Hearings and Business Meetings
SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 10:00 AM
Mr. Rick DeIaco
Director of Forestry, Village of Ruidoso
Director of Forestry,
Healthy Forest Restoration Act,
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee,
Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the progress of the Healthy Forest Initiative (HFI) and specifically on the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA) and its effects on Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) communities. This testimony will reflect the relationships and collaborations with the USDA Forest Service Region 3 and the
Ruidoso is located in south central
In 2000, Ruidoso was assessed by New Mexico State Forestry and the Forest Service for its risk to catastrophic wildfire. Ruidoso was rated the most at-risk community in
In November of 2000 the
With HFRA only in its third year, Ruidoso and the WUI group thank this committee for the opportunity to suggest and catch unintended consequences so early on in the process. From a community point of view, having an authority that allows a plan to be developed locally is an enormous incentive. However, HFRA rolled out with the promise of new dollars in the form of grants and programs to be available to communities with CWPPs for projects on county, municipal and private lands. It appears only HFRA authority is available and use is limited to projects on Federal lands with alternative funding. Communities are waiting for grants and programs to precipitate for effective work on non-federal lands.
An emerging challenge within HFRA is “teaching old dogs new tricks”. It is difficult for some line officers to look at land management from the perspective of collaborative development of goals and objectives. Some line officers have mindsets that collaboration is more rhetoric than reality. A significant paradigm change faces agency administrators and line officers. The act requires real collaboration between Federal agencies and local communities. Effective collaboration requires skill sets not previously necessary within the agency, although many line officers naturally possess these skills. Community collaboration is where the rubber meets the road and we see it.
What is the status, in that regard, of the agency workforce? One might consider the “1/3” rule here as it might apply with any large organization dealing with significant change. That is, 1/3 of agency line officers possess the skills and will easily grasp the concepts of collaboration. They will in turn maximize HFRA’s powerful tools. Another 1/3 can be taught and 1/3 lack the necessary skill sets and will struggle endlessly. Ruidoso is experiencing the latter third in an ongoing project called Perk-Grindstone. Ruidoso remains at serious risk because of this decision making and unrealized opportunities. It becomes very evident at the local level when good collaboration occurs; line officers reject pervasive institutional thinking in tough situations and look for new ways to achieve results. There are some bright spots on the
Examples of how strong collaborations benefit projects are found funded by the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program in
I believe developing and funding a required HFRA program to train line officers how to collaborate with communities and understanding the entrepreneurial spirit would yield great benefit. Whether it is local capacity building or bidding as the general contractor on stewardship contracting projects, non-agency people are taking risks to engage the Forest Service. These risks are real and personal. Agency line officers do not always understand that it is OK for business to make money. Line officers would benefit from knowing how to be better partners, how to assess real world situations and to arrive at realistic cost-benefit conclusions. Training programs that include targeting District Rangers and Forest Supervisors could lead to better decisions and a more informed workforce. It then could follow that, latitude at the regional level and above be afforded to progressive thinking by line officers. The result would be effective treatments, better utilization of materials and safer communities. Additional benefits would include improved workforce capabilities and ultimate savings to the taxpayer.
The next consideration is to have the appropriate performance measures that speak to a desired outcome and include measurement strategies. A paper (included) with performance goals developed by community forestry groups and the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition was submitted to the Forest Service earlier this year and could serve as a starting point. These performance goals support the training I suggest is necessary to effectively move HFRA forward. The four performance goals are:
- Increase collaboration between public land communities and federal agencies.
- Build and maintain capacity in public lands communities.
- Improve forest and watershed condition.
- Reduce risk from catastrophic wildland fire.
Probably the most glaring disconnect within HFRA is the acres target issue. It’s the hard acres versus easy acres calculations, double counting of acres and not accounting for real value. This fuzzy calculus is especially limiting when utilization of small diameter material is possible and not considered best value. An example might be as follows:
100 acres are thinned @ $600.00/ acre = $60,000.00; then, a year or so later the same 100 acres are burned @ $300.00/ acre = $30,000.00
The dollars per acre reported get calculated as $90,000.00 / 200 acres for a reported cost of $450.00 per acre and 200 acres counted. Then it could happen that a utilizing contractor comes in with a cut and utilization bid (one time entry) of $750.00 per acre or $75,000.00 they lose the bid.
