The myth of “coordination”

In recent years this the idea of “coordination” has been sold to local governments as a legal tool to make federal land managers do what the locals want with national forest plans.  It’s a myth that periodically needs busting.  This article describing the response of the Malheur National Forest and a document from the Northern Region provides a pretty good summary of the history and reality.

“Based on recent local government resolutions or ordinances and letters to some national forests, it appears that some local government officials believe the (National Forest Management Act) coordination requirement means the Forest Service must incorporate specific provisions of county ordinances into forest plans or that the Forest Service must obtain local government approval before making planning decisions,” Hagengruber said.

“This position overstates the NFMA obligation of the Forest Service,” he continued. “The statute does not specify what actions are required to coordinate Forest Service planning with local government planning, and it does not in any way subordinate federal authority to counties.”

“Rather,” he continued, “the Forest Service must consider the objectives of state and local governments and Indian tribes as expressed in their plans and policies, assess the interrelated impacts of these plans and policies, and determine how the forest plan should deal with the impacts identified.”

12 thoughts on “The myth of “coordination””

  1. The USFS must be the decisionmaker. It might have to coordinate or collaborate, and that’s fine, but it has an obligation and responsibility to make decisions on land management, within the legal railings, of course. Sometimes the best you can do, as a decisionmaker, is be satisfied that if no one is happy, then you’re probably in the ballpark.

  2. The quote Jon selected is correct I think.

    Still, I wish to clarify: Coordination is a real thing. It is not a myth.

    By statute “Coordination” applies only to federal agencies such as USFWS and EPA.

    I’m unsure when, but years ago the USFS added sections to the planning regs that attempted to increase the involvement of local planning jurisdictions.

    Used correctly this planning guidance can benefit the USFS and other stakeholders by encouraging local counties, water districts, state wildlife agencies etc to share information early in the planning process.

    Unwisely, some counties attempted to assert that this planning guidance gave them similar standing as a federal agency’s “coordination.”

    And some unscrupulous advocates were all too eager to market their services based on this flawed assumption.

    Too bad. IMO this mistaken approach was lost opportunity. Oregon’s counties could have used the planning process to incorporate state and county info into the planning process.

    Thinking back… I think Utah may have had the right approach. Utah’s office of planning and budget signed MOU’s with the Fishlake and Dixie NF’s that were helpful to USFS planners.

    Maybe I’m not remembering that right… Long time ago…

  3. I agree with Brian that coordination is not a myth.. has anyone every put together these pieces? It sounds as if the requirements are that the opinions of governments must be considered and documented, even when they choose not to participate. I found this to be a fairly weird case in many respects. Here’s the link from 2011

    Apparently, the State’s failure to participate was not documented adequately, which led to a settlement in which the State’s views were given higher priority in the process.

    “And Governor Brown said The Court ordered the parties to file briefs describing their views of what process should be followed in compliance with her decision. December 22, 2010, the California Attorney General, and Governor elect, Edmund G. Brown Jr. announced a settlement through which the Forest Service is required to “reconsider its plans regarding wilderness lands in four national forests.”

    Brown said: “With this settlement, the state of California will now play an active role along with the Forest Service in determining which areas of Southern California forests will be preserved as wilderness.”

    It sounds like, in the case of this settlement, the State at least thought it was helping determine outcomes.

    And in Jon’s quote above “The statute does not specify what actions are required to coordinate Forest Service planning with local government planning, ” Still, a judge decided that the FS was not adequately coordinating in the case above. Unless “local governments” are different from states.

    Brian- signing an MOU sounds like the state agencies were cooperating agencies under NEPA, which does let you exchange information. FLPMA has coordinating agencies so there are several write ups on coordinating vs. cooperating that they and NACO have produced. NACO
    BLM on cooperating agencies

    Historical aside.. at one time when I worked in NEPA in D.C., CEQ asked all agencies for stats on cooperating agencies. Their feeling at the time was that more was better. Wyoming had apparently asked for cooperating agency status on 2001 Roadless and was refused (or not answered), but I think that this was earlier than the “cooperating is good” idea.

