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Randy Swick

District Ranger Randy Swick is a 32 year veteran with the U.S. Forest Service. He has served on nine different forests in the northwest and has been the district ranger in the Panhandle forest since 2004. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 by Bruce Reichert.

Randy Swick

Some folks we've talked with think the Forest Service has lost its mission. They say it used to be timber production, but now they're not sure what the mission of the Forest Service is. Is that a fair statement?
I do feel that we have multiple objectives, and what any one person may want to see out of the forest may not be in agreement with the other, and I think you have seen changes over time. We also work with a real tangled web of laws, regulations, and policies, and that web only gets even more dense over time. So to try to maneuver a program through that and be compliant with all the various environmental laws, as well as other directions, can be a real challenge.There is no doubt about that.

Then the courts have certainly helped to shape some of the decision processes, as well as the depth of analysis we go to, so I don't know that we're lacking a common vision of caring for land, serving people, and sustaining resources over time, and as well as local economies and so on, as much as just the challenges of trying to provide that program when you have declining budgets, when you have less staff, and the staff that I have on this district today to cover 32,000 acres is one-third of what it was just 20 years ago.

"I don't know that we're lacking a common vision of caring for land, serving people, and sustaining resources over time . . . as much as just the challenges of trying to provide that program when you have declining budgets, when you have less staff . . . "
- Randy Swick

So, you know, that makes a huge difference in my capacity, as well as the fact that the issue sets we actually manage, and try to work through, have become only more complex and more time consuming to get through the processes. When you look at what it takes for us to provide the documentation and project record for any timber project on the forest any more, you are talking about mounds and mounds of analysis and data and information, going through public processes and so on, and so, again, to meet the many objectives, yeah, it's a very cumbersome process.

But, that's the process that we're dealt and that's the one that we try to work through as best as we can. The state and the state lands have a much more direct focus. It's based basically on sustaining the endowment fund for schools. It's not to say that they aren't responsive to other environmental or resource concerns, but they are not weighed down by as much process as we are.

And through all this, you still like your job!
Well, you still try to make do the best you can. My big thing has always been, let's make a difference to the best of our ability with what we're given, and if you are going to keep cutting the budget, and we're staying sensitive to the fact that the country has issues with the federal deficit, so we recognize that hey, we're going to probably be challenged by further budget reductions, but if we can find ways to compensate through partners, through grants and agreements, and other means of getting the work done, much like what we saw with the meadows project, we still have the ability to effect change and make something happen.

When we asked you to show us something the Forest Service has been working on here in the Panhandle forest, you took us to Bumblebee Meadows, which was a real mess just a few years ago.
If we could go back five years in time and further, what you could have seen in here is really a very damaged meadow. You would have seen tracks all over, big mud holes and pits and very difficult actually to get in and out of the meadow, and certainly not the desired condition for the meadow. We had several major flood events in the last decade that had this area under water for the early portion of the spring.

The sheriff's desire was to just simply close the meadows and preclude the use, but the county commissioners said, hey, this serves an important recreational value here to the valley, and this has been a long-term favorite for the locals. And so they wanted to see if we could find a balance between recreation resource impacts and the law enforcement concerns.

A pickup stuck in mud up to its wheel wells.

Through the cooperation of the Idaho Panhandle Resource Advisory Committee and funding that they helped to provide, we were able to come in here with a design that was developed through the University of Idaho and our architect on the forest and look at how to develop an access route in here that would be stable as well as define camping locations for folks to utilize.

The road that we're standing along here, when we came in and designated this as one of the access routes into the meadow for recreational purposes, rather than building it up, we actually dug down and put down some geotextile fabric, bigger rock and laid in this coarser rock on the surface to allow the floodwaters to just flood over this, just as it does throughout the meadow, so the road is built to the same level as the adjacent meadow area.

As a result, it's a much more stable system, and by folks driving specifically on these routes and not going off onto the softer meadow complex, we no longer have the mud issues that we once had, and now you can see the restoration of the meadow grasses and flowers and other flora in here.

So the plan took into account the different facets and struck that balance, so that we can have acceptable recreational opportunity for folks, and yet keep the meadow complex safe, and it has returned the family atmosphere to it, and we don't have near the issues with the law enforcement side of things. We have had two massive flood events since this project, and it's done really well. It's one of those things that you can look back and just say, hey, we made a difference, for the resource and the people.

How would you describe this particular national forest, the Panhandle forest?
This forest encompasses about 2.3 million acres. It is the consolidation of three national forests: the old Kaniksu national forest, the old Coeur d'Alene national forest, and the St. Joe national forest. We tried to adjust to declining budgets and to some extent increased administrative efficiencies, too.

It was set up under a conservation principle, so it's the intended wide use of the lands and resources; so we provide for a multitude of opportunities. We do harvest timber. We have mining activity and allow for domestic grazing of livestock. We have fish and wildlife programs, recreation, fire and law enforcement; it's kind of a wide spectrum of opportunities out there.

