Be Careful What You Wish For

ImageA long time ago I wished for the opportunity to help draft planning rule language. This was important stuff that could influence the management of national forests for years to come. Unfortunately, I got my wish. That particular rule vanished somewhere in the change of administrations. I like to think that it wasn’t all time wasted and that it helped lay the groundwork for future efforts including the current one.

With the release of the FPEIS, the Forest Service seems very close to getting what it has wished for so long. Lately, I have wished for more meaningful discussion on the subject and I seem to have gotten my way here as well. Posters and commenters have been raising a number of interesting questions. Here’s my take on a few.

Didn’t the Forest Service want to replace the old viability standard with something that would be easier to defend in court?

Definitely. NFMA actually doesn’t say anything about viability. Instead, it talks about the “diversity of plant and animal communities.” The 1982 rule established the viability requirement and Management Indicator Species (MIS) as mechanisms for providing adequate diversity. Agency directives further spelled out how the designation of “sensitive species” would help accomplish this. Over time, what all these requirements mean, particularly procedures for monitoring of MIS and Sensitive species has evolved as litigation played out in various courts.

A lot of what evolved doesn’t make very good biological sense and doesn’t do very much to provide for the diversity of plant and animal communities. The ecosystem and fine-filter focused language of the new rule really does make more sense biologically.  The catch is, there’s no case history in the courts yet to help define what it will really take to implement it. A lot of forests have figured out what kind of monitoring for MIS and sensitive species they need to do to be defensible in court.  Some of it may be a waste of time and money but at least it’s a devil they know pretty well. They may not get to know the devil of the new rule until a lot of terminology and language gets better defined by the courts.

Don’t the forests in the East cut more timber than those in the West?

Yup. I haven’t researched the most recent numbers, but a couple of years ago, the Southern Region (R8) harvested more volume than any other Forest Service region.  The national forests in Mississippi and the Ouachita in Arkansas led the pack nationally. Most of this harvest has been thinnings and almost all of it is part of projects designed to restore desired ecological conditions.

Isn’t “restoration” hard to define?

It can be, that’s why the answer to the next question is so important.

Why is collaboration necessary?

The reason that national forests in the South cut so much timber and restore some many acres of wildlife habitat (ultimately “ensuring” viable populations) with so few lawsuits is due to hard work up front to define desired ecological conditions in a collaborative fashion with stakeholders. When projects are viewed as necessary to restore forests to conditions that a large group of people want to see, the need to litigate those projects largely vanishes.

Aren’t there a lot of good reasons for a new rule?

Sure. It’s been a long time since the passage of NFMA. Scientific thought and management approaches have evolved so it makes sense to incorporate this knowledge into a new rule. Is a new rule necessary to write good forest plans and implement projects that provide for the diversity of plant and animal communities? Lots of good examples indicate otherwise.  Will implementing a new rule be easy or straightforward? Certainly not. Will it give us something to talk about? I hope so. Will the Forest Service come to regret getting what it wished for?  Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Be Careful What You Wish For”

  1. I like everything you are saying here, Jim. Instead of solving the problems in the West, sometimes it seems that it is the controversy that is being “protected”. I LIKE the C-words of consensus and compromise, and the loblolly plantations of the South present no controversy against managing them. Just for curiosity, what are the plans for those sites, after the loblolly reaches the end of its life cycle? Will shortleaf pines regain their former places in the southern forests?What will replace the mature plantations? Of course, where appropriate, the longleaf pines are gaining ground, as a progressive idea whose time has come.

  2. Within its range (e.g. the Ouachita Mountains in AR) shortleaf has been planted and naturaly regenerated for some time. What’s changed is the rotation age which is much longer on national forests than on commercial lands where a 28 year pulpwood cycle is not uncommon.There is some experimenting with un-even aged management, but eventually the prescription will likely be clear-cutting when the stands start falling apart. There are efforts in places like South Carolina to restore the shortleaf bluestem ecosystem where loblolly had been planted in the past and longleaf is not in range.


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