The Problem of Collaborative Consistency and Forest Service Moves

Orosco Ridge
Lourenço Marques posted the below as a comment here. I think it’s worth discussing because it was also a topic at the Environmental Analysis and Decisionmaking Roundtables, as I recall. I did not read the notes from all the regional meetings, but I do remember this coming up at some of them based on the notes. Before I retired, it also came up in meetings with partner groups. They’d have a meeting and ask me to speak about the NEPA process from the Forest Service side. One of their concerns was what might be called the problem of collaborative consistency. I’m highlighting this in a post to reassure the mountain biking community that they are not alone, and this has been noticed as a problem with collaborative efforts (probably of all kinds) for some time. If I remember correctly, Susan Jane Brown commented that the Planning Rule FACA Committee had previously pointed out some potential solutions to the problem (checklist before staff changes?).

Here’s what Lourenço commented:

From the perspective of an ordinary taxpayer, this is the kind of thing I see. It’s from the September 6, 2019 issue of the San Diego Reader.

“After nearly three years of planning, paying and preparing to build a trail on Orosco Ridge, the San Diego Mountain Biking Association was stunned to learn their work with the U.S. Forest Service was cast aside via a letter posted on social media announcing the project’s suspension.

“ ‘We started this because they came to us and said this trail would be one of the (Palomar) district’s top three priority projects,’ says Susie Murphy, executive director of the mountain biking group. ‘We raised $70,000 and spent $50,000 of it, and now they’re saying they don’t have the staff time or budget.’

“The letter – followed by a more detailed explanation – came after the forest service’s National Environmental Policy Act evaluation turned up comments that raised questions about how appropriate the plan was, says Olivia Walker, the local Forest Service public affairs officer.

. . . .

“Both Murphy and Walker say that a staffing change in the Palomar District played a big role. The project’s Forest Service champion moved to another district, and most of the institutional knowledge and support went with him. The letter on social media came from his successor.

. . . .

“Once they were invited in the fall of 2016, the mountain biking association really liked the idea and developed a plan for 20 miles of trail. They hoped to eventually build 80 miles of trail – and that alarmed some people who read the NEPA documents.

“Of the 607 comment letters the forest service received, . . . 55 raised issues including questions about environmental issues, the clustering of trails and the condition of the roads, the impact of increased parking and human activity and the propriety of the relationship between the forest service and the association.”

Here’s the link to the newspaper story. I know absolutely nothing about this situation but it raises some possibilities that I’ve seen in other areas.

1. Personalities/philosophical differences about the nature of the project among new and old employees (see retirees Sharon, Jim Furnish, Tony Erba, Jon Haber for a tiny sample of employee philosophical diversity)
2. Intra-district personnel drama of some kind we wouldn’t want to try to imagine
3. Changes in appreciation of the role of partners (in our stuff, changing our own priorities, etc.)
3. Phone call from political who doesn’t want project near her/his or friends’ house
4. General feeling that not proposing something is easier than proposing and taking all the flack (there’s actually a “NEPA for the 21st Century” research paper on this that I will try to find)
5. Interactions among the above

Solutions were proposed at the EADM meetings. I’ll try to dig up some of them. Note that not letting employees move/retire may not be a legal/viable option.

Readers are welcome to weigh in with their own experiences/ideas and suggestions.

18 thoughts on “The Problem of Collaborative Consistency and Forest Service Moves”

  1. And people wonder why there has been such proliferation of “illegal” user-created mountain bike trails on public lands…

    The mountain bike community is far from alone on this. The motorized community has been dealing with crap like this for decades. Dirt bike clubs and advocacy groups work with the Forest Service for years securing grants, planning, and paying for a system of single-track motorized trails to be built, only to have the whole system taken away and declared non-motorized in the next travel planning. Full-size 4×4 trails that have been adopted by Jeep clubs and carefully maintained by them for years are inexplicably closed and decommissioned with no reason given and no consultation with those clubs.

    At least mountain bikers occasionally get new trails built for them. I was talking to some guys this weekend who have been involved in land-use advocacy for a long time, and they mentioned that no new full-size 4×4 trails have been built on National Forest land in Colorado in living memory, while more and more trails are closed every year.

