Fixing the Rule: An Adaptive Governance Roadmap

If adaptive governance, i.e. adaptive management applied to public lands, might help move beyond ongoing forest wars, how might the Draft NFMA Rule (pdf) be improved toward adaptive governance? This post outlines my ideas for improving the rule. Ultimately, I’d like to see us vet this proposal when more fully developed, against the Forest Service’s Draft Planning Rule, Andy Stahl’s KISS Rule, and any other proposals that may be floating about. But before I put pen to paper, I’d like to get feedback on my ideas. Here is how I propose to “fix” the rule:

Background Notions

  • No matter what NFMA rule is put in play, it needs to be written by lawyers. Court challenges will not cease no matter what rule is in force.
  • I like the idea of adaptive governance, but also believe that adaptive management as applied to public problems is the same thing. I do not have a strong preference for which words, “adaptive governance” or “adaptive management” are used to described the process. I will use “adaptive management” here. There are many pathways that might be taken to adopt an adaptive governance approach to management. It may be that embedding adaptive governance into the NFMA rule is not the best path forward. I’m willing to listen to other possible pathways, and even alternatives to any adaptive governance pathway. But I still believe that the Draft Planning rule fails as adaptive management, and can not provide a useful path forward.

Reframing/Rewriting the NFMA Rule

  • Rewrite the “Purpose and Applicability” (219.1) (and also the “Summary” and “Overview” in the Federal Register run-up to the rule) to include reasons for a move away from narrowly framed forest planning and toward broader public engagement to address forest management’s wicked problems. Include a discussion of decision containers [See, this note] and how the public needs to help natural resource managers frame discussions/resolutions, including scope and scale. Allow wicked problem discussions/resolutions to well-up to appropriately sized containers so that people don’t have to grapple with policy at local scales, where such does not makes sense. Include “all lands” decision-making where and when appropriate, allowing for responsible officials to include but not be limited to Forest Service officials.
  • Define adaptive management, then do a near “global replace” of “planning” with “adaptive management.” A beginning point for a definition of adaptive management might be:

    [Adaptive Management]: linking a broad range of actors at multiple scales to deal with the interrelated dynamics of resources and ecosystems, management systems and social systems, as well as uncertainty, unpredictability, and surprise. Adaptive governance focuses on experimentation and learning, and it brings together research on institutions and organizations for collaboration, collective action, and conflict resolution in relation to natural resource and ecosystem management. The essential role of individuals needs to be recognized in this context (e.g., leadership, trust building, vision, and meaning); their social relations (e.g., actor groups, knowledge systems, social memory) and social networks serve as the web that tie together the adaptive governance system. It has cross-level and cross-scale activities and includes governmental policies that frame creativity.

    From “Adaptive Governance of Social-Ecological Systems”, Carl Folke, Thomas Hahn, Per Olsson, and Jon Norberg, Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 2005. 30:441-473 (pdf)

