Changes Proposed to NFMA Species Viability Requirements

Proposed changes to the NFMA planning rule species viability provision were presented to the public at last week’s National Roundtable on the proposed planning rule in Washington D.C.  The viability provision, intended to fulfill the diversity requirement of the National Forest Management Act, has been the most contentious element of previous attempts to change the NFMA planning regulations (or rule).

The proposal would make five major changes to the species viability requirement of the existing 1982 rule.

1. The requirement would apply to all species, not just vertebrates. The following categories of species would need specific attention in a forest plan: (1) contribution to recovery of Threatened or Endangered species; (2) conservation of “species at risk” to preclude listing (species at risk are candidate, proposed, and other species for which loss of viability is a concern across the range of the species); (3) conservation of “species of concern” to prevent extirpation from the plan area (“species of concern” are rare within the plan area but are relatively secure throughout their range.)

2. The plan would need to provide “ecological conditions” (rather than “habitat”) to support viable populations of native species in the plan area.  Ecological conditions would include components of the biological and physical environment that could affect diversity of plant and animal communities and the “productive capacity of ecological systems.”  The components could include not only habitat, but roads and other developments, human uses, and non-native invasive species.

3. Rather than selecting “management indicator species” to monitor, there would be a “strategic” selection of a “small set” of focal species. Focal species would be those whose status and trends are likely to be responsive to changes in ecological conditions, permit inference to the integrity of the overall ecosystem, and provide meaningful information regarding the effectiveness of the plan in maintaining diversity of plant and animal communities. The rule would require two levels of monitoring – the first level would be specific to the forest, and the second level would require coordination between the Forest Supervisor, Regional Forester, and Station Director for those species whose range is wider than a forest.

4. The rule would contain language similar to the 2005/2008 rule that provided for species at two levels or “filters.” The first level, is the “ecosystem level”, and the plan would guide the maintenance or restoration of structure, composition, processes and diversity of healthy and resilient ecosystems (lots of buzzwords there – new terms of particular importance are “restoration” and “resilience” – the rule attempts to relate those two terms by explaining that the goals of restoration are to assist in the recovery of resilience and adaptive capacity of ecosystems) Also, the idea is intended to be consistent with NFMA’s diversity provision that uses the notion of “community.” The second level would be the species level, but like the 2005/2008 rule, the intent is that most plan direction would respond to the first level and not the second.

5. Specific language would be added to the rule to explain that the species viability obligation is “within the authority of the Forest Service” and the “capability of the land.” This addresses cases where factors affecting viability are outside of the agency’s control. Note that these provisions may also be relevant when changes in climate would change the capability of the land.

The draft proposed rule will begin the clearance process in the Forest Service and the Department throughout August and Sepctmber. In October, it will be submitted to OMB and other federal agencies. The proposed rule and DEIS will be published in December, with public comment from January to March.

Further information is available on the planning rule website.

6 thoughts on “Changes Proposed to NFMA Species Viability Requirements”

  1. So, will Let-Burn fires have to follow such stringent rules, as well?!?! I propose that all “Maximum Management Areas” which contain habitat of any species we are worried about be suspended until proper studies under NEPA are formally accomplished. Why do they continue to get a “free pass”, when many important species suffer from the numerous “mistakes” that Let-Burn fires bring??

  2. For those of us who a) are literal-minded and b) haven’t been following closely.. “all species” of what? viruses?

    Also if the definition of “focal species” is “Focal species: species selected for assessment and monitoring whose status and trends are likely to be responsive to changes in ecological conditions, permit inference to the integrity of the overall ecosystem, and provide meaningful information regarding the effectiveness of the plan in maintaining the diversity of plant and animal communities in the plan area.” It’s a little confusing. How do you pick the ecological conditions to which the species are likely to be responsive? “Ecosystem integrity” is a pretty fuzzy concept in terms of prioritization. Maintaining diversity is clearer, but are we talking about maintaining it by keeping relatively rare species on the land?

    If that is what is meant, it might be simpler to just state that. How about this?

    Focal species are species that have declined in the past due to, as far as we know, past management activities. We have scientific studies (cited) that show a clear link. Since we expect future management activities to be similar to past management activities we want to pay special attention to these species. We have selected a subset of all the species that might have declined based on (X).

