Historic Range, Natural Range and the Planning Rule

Well, when I posted the book club piece on Chapter 4 here on NCFP, I had the comments go to the Book Club blog here as usual. However, Jon Haber had a thoughtful comment there about the current Planning Rule that I thought deserved its own thread on this blog. So if you want to talk about the Planning Rule part of the Chapter 4 post, please do it here.. I’ll put a note to that effect there.

Here is the relevant piece of the Chapter 4 writeup:

I just ran across one this morning, that policies need to address “fire’s role in forest ecosystems.” My first question would be “fire’s role as to what aspect of plants, animals, water, soil and air?” Fire’s role, like climate or anything else, is not a constant. I like this quote from the book (The Moon in the Nautilus Shell):
P 85. ..

we find that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure or proportion but change at every scale of time and space. The old idea of a static landscape, like a single musical chord sounded foresver, must be abandoned, for such a landscape never existed except in our imagination. Nature undisturbed by human influence seems more like a symphony whose harmonies arise from variation and change over many scales of time and space, changing with individual births and deaths, local disruptions and recoveries, larger-scale responses to climate from one glacial age to another, and to the slower alterations of soils and yet larger variations between glacial ages.

If you have been a reader and writer of Forest Service regulations lately, the “form, structure or proportion” will call back to your memory perhaps “ecosystem composition, structure and function”:

2012 Planning Rule: Alternative A would require plan components to provide for the maintenance or restoration of the structure, function, composition, and connectivity of healthy and resilient aquatic ecosystems and watersheds in the plan area.

2001 and Colorado Roadless Rule: Tree cutting, sale, or removal is needed to maintain or restore the characteristics of ecosystem composition, structure and processes.

These statements, in regulation, imply that certain characteristics should be “maintained or restored”; that is, maintained as they are today, or restored to what they used to be (yes, I realize that some in the FS is talking that “restoration” doesn’t mean that, it really means “resilience to change”, but English is English, and if you mean that you should put in in regulation, IMHO.)

Now, scientists reviewed all these regulations and did not say “hey, that doesn’t take into account current scientific thought, because there is no one unchanging way that composition structure and function is “supposed to be” and that “needs to be” maintained or restored.” I think in Botkin’s book, he is again asking the question “if science tells us that everything is changing, why do scientists (including ecologists, I assume) review and accept regulations and other policies that seem to say the opposite?

I have three hypotheses. One is that the ecosystem idea has fuzzed everyone’s thinking. The second is that so much “science” is based on these ideas that scientists can’t imagine a world without them. Third is that scientists don’t study the “appeal to nature” idea in philosophy nor the history of its use (see Wikipedia here), so they don’t see that using it has conceptual problems way beyond the scientific community.

Here is Jon’s comment:

I have two other hypotheses. One is that the scientists were not in charge of the planning rule, so while they may have brought up these points, such nuances were not considered especially important by those who were in charge. The other is that ‘historic range of of variation’ became a mantra for active management over the last quarter century. This provided a convenient point of reference for ‘restoration.’ (I think there was a PR component to this – who could argue with ‘restoration?’) To a large degree the new planning rule has just captured the current practice of the agency. In a nod to global warming, the term used in the rule is ‘natural’ instead of ‘historic’ variation (which, while it has its own problems, at least acknowledges that ‘historic’ may not be the best point of reference).

There were some voices raised against including the phrase ‘maintain or restore’ as a universal planning. I suggest now that the best way to read this language is to focus on the fact that what will be maintained or restored is ‘ecological integrity,’ which is defined in terms of natural range of variability. This allows more of a moving target to ‘restore’ to.

I think the regulations mean what they say, but you have to read them pretty carefully. ‘Ecological integrity’ (and NRV) applies to ‘ecological characteristics,’ but not all ‘ecological conditions.’ The former is limited (by example) to ‘composition, structure, function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity.’ The latter includes roads and ski areas. You can add new roads and expand ski areas if you can still meet the ecological integrity requirement.

So I’ll go ahead and start commenting on Jon’s comment, as a comment below. Whew, I hope you are not confused by all that!


  1. First of all, I hope you all know that I didn’t mean to pick on the Planning Rule. But Dan did ask the question in his book, “how does it happen that ecologists (or environmental scientists) don’t raise these issues in terms of policy?” and it turns out the Planning Rule (appears to ?) use these concepts AND we understand how it was developed, as it is fairly open and transparent. So what better example?

