Pisgah-Nantahala Draft Plan and EIS, Tiered Approach and Live Stream Meeting Tomorrow

Tomorrow afternoon is a live stream on the “Future of Pisgah-Nantahala National Forests in North Carolina” Newsmakers Forum, from Asheville, North Carolina. It’s free and might be interesting to sit in on.

We’ve previously discussed this forest planning effort. Jack Igelman of Carolina Public Press has been following it (and doing a great job IMHO) and has a story here. Here are some excerpts from today’s piece.

Here is Sam Evans on the “two-tiered” approach.

Two-tiered approach
Another unique aspect of the plan is a “two-tiered” approach to land stewardship. The first tier identifies activities the Forest Service has the budget and other resources to accomplish, while the second tier outlines what the agency can accomplish with the help of partners.

Sam Evans, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, likes the two-tiered approach. He said that while the idea has been used before, the concept hasn’t been used to structure a forest plan and has the potential to incentivize more collaboration among user and advocacy groups.

“This is an idea that came out of the collaborative process, so it shows that the Forest Service was listening to the public,” he said.

However, Evans does have concerns about how the two-tiered approach will work, such as ensuring that clear “triggers” indicate when the agency moves from one tier to the next for a specific plan objective, such as forest restoration.

Thinking of Tier 2 objectives as “stretch goals,” Evans said, “The trick is to figure out how we can reach Tier 2 objectives in an integrated way without interfering with other goals.”

For example, he said, rather than identifying a single number of acres for timber restoration, the agency can mesh restoration objectives for specific species, such as pine and oak restoration, under a broader silvicultural objective.

“That is the No. 1 thing … to figure out what those triggers are and get them clearly written into the plan between draft and final,” he said. “That’s the biggest piece of work for the collaborative groups and the Forest Service.”

I like this general idea, as it sounds transparent and trust-building, but I can’t quite get a mental image of what “mesh restoration objectives for specific species, such as pine and oak restoration, under a broader silvicultural objective,” would look like. Perhaps Sam can weigh in on this.

I thought this example was interesting.

While Kelly believes the “building blocks” of the plan appear strong, such as the tiered approach, he’s hoping to provide feedback that will add specificity to the plan in areas where he said it’s lacking.

For example, he said, the current management plan finalized in 1994 requires the use of an aerial device to harvest trees on slopes steeper than 40% to prevent erosion and avoid landslides.

The proposed plan removes that requirement and allows an agency specialist to make a decision depending on the site and conditions.

While that may be a relatively minor detail, Evans said Kelly’s concern highlights a central tension in this plan: the balance between “certainty” and “flexibility” in management.

I see it as we can’t predict what technologies will be available in 25 years, nor what concerns will be then, and it’s best to use “best available science” for the project when the project document is completed.

I agree with Sam that:

The Forest Service is shifting its management toward big-picture ecological goals, such as restoring ecosystems and using fire, that require flexibility in management,” Evans.

“That’s admirable, but that discretion and flexibility can vary depending on the personnel and has the potential to be misapplied.”

However, IMHO the place to avoid misapplication is in real time, with real current science with the actual project document.

Anyway, lots of interesting info and quotes in this piece, so feel encouraged to find something that resonates (or doesn’t) with you and comment below.

7 thoughts on “Pisgah-Nantahala Draft Plan and EIS, Tiered Approach and Live Stream Meeting Tomorrow”

  1. So why don’t we just write a forest plan that says, “Use the best available science to make decisions at the project level.” Answer – because NFMA requires an integrated plan for the forest as a whole, and one that meets certain requirements. The Forest Service does not have the authority to pass that buck to project-level decision-making. NFMA was passed because “trust me” didn’t work, but that’s still what the Forest Service wants to say.

    Of course some things are more ok than others (the diversity requirement in NFMA means that plan components must actually demonstrate that at the plan level) and the devil is in the details. “An agency specialist” can’t just make any decision they want “depending on the site and conditions;” they have to further the desired conditions and objectives of the plan. So if the plan gives them desired conditions for sediment that “are specific enough to allow progress toward their achievement to be determined” (as required by the Planning Rule), the specialist would be constrained to do that. In the absence of such desired conditions (which are sometimes hard to come up with), the fallback is to prohibit known detrimental practices using standards. The plan has to do one or the other. (I’m a little intrigued by the idea of having alternatives vary along this continuum.)

