The following letter was sent to Secretary Vilsack on February 28, 2013 by Friends of the Clearwater and eleven other conservation groups. To view a pdf copy of this letter, and to see the names of all the conservation groups that signed onto it, click here.
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
The undersigned represent non-profit conservation organizations that have been heavily involved in national forest issues, including forest planning. We are writing to express serious concerns with the way the revision of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests Plan(s) is taking place. As an early adopter of the new National Forest Management Act (NFMA) regulations, these two merging national forests will be a model for how Forest Plans are revised in the future.
We request that you halt the current planning process, because it is being inappropriately fast-tracked; gives disproportionate voice to local special interests; does not properly incorporate public involvement; undercuts NEPA; and appears to purposely circumvent the just released and still draft directives for the new Planning Rule.
By way of background, these two national forests comprise about 4 million acres of some of the most remote and spectacular country in the lower 48 states. These forests are home to wolves, salmon, fisher, bull trout, wolverines and grizzlies (one was illegally shot in 2007 in the North Fork Clearwater Basin). All or portions of the Gospel Hump, Selway-Bitterroot, Hells Canyon (managed by the Wallowa-Whitman) and Frank Church-River of No Return Wildernesses are found in these national forests, as are the Lochsa and Selway Wild and Scenic Rivers.
There are several problems that we see with the Forest Plan revision as it is proceeding to date. They encompass agency capacity, public involvement, and compliance with our nation’s environmental laws. An additional concern that overlays the entire process is the apparent devolution of public land management and decision-making to local and/or private special interests. All citizens have equal footing to participate in the revisions of these Forest Plans, and the public involvement process must not be “frontloaded” to render NEPA a pro-forma exercise
The Forest Service lacks the capacity to produce high quality plans through this fast-track process. The agency is clearly over-extended, in part because of the combination of the two forests into the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, which is being done mainly for funding reasons. This is effectively doubling the workload for agency staff, and revising these Forest Plans now will only exacerbate the problem. In addition, this process attempts to merge two existing, quite different, forest plans into one–a daunting task under the best of circumstances that will not be improved with a fast-track approach.
The concept behind Forest Plan revision is just that–a revision of an existing Plan. Yet the current process seems instead to be erasing all previous information and lessons learned to create an entirely new Plan. While the required Forest Plan monitoring on both of these national forests has not been up to par, it does provide information valuable to the Forest Plan revision effort. The Forest Service appears to believe otherwise, and failed to link years of prior monitoring and the need for Forest Plan revision in the initial round of meetings.
It is also unclear as to how the Forest Service intends to use the Analysis of the Management Situation (AMS) prepared for the earlier revision process. The public was told at the initial round of meetings the AMS was being revised in an ongoing effort. To proceed with public involvement and plan preparation when the revised “assessment” (the new term for AMS) has not been completed is to put the cart before the horse.
In a meeting last year–attended some of us, which included both regional and national ecosystem planning staff–the Forest Supervisor stated there is adequate funding to revise these two Forest Plans on the fast track. This money is apparently being spent on a consultant revising the two Plans and University of Idaho facilitators. While we are not questioning the qualifications of these consultants–we are concerned about three issues.
First, the outsourcing of agency functions devolves national forest management and decision-making. Second, we seriously question whether this Forest Plan revision can be done cheaply and efficiently by outsourcing. Third, we question the agency’s funding priorities when it comes to fast-tracking the revision of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests Plans as these two national forests have serious funding problems for campgrounds and other important programs. Blaming congressional allocation for this apparent funding imbalance seems disingenuous given the agency’s remarkable flexibility in redistributing funds, due in large part to the Forest Service’s ever-changing and inscrutable accounting process.
The public involvement process under the new NFMA regulations is very confusing. The Forest Service has sent mixed signals about the collaborative process, which has been portrayed by the agency as a pre-NEPA public involvement process.
Communication surrounding the planning process showed an inappropriate level of involvement by local special interests. Five initial public meetings were held on the revision of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Plans: Four in Idaho and one in Montana. Aside from the serious omissions of the major populations centers of Missoula, Montana and Spokane, Washington–two areas where citizens recreate on the Clearwater National Forests in particular–the meetings that were held generated considerable concern among the public.
These initial meetings were hosted by the local county commissioners, sending the signal that the counties, which represent less than 1/10th of one percent of the American public, are running the show. The card sent out about the meetings came from the Forest Service, and yet the press releases came from the counties, creating the impression that local government entities are in charge of the forest plan revision. This is completely unacceptable–the federal agency in charge cannot simply step back and endow local special interests with the power to shape public policy with regard to federal lands.
The pre-NEPA planning process undercuts the critical role of NEPA. The PowerPoint presentation given at the meetings stated that the so-called collaborative process would, “Try to resolve issues before formal plan and NEPA.” Apparently, this is what is meant by the “pre-NEPA” work. The purpose of scoping under NEPA, however, is to identify issues. How can NEPA be anything more than a pro-forma exercise under this scenario where the “collaborative group” resolves issues before they are identified in scoping?
It is unreasonable to place Forest management and the time commitment it demands in the hands of self-selected volunteer citizen-advocates. The Forest Service apparently sees two unequal classes of citizens:(1) “stakeholders” who have had time to participate in the three-day summit and then subsequent working groups, whom the Forest Service refers to as “involved;” (2) those who participate fully in the only legitimate and legally required public involvement process via NEPA, are not considered involved, but merely “informed.”
Citizens engaged in the NEPA process have the right to expect that decisions will be made after an objective analysis of alternatives. Participation in a pre-NEPA collaborative could lead to insider decision-making or the implication that these participants’ ideas will get priority over input from the NEPA process itself
As reported in the press, the Forest Supervisor told the public that this revision effort would “get out ahead of” Washington DC, since the directives for implementing the new NFMA regulations have yet to be completed in final form. Frankly, it seems to us patently inappropriate for a Forest Supervisor to inveigh against the federal government, even mildly, in order to appeal to anti-government sentiment. This only underscores our concern that this process is driven by local, special interests.
Forest Plan Substance
In addition to the process for this Forest Plan revision, we would also like to address the substance of the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forest Plans. Currently, these plans provide some accountability–with measurable, enforceable standards and required monitoring tied to on-the-ground projects. We are concerned that the new NFMA regulations, and the approach being taken here, will lessen accountability in terms enforceable standards and required monitoring.
In summary, the revision for the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Plans is taking the wrong track. With private and university consultants handling the process, and with counties taking the lead at the initial meetings, it appears national forest management is being devolved to private and special interests at the local scale. National forests were established precisely because there is an overriding national interest that is a counterweight to local, special interests.
We also would like a clear explanation of what the Forest Service believes is the difference between the normal NEPA public involvement process and the pre-NEPA collaborative process in the new rule.
Given the challenges facing the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, we believe it is in the public interest to delay the revision until the directives have been issued in final form and it is clear the current planning rule will remain in effect. The Supervisor’s intention to “get out ahead” of the directives is improper. Alternatively, revising the two plans under the 1982 regulations could alleviate some of these concerns.
We look forward to your response.