    1) it seems like there was an official science review of the Planning Rule. Here’s the info

    The Forest Service has sought to ground the content of the planning rule in science. During development of the Proposed Rule and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), the Agency solicited the input of both internal and external science experts to ensure that the science behind the proposed rule and environmental analysis is current, relevant, accurate, and appropriately applied.

    To that end, the Agency contracted with a non-partisan organization, Resolve, to act as a neutral, third party in conducting an external science review of the DEIS. The external review was initiated when the proposed rule and DEIS became available to the public. In order to ensure the integrity and independence of the review process, the identity of the reviewers and the content of their analysis were kept confidential by Resolve, including from the planning rule team, until the review was completed.

    Seven reviewers were selected by Resolve to evaluate three key questions on scientific caliber, treatment of uncertainty, and comprehensiveness of the DEIS. Resolve provided a summary report and the independent reviews to the planning rule team on April 21, 2011.

    The planning rule team used the results of the external review, along with input from the public, to improve the analytical and scientific foundation of the final programmatic environmental impact statement and preferred alternative. In requesting and sharing the content of this external scientific review, we continue our commitment to transparency and active public engagement to create a strong final rule for our National Forest System.

    a link to the science review.

    I found the below on pg. 3.

    Somewhat coupled to issues of climate change are more general issues of stability and change. Several reviewers commented on the dynamic nature of ecosystems, and of the necessity of having justifiable mechanisms to assess management against such changing backgrounds, and of incorporating cumulative impact assessment into such methods. These are challenging issues from a technical standpoint; to the extent that the DEIS can provide system-wide guidance, it will be useful for Service staff to have a coherent statement of how to deal with changing systems.

    It might be interesting to see how the individual reviewers dealt with the concept of dynamics.

    2) the other thing that comes up in my memory is the debate over being consistent or whatever the other term was with “scientific information”. As we discussed on the blog previously, that was based on a model of how science is used in policy that is not current thinking in science policy studies (so it I guess is not based on “science.”)

    While searching for this, I ran across this (super-snarky, IMHO) law school summary of the court case (thank Gaia I am retired and don’t have to read this regularly):

    Finally, the plaintiffs disapprove of the 2012 Forest Planning Rule requirement that “planning and management decisions be based on the ‘best available scientific information,’” preferring instead that forest managers base decisions on commercial data. Apparently science-based management is not proper for the 21st century problems of complex ecosystems and climate change.

    What is “commercial data”? This doesn’t even make sense. They don’t even get that they don’t get it.

    Also note that Vermont Law School put this up as one of the top 10 Issues for 2013. Note that the other 9 seem to be about physical things (pollution types of things) rather than the “correct kind of vegetation” . The whole “dynamic systems” thing is not as relevant for environmental issues involving pollutants. Maybe that’s a disconnect between the scientific community and the legal community.

    3. I don’t understand what a “natural range of variability” is under climate change, which is not supposed to be “natural”?

  2. ‘What is “commercial data”? This doesn’t even make sense. They don’t even get that they don’t get it.’ The law school brief is perhaps a little snarky in tone, but the language of “commercial data” can be found in the Endangered Species Act: “The Secretary shall make determinations required by subsection (a)(1) of this section solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available to him after conducting a review of the status of the species…” 16 U.S.C § 1533(b)(1)(A). The industry lawsuit against the new Rule quotes that language, and the plaintiffs complain that the spirit of it is lost because the FS seems to be focusing on “scientific data” at the expense of “commercial data”. I’m guessing that in an ESA context, commercial data might include the marketable value of timber (or grazing etc), or commercial value of a hydro dam (Tellico anybody?), etc. I think I can understand what it means in that context, though I’m not sure why the industry plaintiffs feel that USFS should be compelled to incorporate an ESA standard into the new planning rule. In their complaint, plaintiffs go on to say that “The Planning Rule, §219.3, unlawfully limits the information on which forest planning decisions can be based by requiring all decisionmakers to “use” the best available scientific information for every forest management decision. The rule precludes reliance on best available commercial data even though such data is statutorily mandated for use in ESA decisions. The rule effectively trivializes public participation by forbidding decisions based on non-scientific information, which is what the great majority of public comments will contain.” I don’t think that logic holds up very well, since requiring the use of best available scientific information does not “forbid” using non-scientific information as well. It’s like saying that since a red light at a traffic intersection mandates the use of your brakes, you’re forbidden to also use your turn signal… that’s a non sequitur.

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