How Long Should Rec Planning Take?

This Reno newspaper story, “Tahoe-area snow enthusiasts on edge over possible changes to snowmobile access,” describes conflict between motorized and non-motorized recreation. But what caught my attention was that the recreation plan for the Lake Tahoe Basin “has been in the works since 2011.” 8 years, so far, to produce a plan? It might be 10 before it is finalized. How might the process be shortened?

23 thoughts on “How Long Should Rec Planning Take?”

  1. Maybe this is part of the reason why it’s taking so long. Also, not the first time motorized (ab)users have threatened violence during public travel planning process? Remember the (in)famous “put a bullet in her head” comment from the Bitterroot National about a decade ago.

    Debate turns ugly as Tahoe snowmobilers fear forest closures
    May 25, 2018

    The debate over snowmobile access in the Tahoe National Forest has taken an ugly turn with a spate of emails, social media posts and online comments filled with foul and abusive language.

    Several people pushing for more restrictions on snowmobiles in the 800,000-acre forest that straddles the Sierra Crest have been the targets of online abuse.

    The problem has gotten bad enough that Forest Service officials disabled a portion of the online comment system when they suspected people used it to target other commenters with nasty emails.

    The ugly comments, some worry, might deter public input, undermining the public’s role in crafting the Tahoe National Forest Over-Snow Vehicle Use Designation plan.

    “This is the first time I’ve encountered people looking at what other people have commented and finding those people and harassing them,” said Eli Ilano, Tahoe National Forest supervisor. “It is discouraging because it is not promoting public discourse on the topic.”

    Advocates for tighter restrictions on snowmobiles in the forest have received emails that include anti-gay slurs, foul language and references to violence.

    Gail Ferrell, vice president of outreach for the nonprofit advocacy group Snowlands, showed one comment that threatened violence.

    Someone who identified himself as Lenny Decker referred to snowshoers using a slur for gay people, promised to continue riding in closed areas and pledged to “beat” anyone who sought to limit access.

    “It is not about having a dialogue, it is not about communicating,” Ferrell said. “It is just about attempting to demoralize us, which it does not do.”

    David Page, advocacy director for Winter Wildlands Alliance, another group advocating for tighter snowmobile restrictions, shared two more emails with abusive and sexually graphic language. One was sent to Page and the other was sent to a person who commented on the Forest Service site, he said.

    Page said one of his greatest concerns is that the potential to become the target of online abuse will dissuade people from participating when government agencies seek input on land management.

    “That is ultimately the fear, if people feel uncomfortable making public comments then the whole process falls apart,” Page said.

    In an email from the Lenny Decker address, the writer struck a defiant tone in response to questions about the choice of language.

    “Maybe I could have been nicer but hey, they are trying to take our public lands away for no good reason besides greed,” he wrote. The email continued, “Now there’s thousands of us willing to fight against Snowlands … or any other outside (expletive) that want to take something that’s not theirs.”

  2. Or why must it, or should it, be shortened if the analysis has not been “honest”, thorough, or a “hard look”?
    If it is a matter of “yellow streak down the back ” indecision because of feared / expected pushback by machine recreation, then get it done in 1 – 2 years, or get to court.

    • As I’ve said before, people saying mean things about other people and the FS is SOP. People on the fringes of (sanity? courtesy?) send in public comments as well as thoughtful and courteous people. We don’t have a test of knowledge about the issue or a behavioral health test that folks need to pass before they comment. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get Psychological Hazard Pay and settled for brewskis and a support group.

      What is different to me here is personal emailing of people with threats.

      (1) personal email saying bad things. Not good, but not sure what can be done. It seems par for the course in the Twitterverse, for example.

      (2) Isn’t sending threatening emails illegal?

      Maybe the FS needs a public comment SWAT team when something heats up like this. I don’t see the difficult/mental health types going away.

  3. If you consider the fact that OSV planning was something that was mandated in the 2005 Travel Management Rule and they’re only just now doing that, this has been going on far longer than just 10 years. The Pike San Isabel travel management controversy has being on for 10 years since the first MVUMs were published in 2009 triggering the original lawsuit. And that’s just for summer travel management. As far as I know the PSI still hasn’t even started the winter travel planning process that it was theoretically required by the 2005 Travel Management Rule to do. Not sure exactly why that is.

    Seems like it’s pretty much the norm for these things to take many years, which is hardly surprising when you’re trying to evaluate all motorized routes for thousands of square miles of large National Forests all at once. The scale of that process makes it impossible to do in a short time. Honestly I wish the Forest Service would do travel management (both winter and summer) at a much smaller scale, like the individual ranger district level or smaller. Evaluating all routes for an entire National Forest just seems like way too much, and it makes it impossible for either the Forest Service or the public to make informed decisions and comments about each route.

