The latest on forest plan revisions (and wildlife)

In the past couple of months the Forest Service has increased its family of forest plans revised under the 2012 Planning Rule to six.  The Chugach and Rio Grande national forests have joined the Francis Marion, Flathead, El Yunque, and Inyo.  The Forest Service revision schedule is over six months old, but the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest may be next.

Here’s what looks like a news release from the Rio Grande.

The plan prioritizes the use of active management to foster sustainable and productive use of the forest. Compared to the 1996 plan, this new plan is less prescriptive and emphasizes flexibility and commitments to working with the public. Management direction has been updated for all plant and wildlife species.

This seems to capture the mood of the Forest Service these days.  The only commitments it has ever liked are those they have to do any way, especially if they are check-the-box kinds of procedural commitments like “working with the public.”  In their “update” for wildlife, rather than commit to protecting wildlife as required by NFMA and the Planning Rule, they infuse the plan with discretion.  Here’s some examples of what the Rio Grande seems to feel (based on the best available scientific information) would “provide the ecological conditions necessary to: contribute to the recovery of federally listed threatened and endangered species, conserve proposed and candidate species, and maintain a viable population of each species of conservation concern within the plan area” – which plan components “must” do (36 CFR §219.9(b)).

DC-SCC-2: Structure, composition, and function of coniferous forests, including late seral forests, meet the needs of associated species, including species of conservation concern. (Forestwide)

There is a series of these desired conditions for different ecosystems that all say the same thing, which is “we’ll figure out what these species need later.”  The Planning Rule requirement is for “plan components” to meet the forest plan requirement, not for project-by-project decisions about how to protect at-risk species.  Let’s see if the standards and guidelines add anything …

G-SCC-3: To maintain viability of species of conservation concern, reduce habitat fragmentation and maintain structural conditions of sagebrush ecosystems through design of management activities. Patch sizes should not be less than 5 acres. (Forestwide)

TEPC-G-1: To avoid or minimize adverse effects to listed species and their habitat, management actions should be designed with attention to threatened, endangered, proposed, or candidate species and their habitats. (Forestwide)

Wow.  Apparently any “structural conditions” will do, but they at least appear to concede that there is a minimum patch size needed for some species in sagebrush ecosystems (this is actually the kind of “specific” desired condition the Planning Rule envisioned), but conversely there is not enough science to tell them what is needed for anywhere else.  If the courts say this is good enough, then the Forest Service has essentially excised the diversity requirement for forest plans from NFMA.  (Never mind the question of “how much did the Forest Service spend on forest planning to get THIS?”)  (This is a continuation of a pattern discussed here, and may lead to some of the same kinds of problems under ESA.)

18 thoughts on “The latest on forest plan revisions (and wildlife)”

  1. Here’s a press release from a coalition of conservation groups on the Rio Grande Forest Plan.

    DENVER—Today, the U.S. Forest Service released its final revised land management plan for the Rio Grande National Forest, located in south-central Colorado. Hundreds of local community members and citizens throughout the country had urged the Forest Service to include strong safeguards for wildlife and habitat, special designations to protect wildlife corridors, and recommendations for wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers.

    Yet the plan fails to provide protections for the forest’s natural values from threats such as logging and roads and is likely violating some environmental laws. At stake on the forest is the recovery of the Canada lynx and Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, both protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the persistence of other imperiled species including the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, river otter and western bumblebee.

    “The Rio Grande is so far the worst of the worst management plans for at-risk wildlife and ecosystems to be revised by the Trump administration under the 2012 U.S. Forest Service planning regulation,” said Lauren McCain, senior federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. “The plan contains nearly no protections for some of the forest’s most vulnerable species. The amount of logging the plan allows in Canada lynx habitat would be very harmful for a species that was brought back from the brink of extinction in the Southern Rockies just 20 years ago.”

    “The plan essentially gives the U.S. Forest Service carte blanche to implement projects and activities in sensitive wildlife habitat,” said Rocky Smith, an independent consultant who has been monitoring national forest management for 40 years. “It simply fails to include standards to protect the forest’s natural resources.”

    The Trump administration chose to emphasize logging and roadbuilding over conservation in America’s national forests, and the flawed Rio Grande plan is representative of this administration’s strategy to flout the requirements of the Forest Service’s rule—the “2012 Planning Rule”—that governs the development and revision of national forest and grassland management plans. The rule mandates that plans include enforceable standards to help recover species listed under the Endangered Species Act, facilitate wildlife habitat connectivity, adapt to climate change, and restore riparian and aquatic ecosystems.

    “The 2012 planning rule provided the U.S. Forest Service with an opportunity to develop a cutting-edge forest plan,” said John Mellgren, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Instead, it has doubled down on ignoring science, the law, and sound public policy in a move that will only jeopardize the health and sustainable enjoyment of the Forest long into the future.”

    Recent scientific research has found that habitat fragmentation is one of the most pernicious threats to species that need large areas to move and migrate. The planning rule requires restoring and maintaining habitat connectivity, but the Rio Grande plan falls short here as well.

