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The New Face Of The Forest Service in Six Rivers Forest


The Six Rivers National Forest  covers nearly one million acres, from the Oregon-California border south to Mendocino County.

The forest’s new  supervisor is the first local ever to be appointed to the position. And he’s taking the reins of an organization that’s redefining itself as it redefines how to manage the forest.

There’s not just a new supervisor in town, there’s a new forest service. The old forest service did two things very well: harvested timber and put out fires. The new forest service will still do both, just not as much.  

This poses a question:  What is the most valuable resource in our forests? Timber or habitat? New supervisor Merv George Junior, of the Hoopa Valley tribe, thinks the answer lies in a more holistic approach.

Merv George: “There are a lot of things I think that the National Forests provide  that sometimes people don’t realize. And typically, the conversation always gets centered around timber. But when you look at all these other natural resources and what it means in an economic, spiritual, and cultural sense, there’s a lot of other benefits that our forests provide than just the timber resources.”

George comes across as stout, direct, and confident. He’s part of an organization that is seen by many as bureaucratic, cautious, and set in its ways. 

Erin Kelly: “The management of the National Forests has changed dramatically.”

Professor Erin Kelly teaches at Humboldt State University and specializes in Forest Policy and Economics.

Erin Kelly: “It’s been about 24 years since we really reduced the timber harvest on public lands. So in 2014 a supervisor is coming into a forest that already has somewhat more tenuous economic connections with local communities. But they still have the expectation that they’re going to manage the resource and that includes: producing some lumber, includes managing for fire and all these threatened and endangered species, and for watershed health. So learning how to manage an ecosystem is really different than learning how to optimize timber production.”

Credit Michael Joyce/JPR

Years of aggressive fire suppression have left what are called ‘fuel-rich’ forests; that is, forests overly thick with trees and underbrush. An ecosystem approach would thin forests and treat fire as a natural and necessary part of forest ecology.  In recent years the Six Rivers National Forest has spent most of its budget fighting fires.

The question is: would that money be better spent on habitat, endangered species, watersheds, and thinning to encourage more ‘fire-resilient’ forests. Merv George says this approach has long been part of tribal culture.

Merv George: “There is no doubt in my mind that there are ways to go out there and thin the forests, not harm any furry critters, not harm the water quality and fish, not destroy any tribal sacred sites in the process. I’ve been doing this for many years with the Hoopa Valley Tribe. I know it can be done and I’m trying  to bring some of that model and that sort of theology to the Forest Service.”

But how would this tribal wisdom work in a system with extensive state and federal oversight?  Most forest service projects require environmental impact statements that can take years. George admits that the forest service is often seen as a bogged down bureaucracy.

Merv George: “That process does take time. Especially if you want meaningful consultation and meaningful conversations and input. If you think in terms of a healthy relationship, to me that is more of a process than an event.”

Relationships is a word you hear often from Merv George, as are words like community, neighbors, and generations.

Merv George:” I’m going to grow old in this community. So the decisions that I make I realize are going to be with me for the rest of my life. But not only that, I’m mindful of the seventh generation concept: that the decisions I make here are going to impact my grandchildren for seven generations to come.”

And this may be George’s  biggest challenge with an organization that itself is nearly seven generations old. He’s trying to change a reactive and entrenched culture to a more proactive and sustainable one.