Nez Perce-Clearwater plan revision alternatives

On a recent thread about getting land management decision “right,” I criticized an agency strategy of not identifying a preferred alternative in a draft EIS , using an example from BLM travel planning.  I said I was seeing more or this in land management planning, and here is an example from the Nez Perce-Clearwater forest plan revision.

A preferred alternative is not identified in the DEIS. Any individual component of any alternative analyzed in the DEIS may be combined into a preferred alternative. A preferred alternative will be identified with the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Record of Decision in 2021.

The link is to the DEIS Executive Summary, and here is their range of alternatives:

Four action alternatives were developed based on internal and external input, including collaboration on alternative development. All alternatives analyzed in the draft environmental impact statement met a minimum bar of being ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable per the 2012 planning rule. Furthermore, each alternative contributes to rural prosperity and other Department of Agriculture Strategic Goals. Alternative themes and the thought process behind their development are described below:

Alternative W

Resources and land allocation on the Nez Perce-Clearwater are not mutually exclusive. It may be possible to have high levels of timber harvest; sustain rural economies; recover fish and wildlife species listed within the Endangered Species Act; provide clean air and clean water; and provide habitat for viable populations of wildlife species all at the same time. For instance, areas evaluated for recommended wilderness are independent from most areas that provide for timber harvest due to the Idaho Roadless Rule. As such, it is possible to recommend all or nearly all Idaho Roadless Rule areas for recommended wilderness and have a very high level of timber outputs. Alternative W is a “have it most” alternative. The intent is to couple items that may otherwise be viewed as being mutually exclusive. This alternative has higher levels of recommended wilderness coupled with a higher timber output and a faster rate of movement towards forest vegetation desired conditions. Forest vegetation desired conditions would be minimally met within thirty years. Areas not selected as recommended wilderness allow for motorized use, including within Idaho Roadless Rule areas. Wild and Scenic Rivers found suitable stem from a collaborative approach that looks at rivers outside the wilderness.

Alternative X

Alternative X responds to a number of state and local plans, which call for few or no areas of recommended wilderness fewer or no suitable wild and scenic rivers and higher timber outputs. In this alternative zero areas are recommended as wilderness. The Comprehensive Water Plan is used as a surrogate to continue to protect key tributaries to the North and South Fork Clearwater Rivers while not pursuing Wild and Scenic River Suitable status on any river. Forest vegetation would be within the lower bound of the desired conditions within twenty years. Alternative X has the highest timber output, including a departure from the Sustained Yield Limit (SYL) for a period of two decades at 241-261 million board feet annually.

Alternative Y

Alternative Y provides for intermediate level of recommended wilderness and moves towards forest vegetative desired conditions in fifty years. Historic snowmobiling areas in the Great Burn are removed from consideration as recommended wilderness resulting in a boundary change, but within the areas moving forward as recommended wilderness we do not authorize any uses that may preclude designation as wilderness in the future. This alternative also looks at the major rivers not designated in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as suitable for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic River system. The major rivers not designated include the North Fork Clearwater and South Fork Clearwater.

Alternative Z

Alternative Z responds to requests to have an alternative in which natural processes dominate over anthropogenic influence. In this alternative a proposal for recommended wilderness that was brought forward by a group of national and state wilderness advocacy groups was mostly carried forward. Additionally, rivers were viewed as part of a larger system and major tributaries to the Nez PerceClearwater’s largest rivers will be analyzed as being suitable for inclusion in the wild and scenic rivers system. Areas in Idaho Roadless Rule Areas will not be opened up for additional motorized use and most current motorized use would not be impacted. Reliance on natural process would warrant a slower movement towards forest vegetation desired conditions within an anticipated one-hundred-years or longer. Timber outputs would also be lower and near a lower threshold needed to provide for economic sustainability and sustain rural economies. Additional plan components related to snag guidelines, live tree retention, fisher habitat, and elk security are included that limit uncertainty regarding how and where these features will be located on the landscape.

According to the forest supervisor in this article, “Emphasized in this planning process is the alternatives were put together as building blocks, Probert said, so pieces could potentially be mixed and matched to provide better combinations.”

My question is does it facilitate public comments, or more generally facilitate the process, to not identify a preferred alternative? This range of alternatives seems reasonable.  It is based primarily on varying how “designated areas” would be identified and recommended (wilderness and wild and scenic rivers) and managed (inventoried roadless areas, including addressing motorized and mechanized recreation), and how actively or passively the vegetation would be managed.  I’ve suggested something along these lines, and maybe if all the alternatives are truly reasonable and focused on the most relevant issues, it would be possible for an agency to not have a preferred alternative.   But is it a problem that the final preferred alternative doesn’t look much like any of the alternatives offered for public comments?  Still, I’m skeptical that the Nez Perce-Clearwater doesn’t care, and if they do, the law requires that they tell the public.

13 thoughts on “Nez Perce-Clearwater plan revision alternatives”

  1. Ugh, it would have been a nightmare if the recent Pike San Isabel NF travel management plan DEIS did not have a preferred alternative. There were over 2500 individual route segments under evaluation, with the different alternatives closing anywhere between 3% of 50% of them. The most extreme Alternative E even closed nationally famous paved roads like the Pikes Peak Highway. The preferred Alternative C closed around 4% of roads.