    “The Rio Grande National Forest hosts some of the most important wildlife corridors in the San Juan Mountains,” said Mark Pearson, executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango. “Unfortunately, the forest plan refused to improve protection for these corridors, including those that cross the state line into New Mexico and the critical lynx linkage corridor that crosses Wolf Creek Pass.”

    “The Rio Grande National Forest includes dozens of important, free-flowing streams, forming the headwaters of the threatened Rio Grande system,” said Mike Fiebig, director of the Southwest River Protection Program at American Rivers. “The Southwest is predicted to receive 20-30% less water by 2050, yet the Forest is refusing to evaluate all steams as required by law, while removing protections from five Wild and Scenic eligible streams.”

    “The U.S. Forest Service had the opportunity and obligation to achieve a sustainable roads system. It failed to do so. Under this plan, the forest’s 2,242 miles of roads will continue to harm fish and wildlife habitat, choke streams with sediment, and hinder wildlife movement,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding advocate at WildEarth Guardians.

    “The Rio Grande National Forest ignored its obligation to protect public interest, environmental health and future generations. Their version of “adaptive management” is crisis management, leaving the forest landscape and species within to fend for themselves,” said Christine Canaly, director of San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

    Many local and national conservation organizations have participated in the Rio Grande planning process since it began in 2014. They provided recommendations throughout the process, but were largely ignored by the Forest Service. These groups will be closely monitoring how the Rio Grande implements its plan. Some are considering litigation over legal violations in the final plan.

    Background: The Rio Grande National Forest is a 1.8 million-acre gem in the middle of southern Colorado, including the headwaters of its namesake river. Though it has a history of abusive industrial logging, the forest boasts a diversity of ecosystems from lower elevation sagebrush and grasslands to the dominant high-elevation spruce-fir forest and fragile alpine areas.

    The Rio Grande is the most important national forest in the Southern Rockies for the Canada lynx, protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, a critically endangered species, depends on the Forest for its recovery. The management plan provides the blueprint for how the forest will balance uses, such as logging and recreation, with wildlife and ecosystem conservation for at least 15 years and probably many more.

  2. Prioritizing “active management” should include: management of fuels to mitigate wildfire, and wildfire intensity – so that sustainable and productive use of the forest can be realized.

    Structure, composition, and function of coniferous forests – can only meet the needs of associated species and conservation efforts – if the forest exists.

    Management activities directed viability of species, habitat fragmentation, maintaining structural conditions of ecosystems – all depend on specific management as it relates to wildfire mitigation, an prevention measure to reduce intensity and thus, long term damage to ecosystems.

    “To avoid or minimize adverse effects to listed species and their habitat, management actions should be designed with attention to threatened, endangered, proposed, or candidate species and their habitats.” This design should include the implementation of forest management to mitigate wildfire and reduce intensity to protect said threatened, endangered, proposed, or candidate species.

    Wildfire needs to be addressed in every forest plan – directly. We have forests (ecosystems, species), waterways, air quality, and communities at risk. There should be no wiggle room at this point. There is no room any more for interpretation. It needs to be spelled out and carried out.

    • I wonder if, maybe, there should be some ‘Un-Safe Zones’ designated, meaning that if a fire starts burning there, there will be no ‘boots on the ground’ (due to safety issues). The reality of such a map would help guide public decisions on fire safety. Such a map could change, depending upon conditions.

  3. Here’s a link to the revised plan:

    On the positive side for fire management, they identify two different management areas (“fire management zones”). One includes designated wilderness, recommended wilderness and roadless management areas, where “All naturally occurring wildfires in these areas are managed primarily to restore and maintain the natural role of fire in the ecosystem with a minimal emphasis on suppression.” Everywhere else, “Wildfires that burn in this zone may benefit natural resources under certain conditions.”

    But … this language is apparently not part of any plan components, and there are no plan components that differ depending on which zone you are in. The vegetation desired conditions are the same for all areas, even though there would be more fire suppression in some. This seems internally inconsistent (rather than “spelled out”).

    • With the state of Colorado’s forests in general, there should be a proactive effort in addressing wildfire – “suppression” is different than mitigation – some would rather we saw them the same – mitigation should be a priority given conditions on the ground. Seems prescribed fire would be safer and get the same results and offer the mitigation – naturally.

  4. Are any others “underwhelmed” by paltry accomplishments of 6 plans in 8 years? At this rate it will take about 160 years to finish all plan revisions.

    • Jim, many of us argued for streamlining the planning process during the discussions that led to the 2012 (and 2005, and earlier) Rules. It should strike many as worthy of attention that Andy Stahl and I agreed on the KISS Rule (how many times have we agreed on something in the last 10 years?)

      In my view, the lack of new plans is a function of a) many forests don’t feel a planning revision adds value, b) the new process is even more cumbersome, time consuming and expensive than the 82 Rule, and c) who wants to be the beginning of establishing more case law..(going to court) and so on. To me this is simply natural coevolution. If I remember correctly, the FEIS claimed that the 2012 Rule would make revisions go more quickly. Even though it had more extensive analysis requirements.. it seemed unlikely even at the time.

