Opportunity (and Context) Lost: 2012 NFMA Planning Rule

The long-awaited NFMA “proposed planning rule” is out. It looks pretty much like the Draft rule to me. I have longed to see the Forest Service embrace adaptive management for public lands, or adaptive governance, as I argued here last year in Fixing the Rule: An Adaptive Governance Roadmap. But much like in the Draft, the preferred planning rule (Alternative A, pdf) in the Final Rule workup is a far cry from adaptive management.

Although draped in ecosystems rhetoric, when looked at from the real-world perspective of interrelated natural and social systems the 2012 Rule leaves much to be desired as adaptive management or adaptive governance. Here are four key points: First, the three levels of decision making—national strategic, forest administrative unit, project or activity—belie underlying realities of power and decision-making in the Forest Service. In short it stretches the imagination that important Forest Service decisions regarding ecosystems are to be made at the “forest administrative unit”, except for maybe the Tongass, The National Forests of Texas, and so on.

Second, desired (future) conditions are ineffectually dealt with at the forest or project scale, and often cry-out for contexts that don’t fit well under the category “national strategic.” Admittedly, the Forest Service has left itself an “out” re: broader scale assessments, but it is doubtful that many such efforts will yield substantive results.

Third, “standards” are better structured/set in contexts far from forest-level planning. I’ll be watching, but I can’t right now think of any meaningful standards that ought to be made in the development or revision of a forest plan.

Fourth, Why is the Forest Service hell-bent on replacing the federally accepted “appeals” process with an “objections process”? Does the Forest Service really believe that this is a change for the better?

My beef is not with many ecological/social concepts embedded in the 2012 rule: sustainability, species diversity, ecological integrity, etc. I have championed these for many years. But I have argued for years that they are better structured in an adaptive governance frame, rather than the rigid straitjacket of this rule. Is it time for Congressional oversight hearings on RPA/NFMA? Has this particular law outlived its usefulness? After all, the law was put in place in an era when production planning was still in vogue, before The Decline and Fall of Rational Planning. The law did not envision an era of collaborative stewardship of public lands.

Let’s look at each of the four identified problems in more detail:

Three levels of decision-making
In the old days when forest were viewed in large part through the eyes of production planners, it made sense to empower forest unit managers with setting up goals and objectives for individual national forests (as individual production factories). Projects and activities flowed from this goal setting: timber sales and other output production goals, for example. National or strategic goal and policy setting sat at the top and was informed by lower-level decision-making, although political pressures were arguably the main driving force for production goals like “getting the cut out.” This reasoning made its way into the RPA/NFMA and set the stage for the 1982 NFMA rule that still governs (despite repeated attempts to update it) the administration of the national forest system. But the days of viewing forests as production factories has ended.

Desired Conditions
Absent appropriate context, how is a forest supervisor to declare “desired conditions?” In my view, these appropriately derive from broader-scale assessments and policy considerations. Within such, a forest supervisor might make a periodic call as to forest or sub-forest niche(s). But to expect such without appropriate context-setting is asking the impossible. And it escapes me how this rule will promote effective context-setting.

Standards
Someone will have to show me just where forest level standards make any sense at all. I have argued before that they do not, and that standards are rightfully set and revised situationally as needed, not according to some time-clock for forest plan revision.

Objections Process to replace Appeals Process
I have never understood the need for this. It is at best a minor variation on a theme that could have as easily been made to work under the more-familiar appeals process. At worst, it proves a means to dodge public deliberation responsibility—to deny collaborators an opportunity to seek redress for surprise changes in proposed action as it becomes “federal action.” The only redress then becomes court challenge. It seems to me that in an attempt to streamline the process, the forest service only made things worse.

In Sum
Since the Forest Service has chosen not to take the adaptive management/governance path, why not revisit the RPA/NFMA law with an eye toward collaborative stewardship? I new or revised law might help the agency see how interrelated ecological and social systems require the interrelated efforts—at context-dependent scales—of both forest service line, staff, and research as well as collaborators from other agencies as well as interest groups and others who hold a stake in outcomes.

