Make forest plans great again (for wildlife)


I often point out how the Forest Service is shirking its responsibility to adopt forest plans that provide ecological conditions needed for diversity and viability of at-risk species.  Most recently, I listed some examples from the recently released Rio Grande revised forest plan.  Here is one guideline (there weren’t really any relevant standards):

EPC-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. 

This says essentially nothing.

An important purpose of identifying and planning for at-risk species is to reduce the chance that they would need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.  If this were a private landowner, conservation measures for at-risk (but not yet listed) species would be discretionary.  However, they could choose to sign a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with the listing agency to adopt conservation measures that would reduce the likelihood of listing in exchange for a commitment that the listing agency would not require anything more if the species did become listed.

Here is an example of one such enhancement of survival permit for Chinook Forest Partners, LLC Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for Fisher in Oregon (until recently, a candidate for listing).  From the NEPA document (CE):

Activities that are covered by this CCAA and the associated section 10(a)(1)(A) permit are on-going and commonly practiced forest land management activities. These include timber harvest and hauling, site preparation and reforestation, and road maintenance and construction. Additionally, there may be some collection of minor forest products, fire suppression, and recreation (including legal hunting and trapping).

Goals and objectives for fisher include: improving our understanding of fisher distribution, densities, and habitat use, especially on non-federal lands where information is more lacking; conserving active fisher den sites to increase the survival of young; increasing public participation and support for fisher recovery and reintroduction by providing long-term assurances; and, monitoring potential future reintroduced fishers as they disperse from their release sites to determine success rates and provide information for improving success rates.

And here is what the private landowner committed to do in the CCAA to achieve those objectives for fisher (note: some are saying that this still isn’t good enough).  Given that the Forest Service is obligated by NFMA to provided ecological conditions for a viable population of at-risk species on national forests, why shouldn’t they be making at least this kind of commitment in their forest plans for public lands?  (This could make them adequate regulatory mechanisms to reduce the likelihood of listing under the ESA criteria.)

  • Specifically, CFP/CFM shall not conduct or authorize any of the activities described in the forest management activities in Section 4 (including but not limited to timber felling, pre-commercial thinning, reforestation, salvage of trees, prescribed burning, and brush control) within 0.25 miles of a den site, because those activities could result in disturbance or harm to denning fishers. CFM shall not authorize helicopter or fixed wing application of herbicide or fertilizer within 0.25 miles of an occupied den site between 15 March and 30 September until CFM is informed by USFWS or its agent the denning female has vacated the den site.
  • Provide protection of denning female fishers by restricting trapping and nuisance animal control activities on enrolled lands within 2.5 miles of den sites.
  • Report to USFWS, and ODFW or mutually agreed upon designated agents, within 48 hours upon finding any potentially occupied den sites or any dead, sick, or captured fishers on enrolled lands.
  • Cover all man-made structures on enrolled lands that pose an entrapment risk to fishers (e.g. large water troughs, old rail cars, or other containers from which fishers cannot escape) or place a device within the structure (e.g., wooden pole to allow fishers to climb out) to prevent mortality of fishers from drowning, starvation or dehydration
  • Where suitable habitat exists and where agreed upon by CFP and USFWS, allow the release of translocated fishers on enrolled lands
  • CFP will seek to have all of its timberlands third party certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI),
  • CFP will take fisher habitat characteristics into consideration when assessing parcels for transfer or sale into permanent or semi-permanent conservation status.
  • Subject to safety, operability, fire hazard considerations, and salvage of timber following fire, windthrow or other natural or man-caused casualty, CFM will conserve existing and future standing deadwood, and, where available, focus leave tree retention on damaged, decayed, or deformed trees that are likely to provide or promote decay processes and structures beneficial to fisher or their prey.
  • CFM meets or exceeds the Forest Practices Act (FPA) live tree and snag retention, and down woody debris. For clearcut harvests greater than 25 acres, FPA requires that at least 2 snags or 2 green trees 30 feet tall and at least 11 inches DBH, at least 50% are conifer, plus at least 2 down logs or down trees at least 50% of which must be conifers that are at 6 least 6 feet long with a total volume of 10 cubic feet must be retained. CFM commits to retaining a minimum of 3 snags or green trees per acre on clearcuts larger than 25 acres, and these trees/snags will be retained for the life of the CCAA.
  • Trees >32” DBH will be retained the greatest extent possible, provided they do not pose safety hazards
  • CFM will instruct logging contractor to avoid whenever possible, driving machinery over, or otherwise damaging large down woody debris, thereby maintaining the integrity of stumps and logs that may be used by fishers and their prey.
  • CFM will seek to leave down woody debris and other structures important to fishers and their prey distributed throughout the unit instead of piling them into slash piles, will attempt to avoid mechanical damage or disturbance, and will locate skid trails around them where safety and operability considerations permit.
  • For slash piles documented as being used by fishers for denning on the enrolled lands, CFM shall not burn or otherwise mechanically alter such slash piles for a period of 5 years after the last year of known occupancy and use by a denning fisher.
  • CFM will avoid the use of rodenticides on lands enrolled in the permit area.
  • CFM will prohibit lessees from recreational trapping.

