Should Forest Plans Establish Management Areas?

For some people, the essence of a Forest Plan is the establishment of “management areas”.  But do they work?  Does it make sense to equate a Forest Plan to a zoning document?

Under the 1982 planning rule, management area prescriptions are one of the Forest Plan content requirements (along with a summary of the management situation, multiple-use goals and objectives, and monitoring/evaluation requirements.)  A management area prescription addresses multiple-uses with “associated standards and guidelines for each management area including proposed and probable management practices such as the planned timber sale program.”  (36 CFR 219.11(c) – 1982 version)

The weakness of this approach is that management areas are often viewed as single resource by single resource emphasis areas.

In their book Designing Sustainability Forest Landscapes, Simon Bell and Dean Apostol observe:

“NFMA led to development of complicated zoning maps for each national forest.  In essence, the attempt was (and still is) to resolve competing uses by creating overlays and associated standards, very similar to what one finds in local land use planning.  The Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon, for example, identified over 40 separate zones, including such designations as timber emphasis, developed winter sports, scenic viewsheds, a big-game winter range, and late successional reserves.  Each zone has a set of standards that specify whether logging can occur, and if so at what rotation, the size of clearcuts, the allowable density of roads and so forth.

 The level of zoning typical on US national forests today demonstrates the limits of what can be accomplished through zoning-based plans.  At its worst, it represents an absurd division of the forest to a point where it cannot even be understood, let alone competently managed.  The managers are tied in knots, and neither they nor the public who owns these forests can effectively visualize what the forest will look like or be.”  p. 25

 The requirement to identify management areas was absent in the 2005/2008 planning rule.  Rather than “prescriptions”, the intent was to identify “desired conditions” at multiple scales, and “overlays” of specific suitable use maps at broad scales with approximate lines.  There are many advantages to this approach – plans are more adaptable, maps are consistent with the unique role and scales of contributions that a particular Forest may serve, and plans don’t seem more prescriptive than they really are.  Still, it seems like planning teams couldn’t get away from the concept of management areas.   In some cases, some teams used the identification of “special areas” as a replacement for management areas.  While it certainly makes intuitive sense that you don’t need zones to cover every inch of a National Forest, it also makes sense to limit the types of special areas to a consistent National set (recommended Wilderness, research natural areas, botanical areas, National Recreation Areas, etc.)

Should management areas still be a component of Forest Plans in a new planning rule?    Are Forest Plans really zoning documents, and how can they represent themes rather than specific actions?

4 thoughts on “Should Forest Plans Establish Management Areas?”

  1. My observation with the 05 was that some people (including me) had problems getting around “desired conditions” (that’s another post). But the public folks I observed were very interested in deciding “what you can do where” and looking at maps. That was the reality to them.
    People can get “carried away” with any good idea, including zoning. Still, separating ski areas from potential wilderness from WUI from backcountry (motorized and non) has a lot of utility. These maps, in my view, provide context for future travel management, oil and gas leasing, and other activities. If there was only one thing a plan did, in my view, this would be it.

  2. Consistent with my minimalist approach, I note that NFMA requires only a map showing the planned timber sale program. Done well, such a forest plan could eliminate the laborious 2-step planning process that monopolizes the FS’s time and money. NFMA does not mandate a 2-step planning process. NFMA does not bar forest plans from making site-specific decisions. The 2-step process is solely a NEPA creature.

    Imagine a forest plan that says “here’s where, how and why we will manage vegetation over the next three years and the effects of doing so.” The plan and its EIS is the decision document for the next 3 years of work. During those three years, planners revise the plan to add another 3 years of work. This planning scheme assures year-round employment for planners. It also eliminates separate site-specific NEPA vegetation mgmt processes and associated appeals. That’s all handled once in the forest plan.

  3. Good post, John

    We need to talk about the “other plans” that the Forest Service develops, and how decisions and maps from these ought to inform both forest-level managers as well as the public. My guess is that these “other plans”, along with program and project decisions, permit authorizations, specific legislation, etc. would automatically designate ski areas, wilderness areas, etc. So what is left to be done in a forest plan? I have no idea.

    I support an information system that lets forest managers, as well as program managers more toward the center of the Forest Service know what is “in play” as they go about the business of adaptive co-management. I also support a minimalist approach to “scenario planning” that helps folks think strategically.

    The dilemma with my preferred approach is that interconnections between programs and ecosystems will be dealt with sequentially, not at one time. But the “at one time” notion is largely a fiction anyway. Aaron Wildavsky said it best long ago: If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing. Onward adaptive co-management.

    Maybe our (or my) task is to see how to flesh out a “NFMA rule”, note that I did not say a “Planning Rule”, that moves us in this direction.

  4. John,

    Last month I stumbled across a good reason to eliminate zoning maps from forest plans. Crested Butte is a special use-permitted ski area on the GMUG NF in Colorado. The GMUG has a 1983 NFMA plan. That plan includes a zoning map that identified a pretty mountain as a potential site for expansion of the Crested Butte ski area, which operates under a special-use permit.

    The ski area wants to now expand. Pursuant to FS regulations, the ski area has applied to expand its permitted area to include the pretty mountain. Also pursuant to permitting regulations, the forest supervisor replied, “no thanks, I find that it is not in the public interest to entertain your permit application.”

    The ski area corporation is livid. It argues that the 1983 LRMP zoning map constitutes a “public interest” finding that expansion is warranted. Further, it claims that the zoning map commits the Forest Service to spend tax dollars writing an EIS on the ski area’s expansion permit. The ski area has appealed the supervisor’s denial of its permit expansion request on these grounds. A decision is pending from the regional office. Meanwhile, the ski area and its business allies in Crested Butte have taken to the streets to protest the forest supervisor’s denial of the ski industry’s NEPA “due process” rights.

    This is, of course, all silliness. I’m no more entitled to force the FS to do a NEPA study of my proposed bicycle racing velodrome on national forest lands than the Crested Butte Ski Corporation is entitled to a NEPA study of its expansion plan. Nonetheless, the 1983 forest plan helped no one when it made speculative, “aspirational” forecasts about an unknown future.


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