    Maybe this discussion would be clearer if we used an example of a real forest and real species.

  3. Sharon, regarding “all species,” their language in the concept paper says “focus on all plants and animals that make up a community, or ecosystem…” Although I agree they probably need to tighten up the word “all” a bit, I think they mainly had in mind plants and invertebrates (in addition to vertebrates as in ’82). I didn’t hear mention of bacteria, viruses or fungi 😉

    In the break-out group I was in (Martin was in this group too), we did discuss how rare species are not always the best indicators of ecological condition or integrity. Thus, while they appear to be focusing on “at risk” species with the fine-filter approach, if they want to select indicators of ecological integrity, they may need to expand beyond the rare.

    I too would like to walk through this proposed process with a few examples. In the meantime, I’d suggest a species such as eastern brook trout which fits the bill as not only a declining species and one that serves as an indicator of water quality/watershed condition, but is also a demand species. I did get a little uncomfortable in our group when it was suggested that focal species would be selected by a collaborative process, i.e., socially determined. Not sure we would welcome that?

  4. Some species are listed solely on the rarity of the habitat they require. The Sierra Nevada has a jumbled geology in the lower elevations that offer a niche for certain plants. Also, some listed plant species have been known to invade into disturbed areas (see Pleasant Valley Tulip).

    Choosing species that have no valid survey protocols should be avoided at all costs, as we have seen in the “survey and manage” situation. Unless the goal is to keep those listed species listed, we need to stop burning up their habitat. It almost seems like a de-listing of any species is a very bad thing for the agenda of radical environmentalists.

  5. Reply I. Why more species?

    Marek, thanks for the clarification and for your post. I have great respect for TNC and your combination of science and pragmatism in real world conservation.

    Before I add more, I’d like to reassert a disclaimer that I am a hopeless literalist who cares deeply for the English language and clarity. Here’s a link to a previous post on talking across the concrete/abstract divide, which I think this conversation will end up being.

    I have been thinking about recreation a great deal and other aspects not so much. So I was a bit caught up short by the concept of adding other species at all. When I attended the roundtables, I heard some folks wanted to make sure we retained standards. Almost all folks wanted the planning process streamlined.

    So I am not sure that I personally ever heard “we need to cover more lifeforms with viability.” I am fairly certain that adding more organisms to consider will not streamline, in fact it sounds like a potential full employment program for algal (it didn’t say “higher plants”) and invertebrate taxonomists (which in itself might not be a bad idea.. just unnecessarily tied to a planning rule).

    In fact, I never heard from stakeholders that the 1982 regs and their associated caselaw were not restrictive enough- I heard more that the total accumulation (like barnacles) were sinking the ship of Planning. Are FS lands in such bad shape that we need to extend the range of “viability” to solve that problem? What problem are we trying to solve with adding other species to animals, and is this approach the most effective and efficient way to solve that problem?

    I guess I’m curious about the logic path behind why we would do this. .

  6. Reply II. Monitoring -Who Should Decide?
    I think we need to be clear on why we are monitoring what.
    If we want to monitor conditions, let’s monitor conditions.

    If we want to monitor organisms to represent conditions, then let’s talk about 1) the correlation between the organism and the conditions, and 2) the cost comparison among all possible ways of measuring the condition. Given those two data points (although 1 is likely to be uncertain) then all we need is simple math to determine the most effective/efficient way to keep track of the condition.
    In my view, we are best off if we expect species to represent themselves and not other things. I think that the literature supports this. It’s OK to pick species to monitor for whatever reason, in my view, and it is ultimately an investment question. Given a pot of funding, how much do you want to spend on watching what? What is important for you to learn about? Why?

    People can understand that prairie dogs are important because they build burrows that others use. People can understand that rare species are good to preserve. Not clear on why collaborators’ views, appropriately informed by experts, should not be the basis for the decision. At the end of the day, different interest groups will be arguing for different monitoring topics at different scales and there is not enough funding to do what everyone wants.. so.. how else should the decision be made?

    Now the above is all about monitoring. Once you mix viability and monitoring, it becomes more complex. It seems to me that viability ought to be about viability which is ultimately about populations of species. If you want to measure other environmental conditions, you can do that, but the appropriate regulatory structure, it seems to me, should govern that (air quality, water quality).


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