One of my hopes for the new planning rule was that it would require the writing of meaningful forest plans. Here is what I wrote as part of last year’s science panel (Nie NFS planning rule science panel statement):
There is little value in writing expensive, time-consuming plans if such plans make no decisions and have no vision.
Legally-binding and enforceable standards and guidelines should be included in the new planning rule. NFMA was designed to reign in agency discretion by providing clearer standards and enforceable checks on the USFS. Meeting such standards has proven difficult for the agency at times. But the solution is not the removal of such standards, but rather to figure out ways to more effectively and efficiently meet them.
While inherently difficult, especially at the front-end, setting standards will facilitate adaptive management and collaborative decision making over the long run. Regarding the former, standards help define the purpose and boundaries of the process. After all, adaptive management is a means to an end, and that end needs to be clearly articulated. Without standards, adaptive management is too susceptible to political exploitation and the dodging of tough political choices. As for collaboration, standards provide the necessary direction, legal sideboards, and additional certainty to those engaged in the process.
This recommendation was precipitated by the vacuous nature of the 2005/2008 planning regulations that were essentially non-decision making documents.
So on this score, what should we make of the proposed regulations? I think they are a more serious effort by the USFS to appropriately balance the need for planning adaptability with political accountability.
The regulations are heavy on things the agency must consider when writing and amending forest plans. So I don’t think the rule will streamline or expedite the planning process. But the draft regulations require (with some wiggle room provided) plans to include some important things, like standards (AMEN! with explanation here and here), guidelines, the suitability of areas, and to situate the national forests within their larger context and landscape, among others. Under this rule, forest plans would actually mean something and include some important decisions.
The “Musts and Shalls:” Here are some things the draft regulations require (not exhaustive nor includes preexisting MUSYA/NFMA requirements):
*The responsible official shall engage the public—including Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations, other Federal agencies.
*One or more assessments must be conducted for the development of a new plan or for a plan revision
*The responsible official shall develop a unit monitoring program for the plan area,
*The regional forester shall develop a broader-scale monitoring strategy for unit monitoring questions that can best be answered at a geographic scale broader than one unit.
*Each regional forester shall ensure that the broader-scale monitoring strategy is within the financial and technical capabilities of the region and complements other ongoing monitoring efforts.
*The responsible official shall conduct a biennial evaluation of new information gathered through the unit monitoring program and relevant information from the broader-scale strategy, and shall issue a written report of the evaluation and make it available to the public
*While all plans must contain the required five plan components (desired conditions, objectives, standards, guidelines, suitability of areas, and may contain goals), not every issue or resource plan would require all five plan components.
*All plan amendments must comply with Forest Service NEPA procedures. The proposed rule provides that appropriate NEPA documentation for an amendment could be an EIS, an environmental assessment (EA), or a categorical exclusion (CE) depending upon the scope and scale of the amendment and its likely effects. (more on this later)
*This section would provide that projects and activities authorized after approval of a plan, plan revision, or plan amendment developed pursuant to this rule must be consistent with plan components as set forth in this section.
*The proposed rule would allow for this to occur, and in § 219.7, would require identification of priority watersheds for restoration
*The proposed rule would require the responsible official to document how the best available scientific information was taken into account in the assessment report, the plan decision document, and the monitoring evaluation reports.
*Finally, plan components would be required to protect, maintain, and restore clean, abundant water supplies (both surface and groundwater sources), and soils, and productivity recognizing their importance as fundamental ecosystem resources and services. (& as stated elsewhere “The proposed rule would require that plans include plan components to maintain, protect, and restore public water supplies, groundwater, sole source aquifers, and source water protection areas where they occur on NFS lands.”)
*The proposed rule would highlight the importance of maintaining, protecting, or restoring riparian areas and the values such areas provide by requiring that plans include plan components to guide management with riparian areas. The proposed rule also requires that plans establish a default width within which those plan components apply.
Not included on my list is the diversity provision, as that deserves a separate post.
Martin Nie, University of Montana