Rethinking Forest Planning – Guest Post from Mark Squillace

Mark Squillace is a law professor and the Director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado Law School. Some of his views on the process-related issues surrounding the current round of forest planning are set out in a post titled Engaging the Public in the Latest Round of Rulemaking on Forest Planning on the Red Lodge Clearinghouse blog.

After two days of intense discussion about the forest planning process at the May 11-12, 2010 workshop in Rockville, Maryland, I’d like to offer these observations while they are fresh in my mind. First, kudos to the Forest Service and the Meridian Institute for establishing such an open and effective process for engaging the public. I have written more specifically about the process on the Red Lodge Clearinghouse website and those comments can be found here. In this post, I would like to suggest a few principles that I believe should govern the rulemaking process for forest planning and a few ideas for establishing a process that reflects those principles.

First and foremost, the Forest Service must not lose sight of the fact that the central problem with the current framework for forest planning is that it is too complex. As a result of this complexity, plans often take many years to develop, and their very complexity invites appeals and litigation. Let’s not ask too much of our forest plans. They should offer a vision for the future management and use of discrete areas and not much more. They should be simple enough that they can be completed within a year – two at the very outside. They should be relatively short – no more than 150 pages, and they should be accessible to the general public so that the general public can meaningfully participate in the planning process. Plans are likely to be most accessible if the alternatives that are being considered can largely be understood by looking at series of maps reflecting the alternative visions for forest management.

The complexity contained in most of our current plans relates largely to the fact that the Forest Service has historically used the plans to establish detailed standards and guidelines for managing particular forest resources. My sense is that this largely traces back to the Forest Service’s belief back in the early 1980’s that forest plans developed under the 1982 rules could essentially govern all future decisions on the forest, at least until a new forest plan was developed. I think we know now that this model does not work. Yet the Forest Service still seems to cling to the belief that more complex forest plans will make project level decisions easier. If they stepped back and thought about this they would surely realize that more complex plans do not make anything easier.

This leads to my recommendation that the planning rules should establish a process for “tiered planning.” Tiered planning borrows a concept from NEPA. Under a tiered planning regime the Forest Service would first develop a large scale, “bird’s eye” vision for the forest that would meet the basic legal requirements of NFMA for land and resource management plans. This would involve a NEPA process that considers various alternative visions for a forest, before a final vision is chosen. Among the decisions to be made at this large scale level would be what resources on that particular forest required separate resource specific plans. The large scale plan would guide the Forest Service in the development of these sub-level, tiered (and integrated) plans for the particular resources identified during the land use planning process. These tiered resource-specific plans would be accompanied by separate NEPA processes and separate opportunities for review. Different forests would need different resource plans. Project level decisions that relate to particular resources studied in a sublevel plan would then fall under a third tier, but since not all forest resources would necessarily require a sub-level plan, some project level proposals might simply flow from the large scale plan itself.

Breaking down plans into component parts, as the proposed tiering process would do, will not necessarily lead to less work for the Forest Service up front. But it will allow the basic plan – the vision document – to be developed more easily and more quickly, and it will allow conflicts and controversies to be better isolated to particular resources While tiered planning might be criticized for failing to promote sufficient integration of resource-specific assessments with land use decisions as required by NFMA, the Forest Service can address this problem simply by adhering to the basic principles of tiering articulated in the Council on Environmental Quality rules implementing NEPA. In particular, those rules describe “tiering” as appropriate when “it helps the …agency focus on issues that are ripe” and “exclude[s] from consideration issues … not yet ripe.” 40 CFR 1508.28(b). By divorcing the planning choices from the choices relating to specific resources, the Forest Service can put off consideration of those resource specific issues until the agency is ready to consider whether and how specific resources should be used.

Another great advantage of tiered planning is its potential for engaging the public in a more meaningful way. Tiered planning can achieve this goal because it allows interested parties to be involved at whatever level of detail they desire. Those most interest in the particular type of land uses that are going to be allowed on particular tracts of lands (or perhaps over the entire forest landscape) can participate only on the land use level decisions, with some confidence that the choices made during this large scale planning process will be honored as sub-level decisions are made. Those interested in the development, use, or management of particular forest resources can focus their attention on particular resource plans or project level decisions involving those resources and those lands where particular resources are authorized for use.

I want to conclude with one general observation about the current process. Even as I applaud the Forest Service for initiating this ambitious exercise in civic engagement, the agency should recognize that one of the risks associated with this process is that it invites even greater complexity in planning. The natural tendency of participants asked to consider ways to improve forest plans is to suggest additional requirements that might be imposed on forest planners. For all of the reasons expressed above, making forest plans more complex than they already are would be a huge mistake, even if, in the abstract, we might agree on an idea for further improving forest plans. A great example of this comes from the workshop and concerns the request to participants that they consider “restoration and resiliency” as one of six issues for forest plans. Understandably, most people think that restoration of degraded forest resources and managing forest resources to promote resiliency are generally good things. I don’t disagree. But restoration and resiliency cannot and should not be treated as ends in themselves. Indeed, it is generally accepted that restoration of degraded lands to their original condition is probably not possible, and maybe not even desirable. More importantly, restoration and resiliency should be seen for what they are – tools that might (or might not) help to achieve the goals and objectives established in a forest plan.

