Fixing the “Rule”

As we have been discussing in previous posts/comments, one possible resolution to the forest planning dilemma — as part of NFMA rule development — is to deal with what has been called forest planning under the broad umbrella of adaptive governance, or adaptive co-management.

A part of the process would be to require an “every five years review/evaluation” of ALL decisions related to or interrelated with an administrative unit of the national forest system. This was recommended by the Clinton era Committee of Scientists as I recall. The evaluation, along with a database of all decisions relating to the FS unit would be all that a new rule would require. Specifics required by the law could be packed into the review/evaluation requirements or allowed in other decisions fitting into “ALL decisions” above. Note that most decisions would be appropriately framed (scale and scope) and dealt with as wicked problems (Wikipedia, EcoWatch) at levels above or below the forest administrative unit—on rare occasions “at” the level of the administrative unit.

The “review” might be accompanied by some simple scenario planning (Wikipedia) — which is more the stuff of futuring than of planning — to deal with emergent, but unknown, even unknowable futures. Note that scenario planning specifically avoids the “desired future” trap.

My vision of the every-five-years-evaluation would also allow for “niche” statements to be developed for a forest unit (perhaps for appropriate subunits as well). As with “scenario planning”, the Forest Service/USDA might or might not require niche statements in the NFMA Rule. My preference would be to include both, but with a strong caution not to over-complicate “requirements”, in the rule, in manuals, in handbooks.

I would be pleased to see the Forest Service adopt such a resolution or to at least explain how such is inappropriate framing (Wikipedia) for RPA/NFMA forest planning/management, or inferior to alternate proposals. Maybe some who frequent this blog can step up and explain any inappropriateness in advance of what will likely be yet-another nonresponse from the Forest Service. Or maybe you will like it, and will offer up suggestions for improvement. I am very concerned that the forthcoming “show and tell” NFMA Rule meetings will yield no useful results. So any suggestions coming from us here may be the Forest Service’s best hope to avoid another wasted 30 years.

The Frame Game
A Simpler Way (Forest Policy-Practice, 2006)
Interrelated Ecosystems and Adaptive Management, (EcoWatch, 1992)


  1. Dave, I like this approach. We do have some great guidance at “adaptive governance”, especially from the gang in Colorado who wrote that book. Your suggestion could be moved forward in several venues, so we can get many perspectives on it. You’re the first to start the conversation on how planning could actually allow us to deal with these “wicked problems. Thanks.

    I’m wondering if you also have a way to address our seeming inability to deal with the NEPA 101 “productive harmony” direction? I’ve been told it was just “language to create agreement, but has no practical use.” County Supervisors are trying to use the ” in cooperation with County government/planning” direction in order to get a dialogue going with S.O.s planning efforts and that has been very mixed. Maybe if the 5 year reviews could have some measurements of the social and economic conditions of the adjacent public land communities and we had some indicators for how federal land management was affecting those? Often local communities are greatly impacted not only by what the federal managers do or don’t do, but also by how they do it. Thanks again for your very thoughtful approach.

  2. Dave – I agree with your entire approach. Here is the pushback we’ll get. First, any increase in the scope of the work at five-year intervals needs to be accompanied with a reduction of work at the 15-year interval. There simply isn’t enough planning related funds to do both. Also, remember that the Forest Service has a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court on BLM’s dispute with SUWA. That case said that forest planning is not a continuing action and as long as you don’t change any decisions at the five-year point, you don’t need to do any more NEPA documentation. An avoidance of NEPA costs discourages adaptive management. J.B. Ruhl talks about these legal disincentives to adaptive management in the article I referenced in my previous post, and he gives some possible solutions.

  3. I agree with your approach also. I don’t know if I follow the logic about NEPA. Let’s imagine a real world example. we get together with the public and an advisory board/collaborative group of some kind, review all our monitoring and to some extent how all the decisions at large and small scales are working, identify issues that need work of various kinds (getting a bigger budget for x), get workgroups to scope out solutions to those issues, bring a few people (futurists) in to talk about what might happen in the future, talk through some scenarios, task some more workgroups to flesh out some approaches.. etc.

    Of all that work, what might need a NEPA decision might be a discussion you have at the end of looking at the workgroup results. Say, we talked about a long term strategy of improving habitat for species x of fish. Then we would talk about what needs to be done THEN and only then would we decide what we needed to do about NEPA. Does a fish habitat improvement strategy need NEPA? does each project need NEPA?

    • Sharon,

      I would attempt to reserve NEPA compliance to the “niche” identification/reconfiguration associated with the “review.” That is the only possible “major federal action” I see associated with this futuristic NFMA rule compliance–at least that attaches to the “review.”

      All other decisions would be part of adaptive management writ larger (or smaller) than the administrative unit. I guess there would be rare occasions when a decision that might be called a major federal action would be done at the administrative unit, but most would likely sort out (scale/scope) at other levels.

      What type NEPA compliance specific projects (or clusters of projects, etc.) need depends on said projects (or programs). That is what scoping, tiering, etc. are all about. AND as my attorney friend always reminds me, The key question is what is the “federal action”, and might it be considered “major”?

      At least that’s the way it looks from where I sit. I just tried to get an answer from my favorite lawyer, but just got an answering machine.

  4. Again, I completely agree with your approach.

    I am having trouble with selecting a niche for the forest being a “major federal action” whose results can be “meaningfully evaluated.”
    Wouldn’t this be criticized for the same reasons as the 05 Rule? Being aspirational and not really doing anything? Missing a plan level analysis of alternatives? Or would you have alternative niches? Still really hard to meaningfully analyze environmental effects!

  5. This type “plan” really doesn’t do much. In fact there really is no plan, in the traditional sense of that word. That’s the point. The heavy lifting re: ESA, NEPA, etc. is done in adaptive management, as appropriately and differentially scaled to match issues and concerns that arise in the course of managing landscapes, watersheds, programs, projects, etc.

    Yes, scenario planning as futuring will be criticized as the stuff of dreaming about the future — which it is. Niche identification/designation will be criticized too. Not so much for it being aspirational but for not doing much relative to what has been attempted in the past. It is not highly aspirational, since it is a call made as to how the forest fits into society as society is now (and to some extent as society is becoming). So what? Let there be criticism. Adaptive management does the heavy lifting re: the substantive requirements of various laws.

    The whole point of my suggested approach is to follow Mintzberg’s advice and quit trying to drive ALL through planning. If my suggested approach makes errors they are the opposite of errors made in the past: too little attempted via planning rather than too much.

    Again as I have stated before, the NFMA rule could designate where things like Andy is recommending here would fit. Maybe I’ll attempt that in my next post.

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