House Members Weigh In On Treatment of Recreation in Planning Rule

Is Forest Service planning becoming so complex that analysis paralysis is causing delays in decisions affecting outdoor recreation?  The importance of recreation and public access in National Forests continues to draw attention as the Forest Service attempts to move a proposed forest planning rule through the government clearance process.  Earlier this week, the planning team announced a delay in the release of a draft rule.  Throughout the rule development process, recreation interests have complained about apparent biases in draft planning material toward other multiple uses.   In some ways, the planning rule writing team hadn’t anticipated this response by initially failing to include outdoor recreation as an issue to be addressed during initial scoping.

Now Congress is entering the discussion.  In a letter sent to the Forest Service Chief last Thursday, 41 House members asked that a new planning rule “not impose new burdensome regulations or create new obstacles that could ultimately reduce recreational opportunities on these lands”.  The House members are led by Kevin McCarthy of California and Rob Bishop of Utah.  Most of the 41 are Republicans such as Denny Rehberg of Montana, mentioned earlier on this blog, but also include some Democrats like Dan Boren of Oklahoma.

The letter echoes earlier concerns about the vague generalities about ecological concepts on the planning rule website, and relates to discussions earlier on this blog about encumbering an already broken planning process.  “These are broad concepts and difficult to define.  Because stakeholders may be unable to agree on definitions, this could hamper individual forest supervisors’ ability to develop land management plans that include robust and diverse access and recreation provisions.  Other terms such as ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘stressors’ throughout the other concept drafts are also not adequately defined, which could overwhelm local land managers with the need to do exhaustive research, making the already lengthy and complicated planning process more complex and time consuming – and this impacts not just recreation proposals.  These inadequately defined terms could lead to endless litigation of the rule itself or individual USFS land management plans.  In essence, we could have analysis paralysis that denies the public access and the ability to recreate in their national forests.”

Generally, Forest Plans in the past have assumed that lands are suitable for any activity unless expressely listed as “not suitable.”  The Forest Service has also assumed that Forest Plans are generally aspirational and goal oriented and not immediately enforceable until additional site-specific NEPA documentation is completed and a travel order is issued.  However, a sixth circuit decision about the Huron-Manistee Forest Plan may indicate that courts may be changing this view, and that Forest Plans can and should restrict activities such as snowmobiling and hunting.

Forest planning under the Multiple-Use concept has never been easy, and the recreation debate is perhaps the new issue of the day.  As Martin Nie said on his earlier post on this blog: ”and so here we are, closing in on 2011, and we continue to ask about the purpose of planning, the adequacy of NFMA, and the meaning and future of multiple use.”

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