  • Keep “forest plan,” but define as suggested by the Clinton era Committee of Scientists: “A loose-leaf notebook that contains all of the policy directions, strategies, and implementation proposals from decisions that have been made at all levels of the planning process. It is the official repository of decisions big and small that have been made and reviewed in the strategic and landscape-level planning processes.”
  • Keep the tie to the FS Strategic Plan, but add more responsibility at the Chief’s office to make sure that adaptive management is real—a cultural change, more than just words—and something that “the Forest Service does”, not something delegated to a single staff group like “planning” or “ecosystem management.” In short, position most responsibility for RPA/NFMA to the Chief and/or Secretary of Agriculture.
  • Replace “three levels of planning” (219.2) with “multiple levels of adaptive management assessment, monitoring, and decision-making.” Make sure that “all lands” assessment, monitoring, and decision-making, done in concert with appropriate collaborators is the logical choice when such makes sense. [See, Why Three Planning Levels?]
  • Keep the idea of “standards and guidelines” (219.7) but make the development and revision of both “situational” at appropriate scope and scale. The idea is that most would be developed at levels other than a “national forest.” Still, forest supervisors would be charged to show how such standards apply to decisions they make. Similarly for assessment and monitoring information, as well as for policy decisions and legal authorities.
  • Add the idea of a “forest niche,” that would be reviewed publicly at, say, five-year intervals. [See, A Forest Service for the 21st Century Who Are We? to better understand niche idea for the Forest Service as a whole.]
  • Abandon the idea of “desired conditions,” instead allow for simple “scenario planning” that would embrace the idea of emergent unfolding future as opposed to managing toward a desired future. Note that this idea interfaces with the idea of “niches” above and does not preclude working toward betterment. It just moves the “betterment” debate into the policy arena and away form the land planning arena. [See: Whose Desire? What Future? Why?]
  • For specific requirements of NFMA law, craft wording to require the WO (and it’s bevy of legal counselors) to find means to comply with said requirements as expeditiously as possible at scale and scope as close to “national” as possible. For example, the requirement for an Allowable Sale Quantity might be set nationally at zero, with provision that all timber volume flowing from the national forests be determined via adaptive management and in the context of, say “ecosystem stewardship contracting,” or equivalent internal process.


I still intend to work up a complete rewrite of what I’ll call a “Draft NFMA Rule” soon. But I would like your feedback on these ideas now.

I have been chatting with a friend about the “Pre-Decisional Administrative Review Process” (219.50-59). We believe that if collaboration were much improved and allowed for multi-scale adaptive governance, the whole idea of “pre-decisional review” makes no sense, and perchance neither does any “appeal process.”

Finally, I may probably won’t include language relative to the “species diversity” provisions from NFMA. That will no doubt be the most fought-over part of the rule. Still, I maintain that the adaptive management fight is equally important. In my framing, species diversity is one of the items that the WO and its bevy of legal counselors ought to deal with. In all such “dealing” I believe that such policy review/policy revision ought to begin early, even perchance predating the adoption of a NFMA rule. Why the Forest Service runs so much of its policy development through “NFMA forest planning” remains a mystery to me.

11 thoughts on “Fixing the Rule: An Adaptive Governance Roadmap”

  1. I like some of what you have suggested, but I sometimes don’t like the way you have presented it. I don’t know what a “decision container” is, and I don’t know what a “forest niche” is. I don’t like the words “frame”, “scope”, and “scale” in discussions about forest planning, though I can’t really say why. I guess my preference is that all writing should be as free of jargon as possible.

    Selling adaptive management is tricky. Calling for adaptive management can be seen as admission of ignorance/incompetence, or as a way to justify almost anything. I think it can be done, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m looking forward to reading your proposal.

    • Thanks. The problem with blogs is that you area trying at once to maintain a conversation, yet to also push the conversation along. You can’t do both effectively because some readers haven’t followed — else never adequately digested — earlier materials. I need to link the “decision container” notion to earlier posts, e.g. here and maybe change the words. The idea I’m trying to push is that the Forest Service has inappropriately attempted to “contain decisions” into boxes (or containers) named “project,” “forest,” and “national” — i.e. three levels. This has been a disaster, the disaster that Sally Fairfax warned of in her Science Article long ago titled A Disaster in the Environmental Movement, as daylighted here. Wicked problems can’t be “tamed” in this way.

      When I read through the recent Lawsuit filed in the wake of the Nevada Angora fire, that I daylighted here, I thought that one big problem that is inappropriately thrown into the laps of judges is that there has been no good way to contain the discussion/deliberation/policy-making surrounding carbon sequestration and other issues surrounding fire management.

      The words “scope” and “scale” are NEPA terms and need better explanation and use. Still, I believe them to be very important concepts that have been abused as agencies have failed to use “tiering” in their NEPA approaches, in part because of trying to force-fit decisions into inappropriate containers.

      So I need to probably rewrite yesterday’s post to fix what you rightfully see as broken even before I try to rewrite the “rule.”