The elusive goal of finding a better way to do forest planning will only be achieved if we come to grips with the fundamental problem associated with the current process. It’s too complex. We need to rethink forest planning in ways that will allow forest plans to be concise, accessible to the general public, and developed and implemented within a reasonable period of time. I appreciate the fact that it won’t be easy. But I nonetheless believe that it can be done.

6 thoughts on “Rethinking Forest Planning – Guest Post from Mark Squillace”

  1. Good article, I agree with the concept. Currently Forest Planning is much to complex. Average folks have trouble understanding plans, and nobody wants to read one from start to finish. The hope was that the Forest plans could take care of the details and science so project level NEPA could use a simplified cookie cutter approach. It isn’t working. I think the FS does have the tendency to make things more complex with out trying. They are generally splitters and lose track of the big picture while they nitpick the details.

    Mark makes a good point about restoration and resilience. They are great buzz words but are often poorly defined and mean different things to different people.

  2. While the complexity tends to close some of the holes, it multiplies the problems of implementing such plans. Many planner do not seem to understand that the ground very often doesn’t match their plan’s specifications!…. LOL

    I’ve always made a ritual response after listening to a unit’s marking prescription. I make a big show of making sure that I understand it, and after it has been read to everyone, I always comment, “COOL!! Marker’s Choice!!!!”

    The good thing is that MY “Marker’s Choice” (almost) always falls within the marking prescription. Unfortunately, all those “good ole markers” are reaching retirement age, burnout, or have just reached that magic level of disgust with the organization. Sadly, plans these days don’t actually have to be implementable to be popular.

    Also an issue is the need for plans to be simple enough for the general public to understand. Yes, judges have criticized Forest Service plans for being too complex, at times. There is a very fine line between “hard look” and K.I.S.S.

  3. This approach strikes me as too generic — too much about simple process –This is planning for planners rather than people who very often care a great deal about specific places, a favorite fishery or wild land.

    I recall walking into the Swan Lake Ranger District after RARE II to ask why they hadnt recommended wilderness for the Swan Range –it became evident that the decisions were generic (RPA goals) and disconnected from the actual wild land in question its enduring values and unique characteristics.

    The forest plan isnt just about getting it done but getting a plan that fits the land and its unique characteristics –Part of this is setting limits to preserve important (increasingly rare) values on the land –this requires a plan that has more meaning –and engagement– than a generic plan.

    The forest plan provides a unique opportunity to look across a large national forest landscape with widely varying characteristics values and –hopefully– long range management plans attuned to those unique conditions.

    Part of the mission –especially important in the northern rockies where congress is decades behind in acting on wilderness recommendations –is to consider and recommend deserving areas for wilderness. This requires a site specific look–

    Even heavily roaded areas where the errors of past practices are written all over the landscape– are great candidates for creative management–restoration of impaired watersheds and fisheries for example.

  4. I agree with John here. Plans must be meaningful. This doesn’t mean that they should take so long to write—as there is something wrong when a plan can take longer to write than the Manhattan or Apollo projects. But they must matter. For me at least, this means that plans should include land designations/zoning—people want lines on maps for obvious reasons.

    And second, there must be standards and guidelines. Though I haven’t looked very hard, I haven’t seen much research to suggest that forest planning gets bogged down and delayed because of standards and guidelines. My hunch is that this phase of planning is not the bottleneck.

    But when I think of a few plans, the S&Gs are what has really shaped subsequent management on the ground. When they are written clearly, I would argue that they end up saving the agency time and grief in the long run—as project-level ID teams don’t have to constantly renegotiate all this stuff over and over again. S & Gs also emerge from the bottom-up in a lot of cases; and they aren’t necessarily overly complex and problematically prescriptive.

    I had a recent conversation with a friend of mine, a prominent conservationist who knows the Lolo National Forest inside-out. And the only thing that will keep him engaged in yet another round of forest planning regulations is his appreciation for the importance of the original Lolo Forest Plan—that the plan (including land designations and S&Gs) is what has mattered most over the years. It has served as the baseline for all his conservation work over the years.

    Take away the important stuff, and I’m afraid you won’t get people like him, never mind a broader public, to participate in planning. Why bother?

    I also know of a case or two (secondhand, in Wyoming) where the Counties were the interest that wanted to focus on standards more than anyone else—it was the part of the process that they felt mattered most (along with the management area designations).

  5. So if we took Mark’s idea for simple and tiered, and added Martin’s and my views that maps and S&Gs are what people really care about then we would ask “how could those two things be made simpler?”

    One idea was to not do an EIS on the “vision thing” or the forest plan tier. This was the 2005 Rule and it met with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

    So how would we act differently if we thought the main use of a plan was lines on maps associated with management intensity?

    First, we would realize that there is serious overlap with any roadless rule which effectively does this to some acres. So we would say the first step is to settle that issue (a noble goal, anyway).

    Second, we would try to harmonize themes across forests and possibly with BLM neighbors to make for easier public understanding across forests and regions. Say backcountry is always backcountry and allows these things and prohibits some other things.

    Third, each forest would work with the public to apply these standard themes in discussions, post them on the web, etc. The specialists would derives some S&G’s. The two alternatives would be he rolling alternative and the current plan. Those themes applied on the landscape, the S&G’s, and some goals would be the only plan components. There would also be a monitoring plan, required to be prioritized within current budgets with additional monitoring prioritized if additional partners or volunteers help.

    Maybe that’s as simple as we can reasonably expect, given the above points of view.


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