    And as for Matthew’s point, the abuse certainly goes both ways. In the comments on the PSI process, I saw plenty of extremely abusive (and just irrelevant) comments from the anti-motorized side. Lots of profanities, uninged rants about Trump, baseless accusations against motorized users, everything. I’m sure there are motorized users who write inappropriate comments, but plenty of people on the other side do the same.

  4. Patrick.. interesting thoughts about travel management scale. I guess the problem with the District approach would be connections between roads and trails on the borders of the District. And the trade-offs at the forest level can occur over a larger landscape (say area X has lots of ATV’s but area Y is not open). I’m still interested in why some forests spend years and have many problems and others don’t seem to. Maybe we could fund a graduate student to investigate?

    • That is certainly true. As I mentioned in my previous post about the PSI travel management, one of the hotspots for both sides is the roads in Wildcat Canyon, which are in two different ranger districts and four different counties. So it makes for a bit of a jurisdictional mess.

      Maybe a better solution would be project level travel management for specific trail systems where you can draw boundaries that make sense for individual areas. The PSI actually has had a couple of those going on concurrently with the Forest wide travel planning, which had made it all even more confusing.

  5. please note that the original post was about the Lake Tahoe Basin, whereas Matthew’s follow-up was about the Tahoe NF- they are different and on a different track. Regardless, it is a complex process, like travel management in general- the forests are damned for adding and damned for removing routes. In the Sierra it also affects some rare high elevation species, like SN red fox, wolverine, Yosemite Toad, and mtn yellow-legged frog.

  6. Can we agree that the USFS spends too much time and resources ($$) on planning and too little on implementation?

    If no agreement then Sharon’s question is moot/irrelevant and perhaps, to some stakeholders, counterproductive.

    Ever Searching for Agreement – Finding None

    • Totally agree there Brian. As far as travel management goes, the 2005 travel planning rule seems to have made the Forest Service incredibly lazy when it comes to managing motorized routes on the ground. The existence of the MVUMs makes them think they can close a road just by removing it from the MVUM and doing nothing to mark it closed on the ground.

      I’ve noticed this problem a lot in the White River National Forest in particular. They closed a ton of roads in their last travel management process in the early 2010s (especially north of Vail in an area now proposed for wilderness status in the CORE Act), but have only bothered to actually put gates or closed signs on a handful of them. As a result, numerous roads that have technically been “closed” for years are still routinely driven by the public who have no idea they’re closed, since, let’s be real, how many people even know the MVUMs exist? That’s actually something serious off-roaders are way better about, compared to casual campers driving Subarus up mildly rough Forest Service roads looking for a campsite.

      The Forest Service seems to think travel planning ends when they publish the final MVUMs, but if there is nothing on the ground marking removed routes as closed, people are going to continue to drive them. On-the-ground implementation and enforcement is just as critical as paper planning.

      • Patrick, you raise an interesting point.

        I wonder if what you observed is due to the idea that many environmental groups are very interested in decisions, and litigating them, and not as interested in what happens afterwards. If, for example, your policy power center is litigation, you would tend to claim victory or defeat and move on to the next project, rather than seeing how a project is implemented or how successful closure is in reality. But I’m still surprised that a local group that supported the travel management decisions to close isn’t pestering the FS to close the roads (although maybe they are and we don’t know).

        The only folks I’ve seen interested in (and sometimes disappointed by) follow through are local partners who help design vegetation projects, when the FS doesn’t carry them out the way they agree to. But I have a small sample, from when I was invited to give talks at partner meetings on NEPA.

    • That seems to be true on whatever the Forest Service does, these days. They spend millions on planning of all sorts but, spend pennies on people who implement such plans. I really do think that someone could have a healthy ‘cottage industry’ in ground-truthing, if that actually mattered to the eco-groups and the courts. (Of course, that is not what the Forest Service wants to see)

  7. This thread strikes me as especially important because it weaves together planning cost, duration, social tensions (nice euphemism, right?), and implementation. That bundle of issues have always seemed inseparable to me–which might explain why the naturally came up–yet too often treated as somehow distinct. I’m sure we could add other issues to the bundle as well.

    In the spirit of “what-if?”, I wonder what we’d come up with if we worked the problem backwards, starting with the idea of a shorter planning process that costs less, perhaps shifting some expenses to implementation, and generates a greater “willingness to live with it” and, even more importantly, greater “willingness to help get the job done” among participants. What policy changes might be needed to get there? What skills might be needed to help make this happen? What current policies are fine if we just took a different approach to implementing.