  2. I should clarify the idea of “decision containers.” This idea derives from the work of James March and friends and labeled a A Garbage Can Theory of Organizational Choice (pdf).

    In a good book review (pdf) of March’s A Primer on Decision Making, Kathy Yu highlights this from March:

    “in an environment characterized by complex interactions among actors, solutions, problems, and choice opportunities, the simplest source of order is that of time,” meaning that activities, events that occur close to each other seem to be correlated and that decisions happen they mesh together with the right set of actors or decision makers. March says, “in important ways, decision processes build on these temporal categories, combining people, problems, and solutions in terms of their simultaneity” (March, 198)

    A simple explanation of “garbage can decision making” is to think of setting up garbage cans (metaphorically) across the landscape and see who show up when and where to attempt to solve problems. That is actors, issues, and arenas simultaneously attract one to another in attempts to effect problem resolution, however temporary.

    Yu goes on to highlight what will yet prove to be a big test for adaptive governance—whether or not issues and interests can be aligned at appropriate scales (time and space), and at appropriate scope (how many sets of issues are intertwined in any decision space) or whether things of immediate (or local) concern will always drive out things that are important but not urgent, or important but not locally important. Yu again quotes from March:

    March’s discussion about how people tend to decide and attend to “local options and local preferences” while ignoring distant ones “is a major problem in assuring decision intelligence” and also reminds me of our discussion in class about the triggering mechanisms of agenda setting (March, 14). Problems that are close in proximity get more public attention and get on the agenda. Decision makers tend to participate in a choice that is already closer to a final decision rather than a choice that is far from its decision. This is problematic because if everyone is given a choice to choose which problem to attend, then no one will ever attend and solve the difficult problems.

  3. How will this deal with the lack of consensus on forest conditions and assessments? One side says everything is fine and that 22 million acres of dead trees are not much of a worry. The other side wants to be able to mitigate the mortality and impacts through management. Of course, many site-specific solutions lie somewhere in between but, how can we allow appropriate solutions that are blocked by “protections” demanded by eco groups?

    Your ideas seem very ambitious Dave, but I doubt America is progressive enough to accept such a program, yet.

    • How will this deal with the lack of consensus on forest conditions and assessments? … many site-specific solutions lie somewhere in between [polarized interest group positions], how can we allow appropriate solutions that are blocked by “protections” demanded by eco groups?

      This problem is real, and is in fact the opposite of the one I’ve highlighted by suggesting that there might be a problem with Adaptive Governance and “devolution.”

      My feeling is that local interest groups and governmental entities can organize to combine with others with similar interests to deal with issues that well-up and are dealt with in higher-order decision containers. It might not work, but I think it can. Right now I’m angry that the Forest Service and others continue to over-burden the court system in large part because of either “frame blindness” or “frame manipulation” as per what I’ve called The Frame Game and The Blame Game.

      And yes, these notions are very progressive and ambitious, therefore outside the comfort zone of many. So they likely will not be acted upon this time around as they have not been acted upon in earlier rounds of these policy debates. So be it. We ALL need a change. If not this, then what?

  4. Dave-
    (1) your discussion of decision containers (I think Dialogos also uses that term, so it was fairly familiar) reminds me of our meeting on greenhouse gas NEPA with CEQ and the other agencies a few weeks back. Perhaps the decision containers for 21st Century problems don’t currently exist.

    Given the complex nature of energy choices- coal, oil and gas, biomass, solar, wind ALL of which may be permitted on federal lands- and all of which have different environmental and social pros and cons- one question the agencies had is “why should the people permitting the powerline have to consider alternatives that imply that the decision is made at the powerline level?” in other words, assuming that there is national energy policy that we will use coal, oil and natural gas plus encourage renewables, do we have to re-analyze the impact of those choices on carbon at each phase? Shouldn’t there be an “energy policy programmatic with carbon impacts included” that all agencies can tier to? Ahhh. but who would do it? I recommend DOE.