  4. Regarding MOUs.
    The consistency requirement under FLPMA is totally different from the coordination provision under NEPA and/or the USFS planning directives.

    And I would not say any planning MOU could convey the type of standing and access to pre-decisional data that NEPA’s coordination gives to the Federal agencies.

    There are several regular posters who know more than I do… but my understanding is that Utah’s MOUs, (both State and County and USFS and BLM) were pretty similar.

    Each MOU specified the respective roles and responsibilities of the signatories within the planning process. Pretty straightforward.

    At least one county I worked with decided not to pursue a MOU simply because they lacked the resources to make a major multi-year commitment. Indeed, NGOs such as Trust For Public Land and even The Wilderness Society have more resources to leverage within a planning process than most counties.

    I strongly encouraged all counties I worked with to at least seriously consider this approach. Way better than what I consider the snake oil some groups were pushing.

  5. This post specifically addresses language in NFMA (16 USC §1604(a)) and how it has been misused:
    “(a) Development, maintenance, and revision by Secretary as part of program; coordination
    As a part of the Program provided for by section 1602 of this title, the Secretary shall develop, maintain, and, as appropriate, revise land and resource management plans for units of the National Forest System, COORDINATED with the land and resource management planning processes of State and local governments and other Federal agencies.”

    I discussed this earlier here:

    My read of the California case is that the FS failed this very low bar in NFMA because they did nothing at all. Interesting that you referred to the interpretation by Fred Kelly Grant, which this current article also cites as one that has been found invalid.

    There is a much lengthier legal history of “cooperating agencies” under NEPA. And then there’s “collaboration,” which I don’t believe has any legal basis at the forest plan level, but does appear in HFRA requirements for projects.

  6. However, I was going by a quote from the court decision itself though I did quote Grant.

    “The results of the Forest Service’s review of state input should have been displayed in the FEIS, even if part of the discussion would have consisted of noting that the State had not fully engaged in the process established by the 2005 State Petitions Rule, the lawful process at the time.The failure to provide any discussion of input from the State, or at least of the State’s failure to fully engage in the planning process, was a violation of the NFMA. This is more than a merely technical violation, as it significantly inhibits the public’s ability to understand the competing priorities of the Forest Service and the State.”

    I didn’t get the impression from this that the Forest Service had not asked the State for input on the plans? But rather they had not documented it. Apparently the old link to the case is broken so I can’t check.

    If I were Queen of Federal Lands, I would work to get Congress to harmonize these requirements between FLPMA and NFMA.. it seems like it’s needlessly confusing and possibly alienating due to easy misunderstandings. Working with local governments and states is important.. let’s figure out one approach that is easily understood by local and state governments and the public and implement it systematically, develop joint regulations and so forth. IMHO.

  7. From the court’s perspective, if they didn’t document it, it didn’t happen. This is something the Forest Service always taught in its NEPA training. (Which is why the FSEEE case is unusual –

    I don’t think this rises to a level of needing Congressional involvement. I agree with Brian that harmonizing how these requirements and concepts apply to a forest planning process could be undertaken by a Queen of a National Forest, and memorialized in a MOU.

  8. Just my opinion here. And it might not be that relevant to Jon and Sharon’s points.

    But we can’t harmonize FLPMA and NFMA. USFS lands are Reservations, in the context of having been Reserved. Different altogether from BLM.

    If I bring up NEPA reform, someone will hit me over the head with a stick, right?

  9. Sure agree with Jim Furnish on that overworked excuse for “decision-EEmaking.” Making significant national forest decisions is one hundred percent assured to make someone unhappy. Too many widgets, parts and people intertwined here to expect perfection or total agreement.

  10. My point is that an appropriate objective of effective collaboration is to make as many people as possible satisfied. No doubt, some will be left dissatisfied/unhappy, but one should strive to minimize that outcome. Mutually acceptable outcomes are desirable, achievable and optimal.


Leave a Comment