    I also have concerns about a “two-tiered approach” that is based on budgets. Forest plans do not make funding decisions. They have always been thought of as a basis for asking for funding (the 1982 planning regulations said that, I think based on RPA). But the relevant thing here is how this plays into the environmental effects analysis. The analysis would have to be based on the maximum allowable management activity with full funding. It also must be possible to compare alternative effects, so the same budget assumptions must be made for that comparison. (The Flathead included variable budget assumptions that made it harder to compare alternatives, which seemed misleading.) I’m missing the connection Sam makes between these plan components and collaboration.

    In another article, Sam seems to like the idea of not picking a preferred alternative:
    “Evans, of SELC, said he has never seen a Forest Service plan issued without a “preferred alternative,” showing the agency’s commitment to being responsive to public feedback. He stressed the importance that public comment will play in this next phase of the plan’s creation.”
    Compare to our discussion of the same approach for the Nez Perce-Clearwater plan revision: https://forestpolicypub.com/2020/01/15/nez-perce-clearwater-plan-revision-alternatives/

    • I meant to add another example of the trend in “trust me” plans from the Nez Perce-Clearwater revision (according to the Missoula Current article I linked to that thread mentioned above): “The new plan also removes numerical standards, such as sediment limits in mountain streams or requirements for preserving a certain percentage of old-growth trees.”

  2. I’m impressed with the NPNF approach here. The Forest was very responsive to input that asked for non-polarized alternatives that incentivized continued collaboration.

    The requirement that plans be integrated really just means that one objective can’t interfere with another. Such a requirement is much more meaningful when the agency must be fiscally realistic. For example, The FS may want to include objectives to increase timber harvest and protect waters by fully maintaining the road system. Those objectives might not interfere with each other on paper, but budget constraints might make them impossible to meet simultaneously. Under the new planning rule, they’d both have to be dialed back. But in order to create incentives to keep partners excited and working together, we needed a way to stretch. That’s where the two-tiered approach comes in.

    Each alternative must be integrated. It’s easier to come up with an integrated alternative that’s polarized–i.e., one that emphasizes one interest at the expense of another. For example, if an alternative explicitly emphasizes timber harvest at the expense of wilderness and backcountry values, then stretching toward ambitious timber objectives won’t be as likely to interfere with your (weaker) goals for those other values. But if you’re trying to develop several balanced alternatives that advance many goals simultaneously, then goal interference caused by fiscal limitations is a real problem.

    That’s why it will be so important, as we’re fleshing out the monitoring plan, to identify the triggers that show we’re actually meeting competing objectives before moving to a “stretch goal” that might interfere with another plan objective. It’s the only way to defensibly say that a 2-tiered plan is integrated. To use the same example, if the plan sets an objective to increase the footprint of timber harvest and simultaneously reduce the road maintenance backlog, then we cannot responsibly move to a stretch goal for timber harvest without showing that we’ve made adequate progress toward better maintaining roads.

    To answer your question, Jon, the article combines two separate ideas. This idea of clear, measurable “Triggers” for the two-tiered approach is one idea. The other is what we’ve described as a need for “condition-based objectives.” Currently, the Forest Service has a silvicultural objective for a certain number of acres to be treated by harvest technique. But regeneration or thinning in may be “ecological restoration” in one stand while it may cause unacceptable degradation of a neighboring stand. To get at this issue, we’ve advocated that the Forest Service “nest” (not “mesh”) condition-based objectives underneath these broader silvicultural goals. For example, if the Forest Service wants to create 1,600 acres per year of young forest habitat, we’d like to see objectives for specific types of restoration harvest that add up to 1,600 acres–restoring forest communities uncharacteristically dominated by specific off-site communities, like pine plantations for example.

    Finally, with respect to the balance between certainty and flexibility, the set of alternatives here shows an unusual level of self-awareness. The alternatives are explicitly designed to offer a contrast between certainty and flexibility. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

    To some extent, I agree with your observation that flexibility can be pinned down to certainty at the project level, but I’m not sure that approach works for ecological restoration in our forests. According to the agency, it has the highest level of flexibility on lands considered suitable for timber production. On suitable lands, “all the tools in the toolbox” are available. Unfortunately, once lands are scheduled for rotational entry, there is considerably *less* flexibility to choose a lighter-but-more-ecologically-appropriate treatment for a given stand, or to choose a stand that isn’t commercially viable. In other words, flexibility to meet commercial goals is not the same as flexibility to meet ecological needs. Until budgetary incentives change, the planning rule’s emphasis on restoration requires that the FS be willing to set priorities and adopt sideboards. It may seem paradoxical, but those nods toward certainty will actually provide better flexibility to do the right things in the right places.