    Another is permitting a the limited expansion of a small reservoir. Should a ranger district where the reservoir is located do a basin wide analysis of water needs and whether they would need the expansion if everyone installed low-flow toilets? So if we had basin-wide water use programmatics – again, who would do them? I suggest EPA granting funding to the States.

    So Dave, I am perhaps seeing that part of our problem with appropriate decision containers is that they don’t currently exist- especially for 21st century problems. Water and energy are not “Forest Service”, WAPA, BOR, EPA problems nor State problems.

    2. From where I sit, the Forest Service is not responsible for overburdening the court system. I would be happy if we never got litigated. As you know, I don’t think that federal judges interpreting laws is the best decision container for natural resource decisions. So I am curious as to why you mentioned the FS first for overburdening the court system. In my view we are not burdening it enough, with, say, trespass cases and other kinds of proactive cases.

    3. I agree with all your bullet points. I feel very strongly positive toward 1, 5, 6 and 7, and as such do not think they are overly ambitious or progressive. I think the only difficulty is depicting what an adaptive management framework would look like. I think it should have some EMS-like attributes.

    4. I am strongly of the loose-leaf notebook persuasion, but John tells me that NFMA says that the plans are supposed to be comprehensive. ”

    (f) Plans developed in accordance with this section shall-
    “(1) form one integrated plan for each unit of the National Forest System, incorporating in one document or one set of documents, available to the public at convenient locations, all of the features required by this section;

    I think some people like that because if it is incorporated into a plan then they have legal hooks (in fact, folks have told me that’s why broader scale decisions on species, like the grizzly bear, need forest plan amendments, so that regulatory agencies are assured we will do things due to legal hooks.) This now seems like the amendment is not protective because the decision got thrown out in court, but conceivably forests are doing the same protective things without the amendment, as all the agencies agreed it’s the right thing to do for the bear. Couldn’t we all conceive of a “functional federal family” where one agency could be sure another agency would do what it said it was going to do without involving the courts? LIKE talking to each other, putting in public checks and reviews, and working it out, Dept to Dept with public involvement? I know that this is another potentially way too progressive idea…

    In reality there are many plans, as Andy has pointed out, including travel management and oil and gas leasing, and some of our forest plans are so old the concept of “comprehensive” is not in touch with reality. It’s hard, even just conceptually, in this rapidly changing environment, to think of a document published once every 15 years (if we’re lucky and funded) as “comprehensive” for longer than a year or two. Or at least that’s how it looks in the land of the Mountain Pine Beetle.

  5. Sharon poses some important questions:

    2. From where I sit, the Forest Service is not responsible for overburdening the court system. I would be happy if we never got litigated. As you know, I don’t think that federal judges interpreting laws is the best decision container for natural resource decisions. So I am curious as to why you mentioned the FS first for overburdening the court system. [emphasis added]

    My “evidence” is anecdotal, and likely biased. For about twenty years I have lunched and hunted ducks, sometimes fished, with OGC attorneys. I still manage a lunch about once a week, even in retirement. That is where I get my idea of “overburdening the courts system.” I suspect, and vaguely remember folks looking into data, that one could just look at the court cases segregated by “agency” to see what percent of court cases are brought against the Forest Service relative to other federal agencies. And I suspect that one could find law review articles that make a similar case. But I’m retired, and likely won’t bother to dig up the data. Anybody else what to respond to this?

    4. I am strongly of the loose-leaf notebook persuasion, but John tells me that NFMA says that the plans are supposed to be comprehensive. ”

    I can’t imagine a more comprehensive “forest plan” than the “loose-leaf plan” described by the Clinton-era committee of scientists. That is:“[All] policy directions, strategies, and implementation proposals from decisions that have been made at all levels of the planning process. [The] official repository of decisions big and small that have been made and reviewed in the strategic and landscape-level planning processes.”. Remember that the “loose-leaf” also includes all budget and project (or activity) decisions. And, of course, all this needs to be on the internet.

