increases the likelihood that the public, who own the forest, will be shut out [of decisions],” she said.

It was not immediately clear, and none of the virtual attendees took questions, how or whether a narrow state interest might influence or outweigh a conflicting national interest on federal land. The agreement acknowledges existing state and federal laws and responsibilities. 

The three-page agreement states that Wyoming and the U.S Forest Service, an agency within the Department of Agriculture, will strategize on a statewide level, implement meaningful projects and use all available tools for active management. Other commitments call for “joint planning and resource sharing,” “successful partnerships and programs” and “collaborative planning and management.”

The  agreement is necessary because the stated problems, which are not necessarily new, have increased in urgency, severity, frequency, or scale in recent years, the agreement states. The land-management challenges “are not strictly confined or defined by administrative boundaries,”  the document states.

Wyoming is the 18th state to sign on, according to a Department of Agriculture map. Conservationists decried the measure and its bureaucratese. 

Sierra Club’s Wilbert called the agreement “pretty concerning” nevertheless.

“Who are we managing them for?” Wilbert asked of the 9.7 million acres of national forest lands in Wyoming. They cover an area larger than each of Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware or Rhode Island.

“They belong to the American people,” Wilbert said of national forests. “Who or what gets priority?”

In a 2019 National Public Radio story titled “Shared stewardship blurs lines, priorities on national forests” one Colorado professor also questioned the Forest Service direction.

“Is shared stewardship gonna mean that we start prioritizing state-level interests or state agency interests over the national interest?” Courtney Schultz, professor of forest and natural resource policy at Colorado State University, asked her interviewer.

Local and national interests are often at odds, Wilbert said. “State and local decisions are often driven strongly by local pressure and the need for immediate economic activity,” she said. “But that comes at the expense of long-term ecological integrity.”

With 48% of its land owned by the federal government, Wyoming spends considerable time and effort engaging in and influencing what happens on that property. State leaders understandably seek to influence federal plans and often establish working groups to do so.

Wyoming-appointed groups have, for example, addressed declining numbers of greater sage grouse, threatened wildlife migration routes, gas-field impacts, wilderness study areas and conflicts between bighorn and domestic sheep. The shared stewardship agreement names some of those groups and pledges their continuance.

Some participants don’t believe Wyoming’s appointed groups, committees, task forces and teams always perform as advertised.

“I’m familiar with how ‘working groups’ work,” wrote Linda Baker executive director of the Upper Green River Alliance, “having served 7 years on the Pinedale Anticline Working Group, 3 years on the Wyoming State-Wide Sage-Grouse Working Group, and various others.

“These working groups were also composed of representatives from all interests, and the outcomes were all similar,” she wrote. “Whichever natural resource was at stake, it always, always lost in favor of industry, loud mouths and big hats.”

The extent of some of Wyoming’s influence peddling is kept secret, according to critics. 

“A lot of [the meetings] are already done behind closed doors with collaborators, but not the public,” Wilbert said. “Sometimes we’re not allowed [even] that peek.”

The Bureau of Land Management often holds  closed meetings with “collaborators” like county commissions and agency representatives, said Steff Kessler, program director with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “We’ve asked and raised this issue in the past to no avail,” she wrote in an email.

Such was the case in the BLM’s approval of the 4,250 well expansion of the Moneta-Divide gas- and oilfield. The BLM last year met behind closed doors with local officials as the plan was being finalized. Elected officials who attended would not tell WyoFile what was discussed.

The situation is not improving, Wilbert said. “It’s increasingly difficult for the public to engage,” she said. 

Some of the conservationists’ worries arise out of the 2014 Farm Bill, which created what’s called the Good Neighbor Authority “providing for cross-boundary work with States.” The 2018 Farm Bill strengthened that program and the Department of Agriculture rolled out the shared stewardship program — a “new strategy” — that summer.

Further, President Trump signed an order in December 2018 telling the Forest Service to offer 3.8 billion board feet of timber for sale, an amount critics said amounts to a 30% jump over historic harvests. The order also calls for “treating” 3.5 million acres to reduce fuel load and another 2.5 million acres to protect water quality.

Before and after photos of a forest health treatment site in a Ponderosa pine stand. (USFS)

“Thirty percent more logging?” said Sierra Club’s Wilbert. “Are you kidding me? It’s probably not possible.” 

