The Future of Our Forests: An Interview with Jim Furnish

Recently, Dogwood Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife and MountainTrue hosted an event at The Collider in Asheville about the future of our forests. We were so lucky to have Jim Furnish, the former Deputy Chief of the US Forest Service, join us for that event. Jim Furnish is also the author of Toward a Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition, memoir of Jim’s time working for the National Forest Service.

Jim describes his book as “twin tales of transformation”.

One story is that of the Forest Service with the dawning of the environmental era along with their glacial response to change and the other is his own story, that of a dyed-in-the-wool logging forester transformed into an environmental agent of change within the agency.

After World War II, the Forest Service became a booming logging industry. Jim says that despite the rational and justifiable reasoning for the logging, “The consequences became more and more abundantly clear, and the push back from the environmental community began.” In response, the agency reared up, opposed, and defended their practices. He says, “They did not engage in a meaningful way with that opposition to craft a different future.” This inability to work together lead to a crashing halt in the early 90s with the Spotted Owl Controversy in the Pacific Northwest.

Jim Furnish argues that the Forest Service’s own agenda birthed the rise of activism against the National Forest Service’s practices by Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs).

What Jim referred to as “friendly conversation” wasn’t working for the NGO communities, so they turned to the courts. Using a clause in the National Forest Management Act that made the Forest Service responsible for vertebrate mammals, the communities cited the continued clearcut logging of old-growth spotted owl habitat as directly causing the precipitous decline of spotted-owls and threatening their tenuous existence. This was a legal battle that went on for years until finally federal judge William Dwyer issued a scathing rebuke of the Forest Service, declaring that agency leaders had willfully violated the law. Jim says,

“That’s tough. When your duty as a public servant is to uphold the law, to be found guilty of violating the law. It was huge. So the judge halted all further logging of spotted owl habitat and the whole house of cards just came crashing down.”

Meanwhile, Jim had just been assigned to the Siuslaw National Forest on the Oregon coast. He says,

“The Siuslaw National Forest, which was a logging national forest, was like a popped balloon. We had to really start fresh. We stopped the old way of doing business, which was clearcutting old Douglas Fir and completely retooled our program to be more environmentally conscientious and friendly toward owls and salmon and other old growth associated species.”

After 8 years at the Siuslaw National Forest, Jim moved on to the Forest Service’s National Headquarters in Washington, DC where he served as Deputy Chief for all National Forests of the United States.

After Jim retired from the Forest Service, he worked in Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification and as a consultant for environmental NGO’s. Jim’s brother-in-law encouraged him to write about his time working as a National Forest Service employee. Toward a Natural Forest is dedicated to that same brother-in-law, Bill Ford, who believed in Jim’s writing and his story.

Now one of Jim’s great delights is doing regional book tours that create community events.

He loves events like the one put on by Dogwood Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, and MountainTrue that give people an opportunity to think and talk about the future of our forests. Jim says,

“My thanks to Dogwood Alliance and the other sponsors for creating this event for people around the area to hear what I hope was a lively discussion. What does the future of our forest hold? In my view, forests are so important, not only for products, but also for the services, the environmental services they provide, and we need to be thoughtful about this.”

Jim Furnish, Tyson Miller from Dogwood Alliance and Ben Prater from Defenders of Wildlife.

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