A backhoe is used to repair damage to the road.

What changes have you seen here in the Panhandle forest?
I think one of the biggest changes is that we are seeing more and more people on that landscape, more and more people wanting something from that forest, whether it be recreational values, firewood, and then you have the more traditional uses, logging and mining. And so there is more and more pressure put on the land in its capacity to provide for those uses.

What's a typical day in the life of Randy Swick?
From my first days of being a district ranger back in the late 1980's, I used to spend a lot more time on the field, probably at last 50% of my time was actually hands-on dealing with issues, in the field. Today, I'm lucky to get a couple days a month in the woods, and that's just a function of everything from meetings and more demand coordination with other agencies, as well as the public, and just balancing a number of other internal process issues.

I have to give great credit to the fact that I'm blessed to have an extremely fine staff, and that's been kind of the one constant even in all the years of change. I think we have some of the most dedicated resource professionals in the world working for the agencies. I'm so blessed to have foresters, hydrologists, recreation specialists, engineers; they are the ones that truly get the work done on a day to day basis. I don't think anybody comes to work wondering, what am I going to do today? If anything, it's, out of all the things I have got to do, which ones am I going to get done?

What part does collaboration play in your job?
As an agency we have moved towards trying to actually reduce the amount of contentiousness through appeals or litigation, particularly on our major vegetation management projects, by trying to do more upfront work before we actually propose an action on the ground, and seeing if we can work with the public and interested parties to come to better agreements on what's acceptable and what's not and what some of the challenges are.

We worked with a group called the Coeur d'Alene Force Coalition, which came together to try to find that common ground between environmental interests, industry, other publics; and we're able to spend quite a few hours and days working around the table to better understand viewpoints, educate each other back and forth on a number of things; and it takes time, but in the end, if people are willing and want to work to a common goal, it can certainly work and pay great dividends down the line for all.

Randy Swick in Bumblebee Meadows, by the improved road after work was completed on it.

We have always had public involvement, but I think this ability to work more informally with those that are actually willing to come to the table, that makes a huge difference, in ownership into that project, whether it advances forward rather than hey, just giving my comments, and hey, if I like what they end up doing, I'll go ahead with it, if I don't like it I have the avenue to appeal and litigate.

There is a spirited effort to try and see if we can find that common ground, and I think that there are more issues coming along giving us the opportunity to find those common agreements. And we still have litigation. I certainly don't want to imply that we have resolved all issues or problem with all groups. The possibility of litigation still certainly exists.

Are our national forests undervalued in America?
Maybe to set a little context, last year we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1910 fires, and you know, in 1910, the Forest Service as an agency was only five years old. The national forest system was very young, as well, and so at that point, I came to really start to value the history of the agency and what established these public lands to begin with.

Whether you read Timothy Egen's book The Big Burn or some other that comes from that era, you realize the lengths that Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Gifford Pinchot went to, to put value on those lands for future generations, as much as the current. Here was this rapid westward expansion, a lot of resources being utilized, to build railroads, towns, and so on, and if somebody didn't have the foresight to recognize hey, if we are going to have anything for the future, we need to make sure that we're setting something aside today.

"I think one of the biggest changes is that we are seeing more and more people on that landscape, more and more people wanting something from that forest."
- Randy Swick

It helped me to better appreciate what tremendous value we have in the times to even have them here. I think we struggle to help people really own the land for the value that they have. They come to use it and to recreate on it and enjoy it, but I do think that getting them to really appreciate it, take ownership in it, they may not yet fully appreciate how to take care of it.

Are you optimistic about the Forest Service being able to continue the mission you so eloquently laid out?
Yeah, I'm encouraged by the fact that I see some of the young people that we have coming into the organization today, and there are a number of us that are on the opposite ends of that spectrum. We're coming to the end of our careers, and have given the best of ourselves, I think, to that effort. I see a real spirit and heart in these young people that are coming in, and as we try to mentor them and help them get their feet on the ground, I'm encouraged that they are going to be the ones that can carry this forward, and so yeah, I am encouraged.

If upon your retirement, you could wave a magic wand, what might you change?
The thing that I would like to see, and I realize it's going to be a challenge to get there, but you know, there is such tremendous talent in the resource management pool of personnel that we carry, people that are well educated, and current with the modern day literature, knowledge, research on the various resource functionalities that we care for. They have great work experience and great knowledge acquired therein.

But they are tremendously hampered by the amount of law and other things that really do press down upon and kind of constrain their ability to apply those skills more fully and openly, whether it's court decisions, more and more law or legal requirements that are placed upon it, more process driven types of issue. The value added by some of those additional steps, at least in my eyes, is not necessarily gaining us that much better quality of management on the ground. Let the people that have those skills and knowledge do the jobs that they have been trained for and give the public the best of what they have.