NFMA at 40

This essay in High Country News on the 40th anniversaries of NFMA and FLPMA is worth a look. It’s written by Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.

“The National Forest Management Act emerged as a response to the clear-cutting and timber harvest controversies of the 1960s and ’70s. To this day, people differ as to whether it provided much-needed course correction for the Forest Service or instead was a solution to a “nonexistent” problem. What the law does, essentially, is require the agency to prepare management plans for every forest. It also places significant environmental constraints on the Forest Service and gives it a mandate to manage for wildlife diversity.”

Wildlife diversity, yes, but also other resources and values. It is worth noting that the text of the NFMA cites the Multiple-Use, Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 a dozen times or so.

Comments, anyone?

5 Comments

  1. I remember the law’s passage and some of the results I expected. As a District Ranger and then a Forest Planner, some lands were recognized as being most appropriate for “back country” recreation with no big roads. However, the timber folks said those lands were in the timber base and cutting of timber would take place. Definite conflict! It was my hope the NFMA would totally resolve these kinds of conflicts. For the most part they did but the lands suitable for timber production still dominated even though most folks felt the lands so designated were totally inappropriate. Some of the same conflicts today but to a lesser scale. On a whole, the Act was great but timber folks were able to wiggle out of it true intent.

  2. Our president elect proposes to revoke two old regulations for every new regulation.
    My opinion is that regulations and laws should have sunset provisions. A date certain or an event certain. On that date of when the event happens, the law or regulation dies. If circumstances call for some sort of government control, start over on the regulatory or legislative process. Don’t just rubber stamp the old regulation. The only law that I remember being sunset was the anti wage busting law under President Carter. Does NFMA do what it set out to do? Have circumstances changed since it was enacted?

  3. Yes, NFMA builds on the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act, but it takes away some of the discretion that MUSYA “breathes at every pore.” Much of that is the result of the new substantive requirement to provide for plant and animal diversity at a sustainable level. This forced a more integrated look at management that resulted in more clearly recognizing tradeoffs.

    After requiring diversity, Congress “punted” national forest management conflicts back to the Forest Service, but gave some oversight capability to the public that it didn’t have before. NFMA promoted resolution of fundamental scientific issues and philosophical differences at the scale of a national forest, rather than project-by-project. Unfortunately, disagreements on specific projects are still highly visible, and worse, the Forest Service seems interested, in its revised plans, in pushing more strategic decision-making back to the project level. This will just exacerbate the litigation problem. In some ways, I think the Forest Service is still fighting against NFMA’s incursions on its autonomy.

    There have been some instances where the Forest Service recognized the need to deal with bigger issues at a scale above individual forest planning. Most notably they produced a national solution to roadless area management in 2000 with the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (a federal regulation). They have also adopted regional solutions for many wide-ranging species through the forest planning process for multiple forests; for example spotted owls, anadromous fish, Canada lynx and sage grouse.

    While these examples are condemned by some, they probably saved considerable resources, both natural and fiscal. Many were disruptive, but that is partly because the Forest Service was behind the curve with these at-risk species, all of which were considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Sage grouse was the most recent species, and it was not listed. Perhaps the planning process has caught up with the curve. Also consider that national forest plans have now become an essential component of possible grizzly bear recovery and delisting.

    Economic forces continue to work against conservation of ecological diversity. NFMA has been somewhat successful as a breakwater against that.

    • Jon, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. although the NFMA may have taken away some of the USFS’s discretion, the impact of the NEPA has been much greater. Discretion is transferred from the agency to outside groups and the courts — perhaps diluted is a better term.

      Some folks might turn “Economic forces continue to work against conservation of ecological diversity” around into “Ecological diversity forces continue to work against economic sustainability.”

      • NEPA puts no limits on agency discretion. It just requires that they adequately consider environmental impacts and tell the public about them. That adds some time and costs, but often produces arguably better decisions by the agency (at their discretion).

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