Forest planning for federal land ownership

The Superior National Forest has received a notice of intent to sue over a land exchange that would allow development of a mine on the former national forest lands. The notice involves federally listed wolves and lynx. My question was whether the exchange is consistent with the forest plan as required by NFMA.

The Superior National Forest Plan contains very useful direction for land exchanges. It includes priorities for acquiring land (one of which is “Land needed for habitat for federally listed endangered, threatened, proposed, or candidate species or for Regional Forester Sensitive Species,” but that was not invoked by the ROD for this exchange). The plan also includes criteria for conveying land out of federal ownership, and it determines whether lands in each forest plan management area are suitable for conveyance.

The Record of Decision for this exchange first finds that a mine in this location would be inconsistent with the forest plan direction for the area. It then addresses the criteria for acquisition and conveyance (which are guidelines in the forest plan) and finds that the exchange would be consistent with the forest plan. The lands in the federal parcel to be conveyed are in the “General Forest and General Forest-Longer Rotation Management Areas” where conveyance is allowed. They also contain a lake, and there is a forest plan guideline to retain ownership of lakes. However the guideline is defined to allow deviation as long as the purpose of the guideline is met, and the exchange would produce a net gain in national forest water frontage.  The ROD also considers the mining project and land exchange in relation to Forest Plan direction related to larger areas on the landscape, including lynx analysis units.  (The ROD mistakenly cites the 2012 Planning Rule consistency provisions, which do not apply to plans developed under prior planning regulations, but the result should be the same.)

The plan components in the Superior Plan seem to have provided for a relatively smooth project planning process. Other forest plans I’ve seen provide much less guidance for land adjustments. It is important for a forest plan to recognize areas that provide important values by including plan components to retain and acquire such areas (which may then be supported by more detailed land adjustment planning). This may be especially important in planning for wildlife habitat connectivity in mixed ownerships.

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