Water and Watersheds- Unifying Principle for a New Planning Rule?

Guest post by Jim Furnish, former Deputy Chief for National Forest Systems, USDA Forest Service

Why Is Water So Important?

The connection between forests and water has long been recognized, and was at the core of why national forests were created. The Organic Act of 1897 speaks to “favorable conditions of water flow” (which we would articulate differently today), and the strong inference is to both quality and quantity. Forests and their waters were under clear threats from rampant logging, grazing, and mining. Today, although such overt abuses have been stopped, the value of clean abundant water flowing from public land is greater than ever.

Watersheds behave much like a human veinous system, serving every part of the landscape and ushering water out and away through ever larger streams. Water is a direct and inerrant reflection of the health of the landscape — it cannot lie. It is the lifeblood of the landscape, thus, biota is usually bunched and concentrated in and near water. A century of conservation has no doubt served to avert degradation, yet population and commercial pressures continue to impact watershed health.

Is watershed restoration necessary? The underlying question is important — is there anything to restore, and, if yes, how/why did it get that way? On national forests, did the Forest Service play a causal role? The response to these questions draws sharp differences, often breaking along ideological lines. But what does the land say?

Invasive species, degraded fish stocks, threatened species, loss of riparian health — no matter your ideology, all these speak plainly to the reality that things are not as they should be, no matter the cause. What niche should national forests occupy as it relates to reasonable public expectations for watershed health? I would hope the Forest Service would aspire to a high calling. It should be noted that severity varies greatly, and some watersheds remain in great shape, while others are in poor health.

Today, watershed restoration must be an essential unifying principle for land managing agencies — and an important element in an effective and useful planning regulation. Water is a crucial essence for almost all land management considerations.

7 thoughts on “Water and Watersheds- Unifying Principle for a New Planning Rule?”

  1. What I like about this so much is that it is concrete. Water people (in my experience) tend to agree broadly on what is generally good or bad for streams, lakes and watersheds. Meanwhile vegetation ecologists are discussing vegetation structure, composition and function, which in many ways are difficult to describe in terms of good and bad- without reference to historic range of variation, which we know no longer makes a good target. Many different combinations of species, structure and function have existed in the past and will exist in the future; and it is up to people to determine if they consider these combinations good or bad, and for what reason.

    My thought experiment would be “What would the Forest Service look like if it were designed by a team of hydrologists and fisheries biologists?” What would our structure, budget and function look like?

  2. I like it on its own merit, and because it fulfills a dream of mine that the Forest Service finally realizes that it has a unique role — A Forest Service Niche — in helping people in the US find a path to sustainability, thereby providing much needed leadership to the World. Nice to see you back in action, Jim.

  3. Yes, and too often, land-use planning is disconnected from water planning.

    Meanwhile, as a journalist, I’m still struggling to make this whole thing relevant to average citizens in places like Summit County, Colorado, where 80 percent of the land is national forest. My latest effort to get people interested in the roundtable, focuses on what we so often hear when the FS proposes a new project: “It’s in the plan.” Here’s the link: http://wp.me/pJ91e-1qj.

  4. Bob- I appreciate all the excellent work you’ve done and are continuing to do in reporting- digging deeper in these controversies beyond the “he said,she said” level that is common nowadays, IMHO.

    Here’s what I would say. Yes, the details of a planning rule are arcane, there’s no doubt. You can follow discussions here if you want to plumb the depths of arcanity.
    However, the next time you folks sit down with Scott or his successor to do a forest plan for the White River, this rule will describe 1) what you talk about, 2) the sideboards on what is up for a decision 3) the context you talk about it in and 4) the public’s role. That’s all pretty important stuff.

    In terms of deciding on a planning rule to guide planning on all the national forests and grasslands, all the interest groups will be at the table. The FS manager generally wants flexibility. Scientists generally want more analysis of topics in their discipline. Environmental lawyers want more legal hooks (what they would call “accountability,” but that could take many other forms). Local governments and state governments may want to play a larger role. National interest groups want to be able to influence decisions also, and not be left out in comparison to locals, and local and state governments (as is playing out, as you know, with Colorado Roadless). These views are all, to some extent, self-serving and a function of what your current role is. Still the question of “how are we to manage our public lands” is both about that, and bigger than all that.

    That’s why we need to hear from people other than (was it Jack Ward Thomas, the former Chief of the Forest Service who used to call them?) “paid gladiators.”

    One person’s streamlining and clarifying decision processes is another person’s “letting the FS run amok.” That’s why we need a variety of people, interest groups and others, to weigh in.

  5. AND, any plan that sells timber, even if it is 30 times less than in the 1980’s, will be a “giveaway to the timber industry”. Montana seems to be sooooo proud of themselves for having 300 million board feet under contract (for the entire state!). For two years in Placerville ’89-’90, we cut 90 million board feet of dead and dying trees, EACH SEASON, on just the one small Ranger District.

    Vilsack and company really are hanging their hats on the water issues, as they clearly see intense problems with the Colorado River watershed, and the inevitable water wars coming over the horizon. The desire to treat only the WUI means nothing when forests 1000 miles from Los Angeles will have such profound effects on humans living there. Unfortunately, politics trumps science and it appears that the inevitable just HAS to happen, regardless of “good intentions”. I’m clearly seeing that many stakeholders want to de-emphasize established science in favor of social and spiritual issues the Gaia-ists hold so dear. Talk about “faith-based” fundamentalism, eh?


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