8 thoughts on “Make forest plans great again (for wildlife)”

  1. Jon, I don’t get exactly what you’re saying about forest plans here. I don’t know what at-risk species the RG has. The lynx is covered by the SLRA.

    It seems to me that if you have a species that covers more than one Forest, it makes sense for everyone to work together (including States and private folks) to develop a conservation strategy. Are you suggesting that a conservation strategy needs to be (1) developed for each forest plan? or (2) codified in some way.. that if a Forest really meant to do it they would put it in the Plan?

    It seems to me that we learn yearly more about each species and we would want to have the flexibility to use the latest scientific and other info. So..we put our current thinking in a forest plan and then have to do amendments whenever we discover it’s outdated?

    As you remember, many planners liked the idea of forest plans as a loose-leaf notebook composed of other plans and strategies that is easy to update and keep current. But I get it that some people want legally enforceable requirements. So if you got to pick five legally enforceable requirements you’d like that aren’t in the RG plan, what would they be? Not that this would be all you would want, but to give us an example of what you are thinking?

  2. Let’s not lose sight of Jon’s larger point, introduced in his opening statement: avoid plans that say “essentially nothing”. There is much truth to that. In the interest of maintaining managerial flexibility, the substance of plans is thin with few mechanisms for accountability. Given the Rio Grande’s cited example, how would the agency be held accountable for either doing /not doing what that guideline says? Plus, that guideline also commits the error of essentially restating existing agency policy.

    A revision to that guideline could be (keeping the existing policy in mind) incorporating some of the substantive examples presented from the CCAA in one or more plan components (Jon and I would have a healthy debate on which plan components). That way, the “essentially nothing” characteristic would disappear in light of more descriptive (and substantive) opportunities to appropriately manage for wildlife.

  3. Tony, but what if following existing laws, regulations and policy is enough to meet the DC’s and objectives? Suppose you follow state and federal guidelines on water quality while implementing, say, timber projects? Clearly you shouldn’t repeat them all (in case they change).

    I think there’s two different ideas here. 1. The “round up our best knowledge at this time to give project planning folks a starting place” factor and 2. Providing inflexibility/legal hooks for people who don’t like certain projects.

    IMHO evidence supports the idea that people can appropriately manage wildlife without having it in their plan… clearly forests operating from their 1986 plans still consider wildlife in their decisions.

  4. Good points, Sharon…the questions I believe we should be addressing (and what Jon was trying, I think, to put on the table for discussion) are, “what exactly should a plan say to help managers propose projects for the betterment of the landscape?” and “should a plan’s guidance be premised on rules (ie, standards) or a vision (ie, desired conditions)?” In reality, it would be both, so the trick is to find that balance.

    I believe it is the responsibility for federal land managers to know and understand the existing policies already in place to improve and protect the environment. But those policies are too large in scope to figure out how to design a particular project on a particular site. So, the land management plan can provide this more unit-relevant guidance that focuses the national policy…and that may not/should not be much more language!

    With a plan saying essentially the same thing as what the national policy says is not helpful, and that is what I think Jon was trying to point out. He offered an example where more substantive guidance could be written in plans to help the land manager figure out how to design a project and to ensure that the project’s outcome is aligned with the national policy.

    I concur with your assessment that there may be two different ideas expressed in this post – I am opting to focus on the first of your ideas since I do not agree that Idea #2 is an appropriate role for plans.

    • Ah, I think there are two more questions then.. does it help to round up design criteria or standards (I think we would all agree, yes!) and does it make sense to do it in forest plans? For example, Region 2 put out a Handbook called the “Watershed Conservation Practices Handbook” which rounded up best practices in a process with public involvement. Some might argue that this could be the best scale to derive these kinds of standards, because Forest X, Y and Z could border each other and have vastly different standards based on the ages of their plans, and desire to revise.