      • There’s been quite a range of duration for the plans being revised, and I would guess that on average they have been faster than the first time (though I don’t know if you can credit the new regulations). The bigger problem is that the Forest Service isn’t funding nearly enough plans to get them done on the 15-year schedule required by NFMA; They need to start about 10 revisions/year, and since 2012 they have started 20. It’s coming up on a half century since the law told them to plan, and they are still fighting it. Maybe a little oversight is needed.

        • Maybe an idea that sounded good in 1976, when rational planning was all the rage, doesn’t fit the 21st Century? Maybe we could learn something from the experience- from people in the FS trying to do plans, and stakeholders trying to work with the FS to do plans?

  5. The reference to “species of concern” caught my eye. Under the plan being drafted by the Custe/Gallatin Forest, the (2) Forests will go from 29 “sensitive species” in the old plan to 2 species of concern in the expected draft. I’d like to send you an attachment on this topic, please reply. The Gallatin Wildlife Association confirmed an appointment with the regional forester to discuss this matter, drove 200 miles to Missoula, and learned that she was too busy to partake in our scheduled meeting. When we requested more information, we were sent a few documents that were already available, not the deliberations on species of concern that had occurred within the Forest.

    • Thanks for sharing your first-hand account of #SharedStewardship, James.

      P.S. Just so everyone knows, that was actually a 400 mile roundtrip drive, only to be stood up by the Regional Forester.

    • James, if you want to send me the attachment to post (not sure what you meant) my email is on the side in a widget under Contact.

  6. Jon, since we were both involved in the development of the 2012 Rule, I’d disagree with you on this “is actually the kind of “specific” desired condition the Planning Rule envisioned” … as I argued at the time, there are only two reasons that you would want conditions that specific- to protect a species that requires it- or under some concept of NRV/HRV.

    I’m OK with conditions specific to a species, but as I’ve argued before, there is no “there there” for NRV being a target conditions for specific vegetation structure and conditions. Actually we even had these convos with the WO on the detail of DCs under the 2005 Rule.

  7. That must have been a parallel universe somewhere (which I suppose could have been the case in 2005 and 2008). I know what the people who put the word “specific” in the regulations meant (since I was one of them), and it has meant the same thing since the 1995 and 2000 regulations (I also worked on), and it is not to just repeat the requirement for ecological integrity. From the Handbook (which I also helped write): “Desired conditions essentially set forth the desired landscape of the future and the other plan components give guidance on how to get there.”

    And there is plenty of “there there” in most forest plans for vegetation desired conditions based on NRV – see Table 6 in the Rio Grande. In fact, these conditions for species and structure stage might meet requirements for wildlife, but they have not determined whether these are the relevant ecological characteristics that are necessary for their at-risk species (which is required by 36 CFR §219.9(b)(1), but which they say they will figure out later). And there is no reason why they couldn’t have similar specificity for aquatic resources and desired infrastructure (both of which also relate to at-risk species) – other than they don’t want to do the work and/or their fear of commitment. As I just said above, a lot of the Forest Service was and is hostile to planning, ever since Congress made them do it.

  8. Jon, you may know what you meant. We worked on plans (in R-2, is that a parallel universe?) reviewed by the WO and were told that the DC’s weren’t specific enough. At the time, it was hard to envision something on the spectrum between “happy healthy ecosystems” and “10% of acres in 16-30 year old stands of aspen-spruce, 10% 100-200 year old stands of ponderosa pine at 140 trees per acre.. and so on.” It was figuring out a basis for that kind of vegetative specificity other than habitat for specific species that was the problem. I know some of the concepts traced back to course-filter fine-filter ideas, but still…

    Specific examples of your preferred level of specificity would be helpful. Do you have a page number for Table 6?

  9. p. 35. These kinds of desired conditions for trees are what I would consider the minimum, but something similar needs to be done for the ecological characteristics needed for plant and animal diversity (for those species where they can’t show the species is happy with the coarse filter for trees). R-3 had some good examples for goshawk in its regional amendments 20 years ago, but I think they are trying to get rid of those now. I don’t think science is the problem; I think it’s accountability (and a little bit like protesting being told to wear a mask).

    Another example from a revised plan is Table 14 (p. 46+) in the Flathead plan. I’d call it the right thought process and a good try (but still too many subjective terms). It shows the key ecosystem characteristics for each at-risk species and a desired condition related to that. For some species, the fine filter characteristics don’t lend themselves to being very specific, but that is where standards and guidelines become more important. For species where vegetation is important like fisher and flammulated owl, they should have said (for example) how “large” a “large mean patch size is” and what scale it is that is a “scale that provides a cluster of potential home ranges for flammulated owls.” There are scientific answers to these questions (and others they could have included), and they know the answers, they just don’t want to tell us.

    I recall that R-2 was kind of an outlier during development of the 2012 Rule, and I think you just helped make my point about the intent of the WO behind the Rule. (What was it that our illustrious attorney general just graciously reminded us – “history is written by the winners?”)


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