    For disfavored user groups like motorized users and mountain bikers, the only constant when dealing with the Forest Service is that you’re going to get screwed one way or another.

    • Correction: There has been a proliferation of ILLEGAL user-created mountain bike trails on public lands.

      Putting “illegal” in quotes makes it seem like it’s not an ILLEGAL activity on America’s public lands…which is exactly what it is.

      Also, for whatever it’s worth, all throughout the country the U.S. Forest Service has a history of declaring ILLEGAL user-created mountain bike trails and motorized trails and roads LEGAL through various travel planning and forest planning processes. We’re seeing a lot of that in Montana, the Flathead National Forest being one example.

      Rewording clearly illegal behavior or activities on our public lands seems like a bad idea in general.

    • Patrick, I confess I’m pretty ignorant about travel planning as practiced, but I thought that was the point of the Travel Management Rule that each forest would have a Travel Management Plan and people would be involved in what was closed and built?

      Also, I bet there are places where mountain bikers feel heard and are treated well. I wonder what the factors are that lead to that?

      This seems to be a successful one:

      Work begins this year, pending approval from the United States Forest Service (USFS). A 15-mile connector trail, the first phase of the Velomont Trail, would leave Pittsfield to travel through the Green Mountain National Forest, pass a hut site at Chittenden Brook Campground, and arrive at the Rochester Ranger Station. The Forest Service was accepting public comments on this proposal through July 5.

      “I would say the Velomont Trail is in keeping with the character of Vermont,” says Holly Knox, a recreation program manager with the Green Mountain National Forest. “We have multiple long-distance opportunities across the state, and that provides a way to connect people to state and federal public lands.”

      • It is in theory. In practice there is very little collaboration and public input from the motorized community is largely ignored. The only groups that actually have their input headed are the anti-access groups calling for more closures. To be fair, those groups would also say the Forest Service doesn’t listen to them enough and doesn’t close enough roads, even though every travel planning process since 2005 has resulted in massive net decreases in motorized routes.

        While I’m admittedly pretty new to this scene, I’ve been researching past travel management processes in an effort to better prepare for the upcoming comment period on the Pike San Isabel travel planning. What I’ve seen is not encouraging.

        While travel planning is supposed to be collaborative, in reality the Forest Service typically presents a range of alternatives that neither side actually likes. The motorized community always sees far too many closures, and the environmental community sees too few (the hallmarks of compromise, albeit one that neither side agrees to). Comments, appeals, and objections by both communities are mostly done for the purpose of establishing legal standing for the inevitable lawsuits that follow the final decision. As soon as that decision is out, one or both sides file lawsuits. After years of negotiations, these typically result in a settlement agreement where the Forest Service agrees to start all over again with a new travel planning process.

        If you want to see a perfect example of this, research the history of the litigation over the Pike San Isabel Travel Planning. The first travel plan for the PSI under the 2005 travel management rule was completed in 2009. It’s been under litigation ever since. A bunch of environmental groups sued claiming they didn’t close enough roads. That initial round of litigation was settled in 2016 when the Forest Service agreed to re-do the travel management plan and close a bunch of disputed roads in the meantime. That process has been dragging on for years, with the DEIS due out hopefully sometime this fall. Nobody really expects the new travel plan to resolve anything, and it could easily end-up being litigated for most of the 2020s just like the 2009 plan was litigated for most of the 2010s.

        The same thing happened with the BLM’s travel planning in a large portion of Utah (lawsuit leading to an agreement to do a new travel planning), and it’s just beginning over the Rico West Dolores travel plan. Reading the TPA’s opening brief in that case should give you a good idea how little collaboration there was between affected groups and the Forest Service and how little their input was heeded.

        • Patrick- my experience of West Dolores was before I retired. I was in a phone call with the folks on the District and Forest and I remember thinking “those poor folks- there is no decision that can work “. And here we are 10 years or so later? If you would like to write a guest post about this history I’d post it. I wonder what combination of issues and personalities are involved in such intractable disputes.

          • I’m afraid I don’t have any personal experience with the West Dolores stuff. I only know what I’ve read from TPA, which of course is only one side in that conflict. I’m also not very familiar with that area since it’s on the other side of the state from me, so I’m probably not the best person to write about that.