    I guess what I’m asking is whether, maybe, there’s a better way that requires smart, tweak- level changes instead of epic ones.

    • How does USFS rec planning (costs, time, staff, public comment, etc.) compare with BLM, NPS, and other agencies? Is it something about the USFS that sometimes makes the process so long and involved?

    • I agree with Mr. Williams that “smart, tweak-level” changes could reap huge benefits.

      Or, I would have agreed. But then I caught a terrible virus – “Usedtothink.”

      It’s a visual and auditory virus. I caught it during the 175th PowerPoint presentation I watched on NEPA reform.

      “Tweak-level” reforms could reap huge benefits to both agency and stakeholders. But making such changes isn’t possible.

      Example: A colleague of mine thought it would be possible, and helpful, if the USFS give a more realistic time-frame for the completion plan revision. But setting realistic time-frames is just not possible. The USFS cant give a realistic time-frame any more than the Defense Department can give a realistic estimate of the cost of a battleship.

      I want to be clear that I do not blame agency employees. It just is what it is.

      Sharon asked: How might the process be shortened? It can’t.

      Recreational stakeholders need to realize that a bureaucracy like the USFS operates in a different space-time continuum. Nothing can be done about it. Pack lots of food and water. Budget time and resources wisely. And always keep your sense of humor handy. It just is a very long process.

  8. Thanks for this creative approach, Peter. That bundle might include monitoring as part of implementation.

    Just thinking out loud.. perhaps the people who want something to happen (say motorized access) are more interested in following up than people who don’t want something to happen (say, against a fuel treatment project) that is approved.

    And perhaps it doesn’t help that planning, implementation, and monitoring are sometimes done by different people, and mostly from different pots of (1 year at a time) money.

  9. Yes, monitoring, assessment, and evaluation all seem important and too often separated, as you say. Good additions to the bundle because it seems all but impossible to do adaptive management or anything close to organizational learning unless some form of monitoring happens.

    To do that, though, would seem to require a different approach than most generic monitoring, one that is not merely descriptive (too often, monitoring isn’t tied well to implementation so what’s monitored is really just “stuff”). A worthwhile approach might need to focus on learning about whether management actions are effective in the sense of producing desired effects or outcomes and, if not, what gets in the way.

    Part of this challenge is finding ways to do this work that are a cost-effective and also fairly easy to teach and implement. There are many folks who have learned to think about monitoring in pretty traditional ways, so change won’t come easy.

  10. shorter planning process that … generates a greater “willingness to live with it”

    I don’t see the cause and effect here. I’d expect the opposite, if a shorter process cuts out opportunities to participate. I’d agree that unwillingness to live with giving something up that someone feels entitled to is a major barrier to shortening the process. Delaying the loss of something is a victory and may create an incentive to avoid resolution.

    • Hi Jon, I wasn’t suggesting cause and effect as much as a possible goal from which we might “work the problem backwards”. You’re right that it might be hard. I’m just suggesting we make it a big hairy audacious goal and see what we come up with.

      As an example, I took on a hairy conflict around backcountry recreation ages ago. Instead of the usual extended planning process, I took the participants through a much briefer (1 yr) process during which we established a vision, key principles for working together, and a five year “plan” or calendar by which we would would work through real issues on the ground, moving some into an appropriate NEPA process and others into immediate action because NEPA clearance already covered those.

      The best part is the groups that were at such loggerheads found ways to work together to help with implementation, reducing costs to the agency and allowing for more to be done. There was a willingness to live with and help, not on everything, but on more than anyone thought possible when we started.

      Hope this helps…

        • Interesting question. I have one of the original documents, which does a great job of describing the process (says me, the author… ?). Whether a more objective write-up is available, I don’t know. I did the project in 1994-1995 for the NPS.

          The unit won a National Planning Project of the Year Award, which I attribute to the wonderful championing by the Superintendent and the fact that the community really did get beyond some significant loggerheads. During the spring of the project, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred and anti-federalism sentiment was especially strong. Made for a tense context.

          Nevertheless, in the year after we completed the original planning work, the Park’s Friends Group was able to raise about $500k for implementation, much of which they pursued in both physical and financial partnership with the NPS by underwriting work and, in effect, supplementing the local NPS budget. That put pressure on NPS to make progress on the subsequent NEPA compliance work.

          It would be interesting to write about it from a 25 year perspective. My guess is it would offer some insights into what worked and why, as well as what might have been done differently given the benefit of hindsight. Some lessons might still apply today, despite the fact that policies and direction are different.


Leave a Comment