      I realize that FS culture is forest-centric, and perhaps that made complete sense in a world with difficult communications, but I think we need to ask if that makes sense today for each kind of thing. Is it the best way to collect “the best science”? Does it make extra work for employees and the public? Does it cohere across the landscape?

  5. Interesting enough, your suggestion is reminiscent of “regional guides” that were developed under the 1982 rule. Those guides were jettisoned in favor of more local guidance in plans. However, if every plan in a region says the same thing for a particular resource, would it be more efficient to describe that guidance once in a regional guide with local plans (maybe) pointing to that guidance as information to be used for project design?

    The planning philosophy has shifted over the decades to have all guidance located in plans, hence why we see some of the guidance that Jon points to, which arguably does not add value to the project decision making process.

    Maybe the technological advances have made room for your suggestion to collate guidance that applies to the majority (if not all) units in an administrative region (or a geographical region, accounting for habitat spanning numerous field units/regions). What would be curious is if the agency were to shift towards more centralized management guidance, would the personnel treat that guidance similarly or differently from when the agency used this approach in the 1980s? Meaning, has any learning occurred? And has that learning been transferred to today’s personnel?

  6. Thanks, Tony, I think you’re tracking my point (apologies to the other 676 viewers who may not find planning very interesting). As the current Planning Rule is written, plan components are to be based on the best available science. If the science changes, NFMA requires a determination of whether the change is significant enough to revise the plan, but otherwise amendments are discretionary. NEPA requires new science to be considered at the project level, but only if an outdated forest plan would stop a project would there be a need to amend the plan. This is the way adaptive management was designed into NFMA and its regulations. It was intended to reduce agency discretion, but I don’t think it is onerous. The agency cannot just undo the legislative intent by recreating that discretion, like the Rio Grande has done.

    I believe that plans must incorporate a “conservation strategy” in some sense that provides the required ecological conditions for at-risk species. Such strategies have been produced for many species. For some species it might be possible to use only coarse filter vegetation plan components (but they must demonstrate that in the record, and I have seen little or no attempt anywhere to do that). The fisher example looks like it was taken from a conservation strategy that recognizes the need for fine filter plan components. That might be overkill in some cases, but is an example of what could easily be done.

    The 1982 planning regulations included “minimum management requirements” for at-risk species. These were also a sort of conservation strategy that could be provided in advance of the planning process to the relevant forests to produce more consistent results based on the same science. It also framed the legal decision-space for forest planning, but the Forest Service didn’t like admitting that, so now forests have to figure it out on their own (and we’ll see in court if they get it right).

    The Rio Grande guideline is blatantly insufficient to meet viability requirements for any species of conservation concern. There are 24 animal species of conservation concern on the Rio Grande (and a greater number of plants). One is the northern goshawk, which provides a good example of how the Forest Service used to include a fairly detailed conservation strategy in R3 and R4 (based on work by FS biologists). The Rio Grande appears to be relying on coarse filter vegetation components (written in generic terms like the example guideline above). Pick any other species on the list and you’ll probably find a conservation strategy somewhere, but you probably won’t find evidence of any apparent effort by the Forest to include it in this plan. (And it was my understanding that Forest Service employees wrote many of these strategies for the purpose of forest planning.)

    I need to credit the Rio Grande with including Table 25, “Crosswalk of species of conservation concern plan components.” However, it mostly just lists the coarse filter plan components that are assumed to meet the needs of a species, and there doesn’t seem to be much thought behind it (and no supporting documentation). For example, one of the threats it recognizes to the western bumblebee is livestock grazing, but here is the lone plan component (generic guideline) they cite: “To maintain ecological conditions to support a viable population of species of conservation concern insects and plants, minimize negative impacts to pollinators when applying pesticides.”

    • Jon, adding more substantive language in plan components has frequently been viewed by plan approvers as getting “boxed in”, limiting their ability to approve projects that really make a difference to them (ie, resource extraction). I’m not saying that every line officer is a timber/cattle/minerals monger, but it is true that line officers’ performance is evaluated on output delivery rather than habitat recovery (for example).

      There is a HUGE opportunity missed to allow plans to be approved with such obtuse and wishy-washy language. Plans can be, and should be, better than this. So, thank you for allowing this conversation to occur, even if it was three of us conversing.


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