    By committing to specific restoration priorities, individual forests would also show ROs and the WO true costs of restoration. In some cases, it may pay for itself, but in other cases, it may not. Where it doesn’t, units in plan revision are going to have to be honest with their bosses that they can’t get enough needed work done without more funding. That’s critical information for policy and budget setting. It’s much more honest than doing the same old kinds of projects, re-branding them as restoration, and hiding the true costs.

    • Thanks for the inside story. (By the way, I feel more comfortable about forests experimenting with creative ideas if they are working closely with their informed public. On their own they seem to come up with some that go outside the legal boundaries.)

      There was discussion in conjunction with the Planning Rule of developing a “rolling alternative” for a forest plan that would promote collaboration. This approach to alternatives sounds similar.

      I’ve argued that objectives are kind of a pointless plan component because they are dependent on funding. They can be helpful if they incorporate some prioritization geographically or functionally (e.g. pine plantations). I like the sound of tying objectives to monitoring triggers (which the FS tends to not like). I’m not convinced that means the plan has to say anything about funding (but I’m just a casual observer).

      There is always flexibility to achieve objectives and desired conditions (that often may be aimed at commercial goals), and there is never flexibility to deviate from standards (that usually protect ecological needs). I was disappointed with what I found in the DEIS on this question, but maybe there is more somewhere (and see my response to your other comment below):

      “Alternative B provides the most flexibility for managing vegetation patterns, wildlife habitats, recreation and access in the plan; as a result, more concerns may be raised in project level development under this alternative that have not been fully addressed in the plan.”

      “Alternative C provides the most constraints in the plan regarding managing vegetation patterns, wildlife habitats, recreation and access management; as a result, projects may have more certainty and less flexibility for adapting to new information during project development.”

      This is kind of interesting, but I think it completely dodges the real question of which will do a better job of meeting the needs of at-risk species, and how good of a job would it do.

      • I looked a little closer at the actual language on the budget tiers:
        “Alternatives B, C and D all contain the same level of proposed activities, identified as Tier 1 and
        Tier 2 objectives.”
        This actually agrees with the idea that objectives are not useful for comparing plan alternatives or their effects (though I’m not sure I get the logic of doing the same amount of something in every alternative, especially timber harvest). Differences in desired conditions should be more important and “how effectively alternatives meet longterm desired conditions” (which should be related to the question of certainty vs flexibility).

  3. To start another thread on the topic discussed under the Nez Perce post, I am supportive of the NPNF’s decision not to identify a preferred alternative. Mainly, because I believe them that they are willing to pick any of these alternatives, and they’ve worked hard to come up with alternatives that they believe are all viable. That’s a big improvement over plans that really only offer one viable alternative with several contrasting alternatives, each of which contains poison pills. Sure, it makes it harder to comment, but if they’re willing to work harder to develop balanced alternatives, then I can work a bit harder to comment.

    The idea that pieces can be mixed and matched is interesting, but has to be limited. If you mix and match too extensively, you end up with a balancing that is outside the original range of alternatives (which would require further NEPA comment). In my view, the burden should be on the proponent of the reshuffling to show either that (a) the change wouldn’t impair other objectives in the alternative or (b) if the change *would* impair other objectives, the proponent can offer a solution to mitigate or make up for that impairment.

    The biggest problem I see with the NPNF’s range of alternatives is that the comparative analysis in the DEIS is weak. If all the alternatives try to advance all the relevant interests, and if they include the same basic objectives across the board, then how can you quantify differences between them? We will have a lot to say about this in comments, and we’ll need to see a healthier analysis in the FEIS.

    • The Forest Service does seem to have forgotten how to do any kind of actual analysis of forest plan effects (like they sometimes did for the original plans). Most of the “consequences” sections of plan EISs just seems to repeat what the plan says or intends rather than considering the effects of doing what it says.


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