            The PSI stuff though is in my backyard and I’m pretty involved in that, so once the DEIS is out I may very well want to write something about that.

        • “every travel planning process since 2005 has resulted in massive net decreases in motorized routes”

          I think that was the point of the Travel Planning Rule – to go from largely unmanaged use (which was causing problems) to something deliberate and planned. Not unlike the effect of NFMA on logging, travel planning takes away from those who had the most.

          • You are certainly right that was original intent of the 2005 Travel Planning rule. A certain degree of reductions on the first round of travel planning therefore made sense. What doesn’t make sense is that some forests took it to such an extreme that motorized users lost over 90% of existing trails (example: 94% of routes in the Plumas National Forest, according to CORVA –

            And now that some forests are in the second round of travel planning under the 2005 rule, they seem to view it as mandating a progressively downward ratchet, where the “minimum road system” under each new planning process must be significantly smaller than it was under the last. The mandate to minimize environmental impacts from motorized use is taken as simply a mandate to minimize roads, at a time when off-road recreation has ballooned in popularity and the current road system is already too small to accommodate all the use.

            While the travel management rule had good intentions, it has arguably gone way too far, which is why some groups are actually petitioning to get it revoked entirely. The petition has some good background on how badly it has been applied:

  2. The level of collaborative consistency is inversely proportional to the diversity of responsible official/staff personalities/philosophies. A strong voice from the EADM Roundtables was to involve the public MORE in Agency decision making. Yet, I have personally experienced an incoming Forest Supervisor willing to undo an agreement with user groups (over a politically sensitive topic) established by the previous Supervisor. I have also witnessed staff willing to ignore existing court orders that resulted from previous staff work, all in the name of “why would we want to do that?”, thus ignoring the public’s role in those established outcomes.

    As the Forest Service continues to engage in collaboration as a means to surmount public discourse, the stability of such engagement is subject to the whims of those in charge. The decentralized authorities will continually challenge any meaningful solution to overcome inconsistencies. That puts people, who are willing to invest their time and effort into helping with land management, in a position of continual frustration. Yet, look at how the Agency reacted to the Quincy Library Group when that group of citizens chose to figure out solutions without the Agency being at the table (the Agency was an invited guest, not a group member). The Agency got a dose of what it like to be frustrated with less participation.

    I conclude that many FS line officers like/love their role because of the control and power that comes with that responsibility. Hence, wrinkling the smoothness that can result from collaborative consistency.

  3. Sharon, thanks for taking time to post the quotation from my comment.

    Reading these comments makes me half-wonder if Congress should overhaul forest management, replacing the Forest Service and creating new agencies that might be nimbler.

    New Zealand did this 30 years ago, comprehensively reorganizing forest management:

    “In the 1980s the NZ Forest Service was disbanded, and the New Zealand Government began selling Forest assets. The majority of forests were sold between 1990-1992. On 11 May 2018, the Forest Service was resurrected as Te Uru Rākau by New Zealand First minister Shane Jones.” (Source: Wikipedia, footnote omitted.)

    More precise information is found here:

    As far as I know, New Zealand’s forests survived abolition and reorganization of the forest service.

    A side-note on the comments above: whether the alleged proliferation of unauthorized trails in national forests is ” ‘illegal’ ” or “ILLEGAL” is beside the point. Either way, such a phenomenon, if it exists, points to a regulatory failure. When the speed limit in Montana was 55 mph by federal edict, similar noncompliance by motorists was probably the norm. When the national cap was lifted, the illegality, such as it was, magically disappeared.

    • Here are a few quotes from the link you shared:

      “Over 3,000 Forest Service employees lost their jobs when the department was abolished in 1987. The bitterness was intense. In some places, angry forest workers actually threatened to set the plantations alight.”

      “The timber towns, which were particularly vulnerable to downturns in wood prices, bore the brunt of both state-sector and private restructuring from the late 1980s to mid-1990s. The loss of jobs after the disestablishment of the Forest Service had a serious impact on towns such as Murupara, where the population declined from more than 3,000 in 1981 to 1,959 in 2001.”

      “The government’s plantation forests passed to a new state-owned enterprise, the Forestry Corporation of New Zealand. By 1989, the government decided to sell the plantation forests… and the first sales began in 1990. That year 22 forests, totalling 135,622 hectares, were sold for $588.6 billion. …In 1992 a further 97,000 hectares were sold.”