    As it was, I and other pro-motorized advocates I was working with submitted hundreds of pages of detailed route-specific comments on the specific roads we were trying defend against closure. The anti-motorized groups focused on many of the same roads supporting closure. Having a preferred alternative allowed both sides to focus on the routes that were actually at issue, rather than having to waste time arguing over the more extreme closures in Alternative E that everyone knew were not going to happen, but were only proposed as an alternative in order to make the closures in the preferred alternative look reasonable.

    In contrast, I also commented on the San Rafael Desert Plan. I know next to nothing about that area and wasn’t able to find much route-specific information at all. Without any real idea what the BLM is planning, all I could really do was make some general comments in favor of the most pro-motorized alternative and leave it at that.

    • Patrick- I’m not sure that people analyze the extremes to “make the preferred alternative look reasonable” but so that they won’t lose in court when folks litigate and say “you didn’t examine the full range of alternatives.”

      • That’s true of course, but I can’t help but think there’s at least some of what I said as well. It’s a classic negotiating tactic. Start with a position so extreme that your actual goal seems reasonable once you’ve negotiated back down to it. With travel management, the clear message to motorized users is, “Be grateful we’re only closing 4% of your trails, not 50% like we could have.” In some ways that’s even true, given that other National Forests have in fact closed more than 50% of motorized routes in one travel management decision.

  2. Regarding preferred alternatives in planning, I would an effective public engagement strategy would enable the FS to get a sense of where public opinion and science may be leaning for a revised plan. I doubt a decision maker would have no idea of what a preference can be. We pay line officers to make tough decisions and not to make everyone happy. By not identifying a preference tends to walk a tightrope of possibilities in the hope that an “answer” will be revealed.

    I think the FS tends to overthink this.

  3. It IS a nightmare to not have a preferred alternative. Last year’s Custer Gallatin Forest Plan comment period did not contain a preferred alternative. It took a lot of work to make a substantive comment. I haven’t a good clue where it will head, but we may have an answer in a few months. I think they doomed the public involvement by doing it that way. Region One is full of contention because of the Region going rogue a few years ago with a restrictive blanket recommended wilderness management policy. Also we are problematic with far too many NGOs in the region. When the Forest doesn’t identify an alternative preference, it just further fuels the fire.

  4. Sounds like a classic “bait and switch” to me. Or maybe a “divide and conquer” – promise a “combo” meal, present the extremes (triple decker burger or salad) and count the numbers before calling out “Your order is ready.” Not a good business model for managing PUBLIC lands.

  5. It would be interesting to hear their side of why they chose to do it this way… has anyone found that in their documents. Maybe some Montanan could call the planning team and ask for an interview for TSW?

    • This Montanan won’t rule it out, but I’ll just add here that it’s interesting that Tony and I (as ex-FS planners) both seem to have the impression that the reasons are related to deciding officials wanting to avoid the heat that comes with taking a position. Or at least delaying it until objections, so they don’t have to defend themselves twice. (And if that is their reason, I imagine they wouldn’t want to talk about it.) Otherwise, one might think that in the spirit of “collaboration,” they would have asked the public if it would like a preferred alternative. From this limited sample (thanks!) it sounds like they would have said “yes.”

  6. Mr. Haber fails to mention that the regulations do not require a preferred alternative in a Draft. Has anyone looked up CEQ’s rulemaking record to understand the intent behind this? Of course not, that may add a common sense human element to a biased view of ecology. This blog has seen many verbatim cherrypicked pieces of the 2012 rule so why not look to regulatory language for this issue? I see bias disguised as honest dialog. There is nothing wrong with dedicated public decision makers using the discretion provided.

    • I believe the point being made is that just because a decision maker can choose to not identify a preferred alternative (which, as you point out, is allowable by CEQ regulation) does not mean that person should do that.

      • Right. I thought that was implicit in raising the question about whether should they do it. I actually was going to include the relevant law but the DOE link I had wasn’t working. I probably should have taken the time to find one that did (CEQ’s “40 Questions”):

        4b. Does the “preferred alternative” have to be identified in the Draft EIS and the Final
        EIS or just in the Final EIS?
        A. Section 1502.14(e) requires the section of the EIS on alternatives to “identify the agency’s preferred alternative if one or more exists, in the draft statement, and identify such alternative in the final statement . . .” This means that if the agency has a preferred alternative at the Draft EIS stage, that alternative must be labeled or identified as such in the Draft EIS. If the responsible federal official in fact has no preferred alternative at the Draft EIS stage, a preferred alternative need not be identified there. By the time the Final EIS is filed, Section 1502.14(e) presumes the existence of a preferred alternative and requires its identification in the Final EIS “unless another law prohibits the expression of such a preference.”

  7. If an agency truly has no preferred alternative, I think it’s okay to say so in the DEIS. However, if the decision makers are leaning toward one of the alternatives – even just a little bit – they should disclose it.

    Of course, if planners complete a DEIS without identifying a preferred alternative, one wonders if they sufficiently analyzed the impacts and considered public input.


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