The WUI group feels strongly that small diameter material removal and biomass utilization is a land management issue and not just an energy production issue. Ruidoso Municipal Schools are preparing to build a new middle school and are interested in incorporating biomass heating. I believe all public buildings in Ruidoso should consider this abundant resource. The long term source of this material would come from Forest Service lands.
Another down side of the acres target problem can appear when considering WUI acres. In Ruidoso, community protection received less priority than acre targets. Currently, only two of twenty-seven NEPA ready projects on the
A 5,500 acre project called Perk-Grindstone was assessed as the number one Forest Service priority in 2000 when the WUI group started because it is located directly southwest of the community and its major potable water reservoir and treatment plant. This project remains hung up without a NEPA decision and remains unfunded. Line officers are compelled to meet acre targets at the expense of community protection. This is absolutely unacceptable! Village Council signed a resolution encouraging the
It appears the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), a strategy to get the “best value” for work done might actually do the opposite given the existing performance measures. Transformation of the condition class (acre targets) as a performance measure is vastly outweighing other measures such as collaboration and utilization based on PART. This leads to the “easy acre”. Wildfire can burn 5000 “easy acres” and no one blinks. When wildfire burns 1000 acres and a community loses 29 homes, as Ruidoso did in 2002 with the Kokopelli fire, it is devastating. Where is the “best value”? Communities deserve a better system of accountability and line officers need realistic performance measures to make the right decision and achieve HFRA goals.
A more general issue affecting accountability is agency mobility. The normal rotation of personnel with the agency reduces commitment and accountability. The line officer (District Ranger) I started with in 2000 had been there for many years and was committed to the community. Decisions were made based on the best value for community safety. He retired in 2002. Since then I have seen personnel changes at: the district level – Ranger, FMO, AFMO, Range staff, Timber staff, Fuels specialists and below; the Forest level – Supervisor, Fire & Aviation staff, Timber staff; and even a new Regional Forester and some associated staff. Communities understand this movement is inevitable to some degree but some way to maintain a legacy strategy would yield stability to collaborations and overall confidence in agency policy. Goal 1.4 in the above mentioned performance measures paper (attached) offers some ideas.
Ruidoso is deeply concerned and frustrated that a commitment made five years ago remains unfulfilled. There are always plenty of excuses but the facts are that the condition class in Perk Grindstone that contributed to Ruidoso’s rating of second highest to catastrophic wildfire in the nation remains. We have all witnessed the devastation of the Cerro Grande fire in
Ruidoso is committed to doing its part with its citizens and takes responsibility for its own wildfire protection on private land. We have our own Community Forest Management Plan in place (www.ruidoso-nm.gov) and the WUI group has collaborated and developed our CWPP for additional public and private land. The Village and the WUI group stand ready to move forward with HFRA when funding programs become available. I respectfully submit the following recommendations:
- Develop training programs and performance measures that emphasis collaboration and commitment to legacy strategies.
- Make collaboratively designed projects the priority for planning (NEPA) and funding.
- Identify strategic acres not on their low cost of treatment but on their ability to protect assets at risk. Those areas must be identified in collaboration with the local fire councils and public safety officials (CWPPs).
- Stop double counting acres, even if the money comes from different line items. Double counting has the unintended consequences of prohibiting utilization and not getting the best value for the taxpayer dollar.
- Don’t count the acre until the fuels treatment is complete. That is, until the acre is ready for maintenance burning. Currently the areas treated by the Forest Service by pile and burning have so many piles on them (lack of burn windows) that the fire risk has increased.
If HFRA will be used to treat strategic acres that: are defined by collaboration with communities; will allow for true accounting in terms of acres treated and unit costs; and will encourage reduction to fire risk class I; then it will be the useful tool the congress and the President intended.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before this subcommittee. I would welcome any question you may have.
Director of Forestry
Attached: RVCC Performance measures
Current WUI map
2001 WUI map
2001 Action Plan Matrix