      Seems like a less-than-ideal solution.

    • For whatever it’s worth, from 1992 until around 2005 the organization now called WildWest Institute was known as the Native Forest Network. NFN was a global automatous collective of forest activists, scientists and indigenous people. NFN had a very active presence in New Zealand during the 1990s.

      In December 2000, NFN activists traveled to New Zealand for an international temperate forest protection conference. During that trip, a delegation from NFN meet with the Prime Minister of New Zealand to request support for our Gondwana Forest Sanctuary and to support an end to logging of native rainforests on public lands in New Zealand. That later request ended up being put into action in 2002 when “New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark nnounced that all 130,000 hectares (321,243 acres) of rainforests that were previously controlled by the government owned logging company, Timberlands West Coast, would be transferred to the Department of Conservation for protection.” See:

      • [Badly formatted. Reposting.]

        Very good. I hadn’t heard of either the Native Forest Network or the WildWest Institute.

        Helen Clark, a center-leftist, was a good prime minister of New Zealand. It was the left-wing but vigorously reformist David Lange (prime minister 1984-89) who oversaw the abolition of the New Zealand Forest Service. He probably didn’t want to do it, but New Zealand was jolted into a profound economic crisis in the early 1980s and, being small and with no world-reserve currency like the U.S. dollar, had no choice but to dramatically scale back the size of government:

        “Upon coming to office, Lange’s government was confronted by a severe balance of payments crisis . . . .

        “Lange and [Finance Minister Roger] Douglas engaged in a rapid program of deregulation and the removal of tariffs and subsidies. . . .

        “Douglas also deregulated the finance markets, removing restrictions on interest rates, lending and foreign exchange. In March 1985, with Lange’s blessing, the New Zealand dollar was floated. From 1 April 1987, several government departments were corporatized into state-owned enterprises, with massive loss of jobs.”

        (Source: Wikipedia, footnotes omitted.)

        It was like the dreams of the U.S. libertarian magazine Reason come true, and, done by a left-wing prime minister, all the more astonishing. It was a stupendous gamble, but the radical steps taken then paid off before long and today New Zealand is prosperous and utterly pleasant as well. It has, I might add, some of the best mountain biking to be found anywhere and a mountain biking culture to match the terrain. Trail access decisions are based on reason, which will be refreshing if it happens here someday.

        • Another note about this.. some forests in NZ are exotic plantations of radiate pine, while the most intensively managed NF I’ve ever seen are all native species and are managed for species diversity, wildlife requirements, snags and so on. There are exceptions to that perhaps in parts of the SE, and in the West where plantations got started in a less enlightened period.

    • L- I think the frustration you are speaking of comes out in some western states and politicals as a desire to transfer lands to the States, which is not practical (costs too much) and won’t pass any currently imaginable Congress. IMHO due to partisanization , then we can’t have a meaningful discussion about what is not working and what is.

  4. This won’t help but – It’s worth noting that this is a symptom of our own population density. The fighting gets rough when we are fighting over the scraps that are left of the natural world. JAB

  5. I always find it interesting when we (Forest Service) tout how important partnerships are, and then, things like the travel cap crisis of a couple of years ago (which turned out to be “fake news”) or other things (lack of staff and $) result in us being poor partners. Changing staff is part of that too. It’s hard for me to believe that we (Forest Service) don’t have the empathy (?) to see how that makes us look or how it makes our partners feel and how that plays into a lack of trust. I have seen this happen many many times during my career, even before the big partnership push. To me it is poor leadership and poor communication and lack of accountability.

    When Jack Ward Thomas was Chief, he proposed something similar to the research “panel” process for NFS that would allow folks to promote in place based on skill development and some other factors (don’t recall what they were). That plan ran into some problems, so it never happened.

    There are also many leadership issues on forests that result in employees seeking another job elsewhere. This just increases costs all around – and I’m wondering why the Forest Service as an agency is so tolerant of this.

    And then there are things like the “Malheur Occupation” a couple of years ago, and I can only imagine the number of federal employees that decided to work elsewhere after that.


Leave a Comment