    • Interesting.. it seems like the litigating parties and the agency would share some responsibility. I remember some serious decisions that APHIS made with EAs because no one was litigating them. I asked some of the concerned environmental groups why they didn’t litigate (since I was on loan from the FS) and they just didn’t seem interested. (Note: those were different groups than ones we deal with in the FS).

      The best comparison would be with BLM, and then I’d be curious as to what kinds of projects.

      It has always been mysterious to me, too, why people “have to” put all those decisions in forest plans. I think with regulatory agencies it’s the legal enforceability. Is that the only reason?

  6. The simple Webster’s definition of a “plan” is “a strategy to reach a goal.” The NFMA and RPA mandate that the Forest Service have a plan for each National Forest, or in other words a strategy to reach a goal for each Forest, and a rule for developing those plans. Thirty-five years have taught us several things, including that there is no public consensus on either the goals for National Forests or the strategies for achieving them, and a there is a lack of public trust in the Forest Service to unilaterally define either. Perhaps most importantly, the last 35 years have taught us that the arbitrary geopolitical configurations of National Forests almost never provide the right scale for looking at ecosystems.
    I think that the idea of having plans for National Forests is basicaclly a good one, we should all have goals and strategies for achieving them. While the constructs for planning set forth in the RPA and NFMA are a bit archaic, I don’t think they are unworkable. However, the constructs for planning set forth in the various iterations of the Forest Service planning rule appear to be nothing more than slight variations on a failed model. It does seem a fresh start is needed.
    But before getting into what a planning rule might look like, I would start with a couple of very fundamental questions. How do we define the goals for the National Forests, and what is the range of strategies for getting there? I’m not talking about identifying the goals and strategies at this stage, but how they are going going to be framed.
    For example, I think there is generally some consensus that we want National Forests to be in an acceptable ecological condition. How do we define acceptabe ecological condition? Prior attempts have been to define this in terms of sufficiency of habitat to support viable wildlife populations, and “desired” or “properly functioning” ecological conditions. Is this to be how Forests will frame their goals and, if so, in what terms are these ecological goals to be defined?
    Next, what are the strategies available to reach these goals? Should our primary strategies be to attempt to manipulate ecosystems into some desired condition, or is our primary strateegy to control the human activities that take place on National Forests to insure that those activities do not unacceptabely disrupt ecosystems? Which is more realistic? Which is feasible? Which do we actually control? Which is most likely to move us toward the goals we identify?
    Finally, there is a recognized need for assessment. monitoring, and strategizing at scales defined by other than arbitrary geopolitical National Forest boundaries. Is this part of the exercise of developing a plan for each National Forest as mandated by NFMA and RPA, or is this something that happens outside of the defined “planning process” governed by the planning rule? Surely this exercise is important to development of a plan for a National Forest, but should it be rigidly constrained by a planning rule?
    One would like to think that form follows function. In the various attempts to develop and revise the National Forest planning rule, it appears too much thought has been directed at form, before adequate consideration has been given to function. What is it the Forest Service actually does that has the most potential to affect the National Forests, and how can plans inform and serve those actions to best assure that the public’s goals for its Nationals Forests are realized?

    • I like the questions you are asking, UTspectator. If stakeholders were sincere in efforts to improve forest management, we would need to go indepth on your issues. Sadly, stakeholders refuse to even agree upon assessments of the poor condition of our forests. If we cannot agree upon assessments, we’ll never agree upon plans and rules. Some litigants will only agree upon “letting nature take its course”, limiting or eliminating projects and plans they don’t like. Those litigants embrace wildfires and forest mortality, and will sue to get their way.

      Also, I find it curious that the new Rule doesn’t address the highly-contentious salvage issues, regardless of how intimately related it is to “climate change” and restoration. I tend to think that the Forest Service simply doesn’t want such issues clogging up the process to get to a new Planning Rule.


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