Inaccurate Forest Service data, refused interviews delayed reporting
In late 2019, reporters from the USA TODAY Network began an in-depth review of a system of thousands of special-use permits that allow water users to build structures that divert water from millions of acres of managed public land. by the US Forest Service.
Helped by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journal, reporters from Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah spent months examining the practices Forest Service Water Management Project on drought-stricken forests across the West.
The review showed that many licensees have been allowed for decades to divert water with little or no consideration of the impact of their actions on forest health – sometimes on licenses that have expired or never expire.
While the Forest Service’s budget for fighting forest fires has more than quadrupled over the past 30 years, conservationists say the fight has come at the cost of programs that could better equip forests. managed by the federal government to meet the increased demand for water and the threat of climate change. .
These advocates, state water officials and others who represent the more than 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River Basin for water have worked with our reporters to bring a field perspective to all the West to this series.
Farmers, ranchers, city leaders and environmentalists have all spoken out about the importance of healthy western headwaters to their way of life.
Getting information from the Forest Service, however, was another matter.
Agency officials have repeatedly refused interview requests from reporters and editors for nearly two years, instructing reporters to submit written questions to spokespersons instead. These questions, apparently sent to subject matter experts and Forest Service managers, went unanswered for months. Many others remain unanswered at the time of publication of the draft.
While it is not unusual for the heads of large federal agencies to turn down maintenance requests, even obtaining reliable data from the Forest Service has proven difficult.
A February 2020 permit data request, revised in July 2020, was not answered until May 2021. The Republic of Arizona asked basic questions in the following month. Instead of producing answers, the records custodian said the agency’s data scientists would create a new, more “user-friendly” spreadsheet.
The custodian said on June 7 that it would be a quick turnaround as the documents were already on hand. The updated spreadsheets didn’t arrive until July 16.
The records custodian said it had taken a long time for everyone involved to review the records so that they could answer the reporter’s potential questions.
But those questions then went unanswered for weeks. Finally, in September, the agency authorized a short interview with data experts.
In that interview, which the agency limited to 30 minutes, data experts told reporter Caitlin McGlade that they use the data to keep tabs on permits, and especially when they are due to expire. They said they notify local authorities in every forest – every year – of any permits that have expired for more than three years.
Yet officials at Shasta-Trinity National Forest, which has one of the highest expired permit rates in the country, later told reporters they had never received such a notice.
When McGlade reached out to the agency’s press secretary to ask about it, she got no response. Other questions also remain unanswered.
Journalist Jacy Marmaduke spent months researching several western forests, but she too received few responses from the national agency. She made a first request for an interview on water-related permits in June 2021. She inquired again twice in July and three times in August, to no avail.
After McGlade’s September interview with data experts, reporters consolidated their follow-up questions to again seek answers from the national press office.
They filed requests and recalls on September 15, September 21, September 27 and October 1. An editor made written follow-up requests to Forest Service officials three times in October.
On Tuesday, November 2, the Forest Service’s national press secretary Babete Anderson pledged responses “by the end of the week.” On Friday, November 5, she said she was “still awaiting a response from some of our subject matter experts.”
This is the last e-mail the press service sent to news outlets.
A team of more than 20 journalists, photographers, editors and designers worked to tell how the Forest Service’s inaction and congressional restrictions on the agency are hampering efforts to tackle the declining health of our forests. national.
Delays in receiving reliable data or answers to questions about missing information, as well as continued refusal by executives to respond to interview requests and reporting difficulties in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, delayed reporting of this project for over a year.
While agency data suggests huge gaps in its monitoring of water use on public lands, and although it has largely not answered questions about how it manages water uses, a survey of the forest service system clarified several things.
The agency allows many water users to continue to withdraw natural resources while delaying monitoring of how much water is actually withdrawn.
It continues to issue permits for these uses, either by renewing old authorizations or by authorizing new ones.
And it’s doing so at the same time that its own data suggests its water supplies – and America’s water supplies – are running out.
The Forest Service’s own climate modeling, based on a future with optimistic carbon emissions and a “wet scenario,” still predicts major declines in some critical western territories, perhaps as much as the total amount of water in the Colorado River. delivered to Arizona annually.
Regardless of the difficulties in modeling future precipitation, there is no doubt that rivers produce less water, major reservoirs are in decline, and Western water planners are already worried about the future.
The Forest Service has, in modern history, been responsible for the stewardship of the source of much of this water. What the agency will do to fulfill this role in the future is a question the Forest Service has yet to answer.
This article was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado-Boulder.