US Federal Government Sends Agencies to Bat — For Nature and People

October 13, 2015

A wall of flames and smoke across Lake County, part of the fast-moving Valley Fire in California, September 13, 2015, photo from Wikimedia Commons provided by CALFIRE.

The United States Forest Service holds people’s lives in their hands. That may seem like hyberbole: after all, most of us think of the Forest Service as an environmental agency charged with managing timber, recreation, watersheds and, of course, forest health.

But it’s true: the U.S. Forest Service plays a critical role in protecting human lives.

You’ve no doubt seen the news. Ten of California’s largest wildfires in recorded history have happened in the last ten years. Eight major fires are still burning as we write. The reports of lost lives, homes and dreams have us all thinking about fires and forests more than usual. The same is true for forest managers; they’re looking at tight budgets and increasing costs to keep more frequent and more intense fires at bay.

The often tragic stories from this fire season in the US make a dramatic point: we can’t think about forest management without thinking about people.

Increasingly, academic and NGO communities have been drawing attention to the benefits nature can provide to people, sometimes called ecosystem services or natural capital. Perhaps nothing makes this point better than the recent California headlines. Those who manage our forests hold the power to affect our health, our homes and even our ability to survive. Yes, forest fires will still happen no matter what people do, but choices forest managers make about where, how and when to manage forests do affect how often and how intensely forests burn, and how many people are at risk.

A memorandum released last week by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recognizes the power all US federal agencies hold to affect human lives by changing nature, and asks them to act like it.

To be fair, a few federal agencies have already been moving in this direction including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Forest Service, the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. For example, in 2012, the US Forest Service passed a new planning rule that asks its forest managers to take nature’s benefits into account when writing new forest plans. This means thinking about how thinning programs, controlled burns, or other management actions will affect downstream water quality, soil erosion, recreational opportunities, fire risk, and air quality, in addition to forest health and productivity. New plans are slowly coming in line with this rule, and the US Forest Service is leading the way towards more full-cost accounting of management plans.

Where last week’s memorandum makes a quantum leap is by calling for these considerations in every federal agency where it is relevant. This turns out to be many agencies, reaching well beyond the usual suspects. You can tell the drafters understand this by reading the list of signatories. First on the list: Office of Management and Budget. That’s the money talking, and when the money talks, every agency listens.

There isn’t much in the federal government that gets done without a budget and that brings us to one of the document’s most powerful sentences:

“Should an agency’s analysis require consideration of costs, the agency should consider ecosystem-services assessment methods, where appropriate and feasible.”

This turns out to be relevant to a long list of agencies, including many we don’t normally associate with the environment. For example, when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) designs new low income housing, they cost out the project, but don’t account for how the design affects green space — and associated benefits — around the new buildings. Leaving that out could mean fewer trees, and associated lower air quality for residents, possibly leading to higher health care costs. Those are costs not usually accounted for in a HUD plan that now may come clearer.

Or consider an Army Corps plan to dredge a harbor or navigation channel. The Corps has to decide what to do with the dredge material, and current policy says they must use the least cost disposal method. Several hundred million cubic yards of sediment are dredged in the US each year and, and most often, the least-cost method is to ‘store’ that sediment by dumping it in the ocean somewhere else.

What if the Army Corps could account for the value that dredge material could provide if used differently, like for beach nourishment or dune restoration? Beaches and dunes provide habitat for shore birds and great areas for recreation, and as Hurricane Sandy so dramatically pointed out, they also protect homes and people from storm surge. So, with the new memorandum, using dredge material to build back our coasts could end up being a lower-cost option than dumping them at sea.

Getting the federal government to make such a sweeping commitment to taking care of people through nature has been a long time coming. This moment has been cultivated by the unflagging efforts of many in the academic community, the NGO community, and key connector organizations (like COMPASS and the Natural Capital Project) over the past decade or more. From early reports about nature’s important benefits to a best practice guide released by the National Ecosystem Service Partnership this summer, the community has helped these ideas mature to the point where there is enough agreement and clarity for agencies to act.

While last week’s statement itself is a triumph, and a major step forward, the question now is, will agencies actually make the change?

Two things must happen now for this change to become the new normal: agency leaders must believe it’s practical to account for nature’s benefits on a day-to-day basis, and our nation’s leadership must follow through with support of agencies as they move to adapt.

The larger community can help with the first need, highlighting examples of how practitioners and agency staff have already made this work on the ground. Many of the NGOs that have been in this game for over a decade have been working on-the-ground with federal agency staff, and have those stories to share. They should step up now to tell them loudly.

In another amazing move, the White House has already stepped up to the second challenge, stating in a few quiet sentences that they will shepherd through new implementation guidance for the agencies in the coming months, and take a lead role in moving this forward. In other words, this is not an empty gesture; they are committed to seeing it through.

Although there are undoubtedly challenges ahead, the importance and urgency of this directive is apparent. Just today, news of fires claiming homes tops headlines in some western states. It’s time for federal agencies to formally recognize that what happens to the environment happens to all of us.

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