Trump also ordered the Forest Service to maximize use of a truncated environmental review process known as a categorical exclusion. If a land manager decides a project qualifies for a categorical exclusion, that project escapes the detailed scrutiny that would be undertaken in an environmental analysis or environmental impact statement. Exclusions reduce red tape and speed up necessary projects, administration supporters say.

The environmental group Wild Earth Guardians last week blasted the practice, saying that from January through March the agency cut, burned and built temporary roads on more than 3.7 million acres without “any serious environmental review and public input.”

The Forest Service didn’t respond to a request for comments.

Even before signing the shared stewardship agreement, Wyoming was the site of a handful of Good Neighbor Authority projects. Those include 875 acres of timber sales on national forest and BLM lands and a 991-acre “forest health” project.

The program also created a “shared cooperative forester” position among the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins Field Office and Wyoming state and private lands.

The shared stewardship agreement would bring even more Wyoming officials into the federal planning sphere, Perdue said in Tuesday’s announcement. Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser “will have an integral part in helping to design our projects,” Perdue said. 

In unveiling the shared stewardship strategy in 2018, Perdue said wildfires in California that year showed him the need for more action.

“I saw the devastation that these unprecedented wildfires are having on our neighbors, friends and families,” he said. “We commit to work more closely with the states to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires.”

The initiatives won’t reduce wildfires as promised, said Andy Stahl, Executive Director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “Gardening the West’s arid landscapes, as envisioned by stewardship agreements, is unlikely to make much of a dent in wildfires,” he wrote in an email.

It would take a lot of expensive work, at $1,000 an acre minimum, to reverse 100 years of flammable weed invasions caused by roadbuilding and livestock grazing, he wrote. Shared stewardship agreements result in logging the big fire-resistant trees that are replaced with “flammable thickets of small trees,” he wrote.

Further, firefighting suppresses fires “that would otherwise do the gardening for cheap.

“Billions in fuel treatments have been spent so far with little, if any, return-on-investment apparent,” Stahl wrote. He pointed to “today’s wildfire headlines” as the proof in the pudding.

Instead, “building and maintaining Firewise homes would make a much bigger dent in residential home losses to wildfire,” he wrote.

Wilbert said it’s wrong to use the threat of wildfires as an excuse to accomplish other means, like timber sales, especially if logging doesn’t reduce the danger.

“Fire frightens people and that’s understandable,” she said. “It’s not appropriate to assert that logging or thinning is going to prevent large high-intensity fires.”

She characterized shared stewardship as “pressure from the administration to up the cut couched in this fire protection [language].”

“Forest fires are driven by drought, temperature, wind,” she said. “Forest fires are driven by the presence of fine fuels, not by dead standing trees or dead trees on the ground. If you read the scientific literature there is little question about that.”

There’s also some confusion about what the shared stewardship agreements envision. People interpret the pacts differently, Colorado professor Schultz said in her radio interview.

The agreements are like a “magic mirror” Schultz said. “Everyone I talk to sees different things in it.”

Some of the phrases, like “forest restoration,” puzzle Wilbert, a trained wildlife biologist.

“I always think, ‘what does that mean?’ she said. “Restoration to what? What is a healthy forest?”

In some instances that comes down to point of view, Wilbert said.

“There’s this huge distinction in perspective between an industrial/ag mindset versus kind of an ecological perspective,” she said. “An industrial forest doesn’t have dead trees, doesn’t have undergrowth that gets in the way. It’s an agricultural approach.”

She pointed to a recent National Forest plan to “treat” in various ways 288,000 acres over the next 15 years in the Snowy Range and Sierra Madre portions of the Medicine Bow National Forest. Logging is part of the approved operation that seeks to improve forest health, reduce wildfire danger, protect water quality and address insect infestation.

“It’s driven by the same stuff,” Wilbert said, “‘the forest isn’t healthy.’”

The official who approved the Medicine Bow project wrote that the environmentally preferred alternative in the short term would be no action. Over the long haul, however, a more hands-on plan would best protect the regional ecology and biology from catastrophic wildfires, Forest Supervisor Russell Bacon wrote.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.