Tuesday, January 1, 2008

January BMP Q&A

By: Jake Donellan, BMP Forester (Ret.), Texas Forest Service

Q:   I was logging a tract the other day and a guy in a pick-up stopped by and said he was going to call Texas Forest Service (TFS) and file a complaint on us because he thought we were tearing up the place. I told him to go right ahead and he left looking mad. He had to be a neighbor or something because I know he wasn’t the landowner. My question is what if anything does TFS do when it gets complaints from people?

A:   This question is not necessarily directly related to BMPs but it is a question that is asked from time-to-time. There seems to have been a few more complaints received this year than in previous years. While this certainly could be an aberration, I think that this increase may likely be due to the fact that there are more people in the Urban/Wildland Interface (UWI – areas where urban developments and people come into contact with the forests and other wildlands) than ever before and also their general overall lack of exposure to forestry (an issue we can address next month).

Complaints can come from a variety of sources; landowners, neighbors, loggers, foresters, State agencies, Federal agencies, and often times random passer-bys. Regardless of who complains, TFS takes all complaints seriously and that sets in motion a complaint resolution process. Most logging complaints that are not of the timber theft or timber arson variety are forwarded to the BMP Program of TFS since this program deals directly with and is well versed in the best management practices for forestry. I am sure most of you are familiar with the BMP Program which is the program within TFS that is trained to determine if BMPs were implemented properly during forestry operations.

It is important to note before describing this process that TFS BMP Program usually receives on average only 3-5 complaints per year. Usually of those 3-5 complaints, only 1-2 of them turn out to be complaints that have reasonable environmental concerns.

When we receive a complaint we always state up front that TFS is not a regulatory agency and that forestry BMPs are voluntary practices implemented cooperatively by landowners, foresters, and loggers to protect water quality. If that is unsatisfactory to the complainant we may disclose other available options for addressing logging complaints which include calling the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s (SFI) Inconsistent Practices Board at the Texas Forestry Association, contacting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if the complainant believes a violation occurred in a wetland, or contacting Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) which is the State’s regulatory agency. After describing all the options available, the BMP forester will make every effort to resolve the complaint before the complainant chooses to escalate it to any of the other options. In nearly all cases, the complainants are content to allow the TFS to address the merits of their complaint.

The first step in the process is to determine the exact nature of the complaint. We attempt to determine the location of the complaint and also the true severity of the complaint. This determination of severity may include a conversation about the specifics of the complaint and it may even require an informal site visit by a BMP forester to the tract in question. In many cases, after assessing the complaint, it is determined that the best course of action is to address the complainant’s understanding of forestry and forestry operations. Sometimes a discussion with the complainant about normal forestry practices helps to resolve unwarranted complaints.

If a complaint is assessed and then determined to be warranted, the BMP forester will then attempt to contact the landowner to find out more information about the tract. All information gathered about the tract including the landowner’s objectives, the landowner’s understanding of BMPs, and the agreement the landowner had with the forester or logger, etc., is used to determine what caused the issue related to the complaint. TFS BMP foresters then attempt to develop a cooperative and completely voluntary plan with the landowner to address the issues related to the complaint. This resolution process may sometimes include working with the forester who handled the sale and also the logger who conducted the operation to help remediate any problem areas.

If efforts to contact the landowner are unsuccessful or the landowner is unwilling to participate in the remediation process, then the complaint is typically left unresolved. However, because TFS generally has a great relationship with forest landowners usually some type of resolution is realized.

TFS does not share any specific information about the complaint to either of the parties involved in the process. The landowner is not told who lodged the complaint and the complainant is also not given any information about the landowner, foresters or the loggers involved. The only information shared with the complainant is that they may be kept informed about the status of a resolution process; for example we may share if the process is on-going, stalled or if there is no participation. In the end, complaint resolution all relies on cooperation just like the voluntary implementation of BMPs relies on cooperation from landowners, foresters, and loggers. This formula of voluntary cooperation has definitely been proven successful in Texas which I believe is why we have so few complaints to deal with annually. Keep up the good work!

For more information regarding BMPs consult the Texas Forestry Best Management Practices book (a.k.a. the “Bluebook”), contact your local Texas Forest Service office, or you can contact me.

* This article was published in the January 2008 issue of the Texas Logger