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Agency in transition

U.S Forest Service

At 100 its focus has turned more to forest health and monitoring environmental laws than timber harvests

The story goes that in the early days of the U.S. Forest Service, a would-be ranger taking the qualifying exam was asked who created the national forests.

God created the forests but Teddy Roosevelt greatly expanded upon them, the acute applicant said.

President Roosevelt began his major expansion 100 years ago this month when he convened an American Forest Congress. His 1905 gathering led to the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and more forest reserves, including the Siskiyou in southwestern Oregon.

Roosevelt also established what would become the Rogue River National Forest in 1908. Now called the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, it covers 1.73 million acres from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The agency today manages 155 national forests covering 192 million acres. But as it begins its second century, the Forest Service is vastly different from the agency Roosevelt founded.

Once it harvested forests to fuel the nation's growth; now it must grapple with complex environmental laws to ensure sound management of the nation's resources. In the 1960s and before, crews were left to manage forests as they saw fit; now they must deal with environmental impact statements, public comment periods, administrative appeals and lawsuits.

Things were a lot simpler back then, said Scott Conroy, supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The demands on the national forest were far less.

There has been a huge change in the complexities of the laws that apply to forest management now compared to the early 1900s, he added.

That includes the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1976 National Forest Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

For Conroy and the Rogue River-Siskiyou Forest, the changes mean challenges.

Reduced timber harvest has cut the forest budget about 60 percent in the last dozen years, he said. And this year's budget is roughly 5 percent less than last year's &

36;43 million.

In the 1960s, '70s and'80s, the forest harvested more than 400 million board feet of timber annually. Now the target cut is about 50 million board feet a year, he said.

And that means fewer employees.

That change has brought about a need for a different combination of skills on the forest, he said. That has had a big impact on the numbers of employees we need to carry out our programs and how many we can fund.

From a high of about 1,000 full-time employees just a few decades ago, the forest now has about 340. Recent cuts, which began Oct. 1, pared nearly 50 people from the staff.

The hardest thing I've ever done in my career is eliminate somebody's job, said Conroy, 51, who has worked throughout the West as well as in Washington, D.C., during his 30-plus years with the agency.

It's the employees out there that get the work done.

Though Conroy doesn't expect further cuts, we have to see how budgets play out, he said. With Iraq, Social Security system and lots of other priorities, there is no way of knowing what will happen to our budget.

Because of reduced staff, the agency now routinely turns to sources it wouldn't have tapped in years past, including inmates from the Jackson County corrections department, said forest spokeswoman Patty Burel.

An inmate crew was busy cutting brush in the Applegate Ranger District on Friday as part of a program to reduce the potential for a fire hazard come summer.

The highest priority we have now is forest health, which encompasses fire hazard reduction and thinning, Conroy said, adding that tree stands in some areas have become overcrowded because of fire suppression over the past century.

We are trying to get forests back into the condition where they will be resilient to fire and disease, he said.

The forest staff has joined the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford and Coos Bay districts along with the Oregon Department of Forestry to develop a fire management plan that covers the region.

The plan allows fires to play a more natural role in the ecosystem, but only if they don't threaten a community or pose a catastrophic threat to natural resources, Conroy said.

We understand more now than we did a hundred years ago about the impacts of things we do on the land, he said.

But the approach changes with each appropriation from Congress, which influences the work on the ground, he said. New laws also may change the emphasis, he said.

Funding also influences what is implemented annually in the forest, he said.

But within that funding, we still decide where to emphasize that work, he said. We still decide where to emphasize recreational development opportunities, where to emphasize timber sales. That still falls on us.

Regionally, pressure is also brought to bear from environmental activists as well as the timber industry representatives through lawsuits or lobbying.

It makes the job interesting, Conroy said.

Conroy isn't concerned about a Bush administration proposal that would give governors more clout on how roadless areas are managed.

We already listen to the governor's office when they have input and advice for us, said Conroy, who steered the agency's roadless area conservation project while working in Washington during the Clinton administration.

Nor does he agree with those who fear the future will bring an effort to privatize national forests.

I don't think that will happen, he said. America loves its national forests. And Americans believe strongly that it is a national resource. I don't ever envision Americans being willing to give that up.

But change will continue to happen in the agency's second century, he said, although noting it will remain a multiple-use agency focused on sustainability.

Change has come about because, over the last hundred years, society's demands for what they want for the national forest has evolved, he said. The emphasis on different programs ebbs and flows.

Jackson County work release inmates Daniel O?Rourke, foreground, and Damon Trostel clear brush on U.S. Forest Service land in the Applegate Ranger District. Budget cutbacks have prompted the agency to turn to contract crews for help. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli