As a child, Jim Furnish spent his summers in the Bighorn Mountains and the Black Hills while his father, a geologist, completed field work. Back home in Iowa, the family hiked, hunted and canoed. But it was the time spent in Wyoming that compelled Furnish to study forestry at Iowa State University.
His career in forestry would bring him back to Wyoming, the Black Hills, and the Bighorn national forests. It also placed him at the center of the battle between the timber industry and environmentalists who wanted to save the northern spotted owl in Oregon while he served as forest supervisor on the Siuslaw National Forest.
But it was his time as U.S. Forest Service deputy chief, from 1999 to when he retired in 2002, that he worked on the most contentious issue of his career — what would become the 2001 Roadless Rule. The rule banned road construction and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on national forest land. Furnish documented his career during this tumultuous time in a memoir, Toward a Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition.
He returns to the Bighorns for a talk from 7 to 8:45 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Sheridan County Fulmer Library. Peaks to Plains caught up with him to talk about the Forest Service’s history and where the agency is headed today.
What changes did you see within the Forest Service during your tenure?
I did a lot of timber work, and much of the planning I did was planning timber harvest levels. When I came over to the Bighorn, it was the initial era of forest plans. I was there when we did the first Bighorn National Forest plan and we argued for a more minimal harvest level, but everyone higher up wanted as much as we could get, and the final plan issued at the upper levels had more than double what we thought was proper for the landscape. Much has changed since then, and I’m sure it has improved and is now more about applying the best practices on the land.
I thought the Bighorn, from 1977 to 1984, saw the first symptoms of environmental unrest emerging around the West. It was an interesting time to work there, and since, the environmental battles have only heated up.
How were you involved in the 2001 Roadless Rule?
As deputy chief at the time, I was intimately involved. I hired the roadless team director and supervised and directed all their activities. I helped write and review it.
What did you think was important that the rule address?
It was a sobering thought, but the Forest Service was the biggest threat to roadless areas. The logging areas were typically Forest Service projects. Basically, commercial logging was to end in these roadless areas and new roads weren’t to be built. Temporary roads were allowed for big fires, provided they were closed and decommissioned after. Even though it was a huge EIS [environmental impact statement], and it took a ton of analysis and paperwork, the actual regulation was only about a page and a half long.
Wasn’t it pretty controversial?
It was equally controversial within the Forest Service as it was on the outside. This caused a lot of bad blood and difficulty within the Forest Service. We had to deal with outside parties, but then also on the inside front where there was internal consternation and, quite frankly, obstruction.
What issues did Forest Service employees have with the rule?
There was a basic belief that [mandating] no further commercial timber harvest and no new road construction [in roadless areas] — well they thought it was just plain wrong for us to say that. There was really no winning them over. We asked regional foresters to deal with local media and write op-eds explaining the rule. Out of all the regional foresters, only one wrote a positive op-ed. The rest were silent. And suddenly, highly-qualified candidates we wanted for staffing weren’t available anymore. There were a lot of shenanigans going on.
Why was it so important to move forward, despite the controversy?
It was consistent with the way the agency was moving out of a commodity production era to an ecosystem management era where we were trying to identify the best use for the land. Once roadless areas were recognized and mapped, we could see what roadless areas were contributing in terms of clean water and wildlife habitat. They were just the best in what we had in terms of land on the national forest. And if you are thinking about the lands holistically, and you know road building and logging degrades those values, why you would let them degrade the best of your land?
How do you feel about your efforts on the rule now?
I’m very proud of it. It was by far the most important initiative I got involved with. Nothing is perfect, but I think we did a good job, and the biggest thing is we got it done. It affected 2 percent of the United States. It was a huge landscape and it involved over a decade of legal challenge. I respect and acknowledge some of the arguments against it, but it resolved a major issue for the Forest Service at the time, and it resolved it definitively and effectively.
What was at the heart of the issue?
The problem the Forest Service was having, as we continued to log national forest lands very aggressively, was that many of the places we turned to log were roadless areas, and we continued timber harvest and road-building year after year in these areas.
Why was protecting these areas so important?
For a long time roadless areas were seen as rootstock for future wilderness. We wanted those roadless areas identified, and we thought of them as incubators for new wilderness areas. But when I was deputy chief of the Forest Service, we were acknowledging those roadless areas were a unique resource in their own right. They had a distinct value and character in and of themselves.
What do you see as the biggest issues the Forest Service now faces?
The Forest Service is really having a hard time with fire spending. That gets into the funding issue. Fire funding consumes half the Forest Service budget. It’s very difficult for them to have the necessary staff and resources to manage the landscape when half the budget is going just to fires.
This relates to climate change and a lengthened, more severe fire season. The fires we are getting are big and frequent and difficult to deal with. Managing the landscape to secure it against fire, and then also once a fire has been through, getting in to do salvage logging, are all parts of the issue.
What do you see now when you visit the Bighorns?
I’m not there as a manager. I’m there as a visitor, so what I see is limited in content. But what I see, is as I knew then and understand now, is the people who live around the Bighorn National Forest, they love that place. I go back to places where there was difficulty getting new trees started and the regeneration has been very slow, but it’s encouraging to see that new trees are taking hold. Then I’m a fisherman and I like to go back to places I fished before and see if the fishing is still good. And yeah it is. The fishing is still good.