Logging in potential wilderness could foreclose forest plan options

Taking this story about the Pisgah National Forest at face value, it raises the question of what kind of management is appropriate while a national forest is revising its forest plan.  We just looked at another example of how the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest appeared to be anticipating changes that would result from its revised plan, possibly requiring a plan amendment to do so if the proposed project is not consistent with the current plan.

Here, let’s assume that the project to log an area that the locals want to be wilderness is consistent with the current plan, but it would be inconsistent with alternatives being considered for plan revision (normally there would be a forest plan alternative with all potential wilderness areas recommended for wilderness).  NEPA addresses this situation:  “Agencies shall not commit resources prejudicing selection of alternatives before making a final decision” (40 §CFR 1502.2(f)).  However, for a “program environmental impact statement” that is in progress, it implies an exception for where activities are “covered by an existing program statement” (40 CFR §1506.1(c)); it actually restricts actions where they are NOT covered by a plan EIS and is silent on where they are.

I have sometimes wondered if the project planning teams and the forest planning team are talking to each other.  It certainly doesn’t look good when they seem to be working at cross-purposes, and it could be illegal.

5 Comments

  1. This issue came up in the Cherokee National Forest’s 2004 plan revision, in which a project planned before and during the revision was inconsistent with the new plan. On behalf of Cherokee Forest Voices, we challenged the project and the Court held that the project had to be made consistent with the new plan. The CNF argued that it was adequate to simply declare that in the new plan that old projects were deemed consistent with the new plan, but the 6th Circuit rejected that argument. The Court’s rationale was based on NFMA’s clear consistency language.

    This brings up a really interesting issue with 219.15, which says that “Every decision document approving a … plan revision must state whether authorizations … made before the decision document may proceed unchanged. If a plan decision does not expressly allow such occupancy and use, the permit, contract, and other authorizing instrument for the use and occupancy must be made consistent with the … plan revision as soon as practicable ….” But this (merely “state whether”) is precisely what the 6th Circuit said the Forest Service can’t do under NFMA. The only way to reconcile 219.15 with the Court’s holding would be for the Forest Service to include consideration of the specific projects (in its plan revision NEPA analysis) at a level commensurate with the analysis needed for a project-level plan amendment–basically making a finding that the effects of the old projects would not prevent accomplishment of DCs and, especially for projects from 82 rule plans, would not be contrary to a requirement of the 2012 rule. It’s a tricky one to navigate.

    On the Nantahala Pisgah NF currently, the issue is playing out again. Whether to harvest (and for what purposes) in significant state natural areas, old growth, and wilderness inventory areas is the question that the plan must resolve, and different alternatives may answer those questions differently. But partisans for one approach or another are not only trying to nudge the decision one direction or another; they also seem to be pursuing a preferred solution predecisionally, with infrastructure and silvicultural investments. Of course, as you point out, they are potentially covered by the old programmatic analysis (and that is indeed their rejoinder). But query whether, for example, a decision to harvest old growth in a project prepared under an 82 rule plan could possibly be consistent with the ecological integrity requirements of the 2012 rule on a landscape where old growth is so vanishingly rare. It’s a big gamble by USFS to proceed with projects in controversial areas when the project is unlikely to be finished before the plan turns over.

    But to clarify the linked story, this isn’t an issue currently for Big Ivy. The current Forest Plan committed to leave Big Ivy alone until plan revision. The effort here is just to make sure that Big Ivy is actually recommended for wilderness. During revision, there have been indications from within the agency that they’d like to leave it open for “restoration,” without defining what that would mean or explaining why it’s needed. Externally, however, there is essentially unanimous support for the wilderness recommendation.

  2. The wlos story does not provide enough detailed information to form an informed opinion. Detailed project maps would indicate what if any of the proposed logging would occur within the Craggy wilderness study area, or any inventoried roadless area which has its own set of roadless rule restrictions on purposes of logging. If the area is outside the WSA and outside any existing inventoried roadless area, what new information has been provided that would indicate a high favorability of the sites in question for possible future wilderness designation. (I have to admit that I haven’t looked at the latest FS potential wilderness inventory which may include that new information that explains why portions of this area were missed in previous roadless inventory.)
    Old growth allocation is certainly another valid factor to consider along with economics and timber values but that is a separate and distinct question from wilderness designation.

    It would be nice to have a detailed forest plan map of the entire Big Ivy/Craggy area showing current allocations (roadless, unsuitable,suitable, WSA as well as latest potential wilderness inventories and overlay the proposed cutting units over this to see the extent of the potential conflict. Is there even an project level timber sale decision anticipated for the area prior to the new Draft Forest Plan being issued in 2018?

    • > If the area is outside the WSA and outside any existing inventoried roadless area, what new information has been provided that would indicate a high favorability of the sites in question for possible future wilderness designation.

      There is a core WSA/IRA and a larger area with high wilderness character. There is near unanimous support for a wilderness designation for the larger area, from the local political leaders to the residents to the user groups. The full proposal for the area includes a core wilderness area and surrounding backcountry.

      > Is there even an project level timber sale decision anticipated for the area prior to the new Draft Forest Plan being issued in 2018?

      No. The 1987 forest plan originally included most of the Big Ivy area in the “suitable” base, but public outcry over a proposed logging project resulted in a plan amendment that put Big Ivy off limits until the next plan revision (where we are currently).

      The issue in the linked story is not explained very clearly, but it has to do with how much of Big Ivy will be allocated to which management areas during plan revision. Much of the area proposed for wilderness by the public was shown on draft USFS maps in MAs suitable for timber production. After a new round of public outcry, the Forest improved the maps a little bit: they showed much of the wilderness proposal as a “special interest area” with unspecified plan components, but they still showed an intent to schedule much of the backcountry proposal for harvest, in areas that boast a substantial amount of old growth.

  3. Thanks for the facts, Sam. I was confused by the “plans to log about 4000 of Big Ivy’s 14,000 acres.” But now I remember that timber suitability has been a big issue there. So I could say “never mind,” but you do point out the potential problem that is out there with 219.15.

    The Francis Marion ROD includes a section on “Transition to the Revised Land Management Plan.” It sounds like boilerplate language that we should expect in future revisions. Here’s some of it.

    “There are many management actions that have decisions made before the effective date of this
    ROD. These pre-existing actions were considered part of the baseline in developing the revised
    plan and the projected effects of these actions are part of the cumulative effects analyses
    documented in the FEIS. An additional analysis concluded that the continued implementation of
    these previously decided actions will not foreclose the ability to meet the desired conditions and
    objectives of this revised plan.”

    I would question whether such projects should be part of an existing baseline when their completion depends on what the revised plan says. It would also be interesting to look at the “additional analysis” for each project.

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