If the Forest Service had embraced adaptive governance in this rule, we would see broad-scale assessments well up at appropriate scale and scope, accompanied by broad-scale policy, plans, or programs meant to address problems identified in the assessments. Monitoring regimes would accompany both. All would be structured at scope and scale appropriate to resolve issues and problems identified. Maybe we’ll see such anyway, somehow welling up for so-called forest plan implementation and other policy. Or maybe we’ll see endless, mindless, context-blind rituals at the forest scale: pretend assessment, pretend planning, pretend monitoring—forever missing opportunities for adaptive management, for adaptive governance.

Related: Fixing the Rule: An Adaptive Governance Roadmap

4 Comments

  1. Given this is a captured agency, there have been no substantive agency mea culpas, and especially in the wake of Citizens United, we can only expect (once the smoke dissipates and the mirrors are no longer needed) the “Transition” to enable, if not fast forward, the neoliberal project on national forests.

    Hint: Convergence of Perfect Storms.

  2. Dave- thanks and welcome back! We missed you.

    I have some experience with the objections process under the 05 and 08 rules. The difficulty was to set up meetings with objectors that involved others as well, or posting something and giving people another chance to comment. The mechanics of this aren’t yet fully explored, but the idea of “no surprises” is there.

    David, I don’t get the connection with Citizens United. The people working on the rule have tried to listen to the different voices and attempted to hit the middle, which based on most quotes from folks, they did. As you don’t like corporate interests setting policy in your neighborhood by buying votes, others do not like national interest groups (despite the fact that they are composed of, and funded by, well-meaning people who believe that they are doing the right thing) setting policy in their neighborhood by their tactic of litigation. The feeling of disempowerment of citizens is probably about the same.

    • Hi Sharon having followed Dave’s links back here, I just found your months-old response. I apologize for the delay.

      The connection with the infamous Supreme Court “Citizen’s United v, FEC” (5-4) ruling is that it seals the fate of American democracy in general, and specifically, the political football that the USFS has always been.

      With the ruling, we can be assured to see undue corporate influence upon the political leaders which must maintain their relationships with their financiers in order to be elected and reelected to public office. This will result in the ultimate disposition of our national forest system being steadily and incrementally privatized, and the forests, air, water, ecosystem services, etc. reduced to corporate offset assets for monetization and derivatives trading purposes. It is other wise known as the “financialization of nature”:
      http://www.maryknollogc.org/newsnotes/37.2/Financialization_of_nature.html

      This unregulated trading of derivatives, of course, is how we have been saddled with banks which are now “too big to fail”, and this has crippled if not terminally infected our national and international economic health.

      In regards to the same corporations funding both environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) and funding re-election campaigns eliciting the reaction that “The feeling of disempowerment of citizens is probably about the same.”, I couldn’t agree Moore (pun intended). The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation being among the most conspicuous cheerleaders of the financialization of nature, funding at once, Ecosystems Marketplace, The Nature Conservancy, WWF, Conservation International, and any other feckless ENGO willing to advance free market environmentalism at the quintessential opportunity cost of failing to advocate the necessary paradigm shifts in energy and macroeconomic policy which must be made if we are to escape the fate of a snowball’s chance in climate hell.

      As for Dave’s faith in Adaptive Management strategy, I remain a confirmed skeptic because unless we get a thorough reversal of aforementioned business as usual, we will continue to have the perfect Planning answer (or not) completely ignored, or completely misapplied by a captured agency.

      And that, the United States Forest Service will remain — a captured agency, unless and until Citizen United is overturned, and a dramatic paradigm shift occurs.

      • And I followed your link David, and liked what I saw. Here’s a tidbit from The Financialization of Nature:

        Overall, we must combat the meme that markets, especially financial ones, are the best way to allocate resources. The rich history of commons management needs to be held up as an equitable and sustainable way to manage resources. The fact that the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics went to Elinor Ostrom for her writings on strategies for managing commons is a good sign of the growing acceptance of commons management ideas. …

        National governments, international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, as well as international forums like the G20, European Union and UN are also important places to act to stop the laws that turn nature into commodities and establish markets to trade them. …

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