You Can’t Pull a Fire Engine with a Dead Horse: Are Plan Revisions a Roadblock to Dealing With Fire Planning? AND A Bipartisan Window to Revise NFMA?

Reading this article by Marc Heller of E&E News on Chris French’s testimony (well worthy reading in its entirety), I had flashbacks to many previous discussions, including my all-time favorite The Smokey Wire post.. Andy Stahl’s KISS Rule, from 2009.

I’d like to express two caveats here.  One is that I’m assuming Marc got it right; and that if I watched the hearing, I would get the same impression. As much as I like this stuff, I do not want to watch the whole thing, so if someone would like to do that, I encourage you to do so and report back.  The other is that French’s testimony has been cleared by the Administration (as is the standard process), so that determines the FS position. It would not be unduly political to suggest that what I might call “plan-olatry” derives more from external groups than inside the Forest Service.

Basically the “can-do” Forest Service was saying that “we can’t”, at least,  they can’t without plan revisions and there’s no way to hurry them up. I’ve never really heard the FS have a can’t do attitude, no matter how strange or difficult the request from the powers that be.


Of the 154 land management plans the Forest Service follows nationally, more than half are at least 15 years old, French said in response to questions from committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

And while the Forest Service has updated 35 plans and is in the process of updating 19 more, it doesn’t have enough staff or money to catch up on the others, even with the help of contractors, French said.

“We just can’t pay for those positions anymore,” French said, adding that the Forest Service has recently seen a decline of about 40 percent in natural resources professionals who work on the management plans.

The delay in forest plans has on-the-ground implications for wildfire and other issues, as the documents shape policies on forest thinning, prescribed fire, timber harvests and other measures that have fire implications, especially in the fire-prone West.

In an era of wildfires and other challenges driven in part by climate change, land management plans may not embrace new solutions, although they can be amended from time to time. French said a full land management plan update typically takes from six to eight years.

Manchin, appearing frustrated at the logjam, asked French whether the agency could seek help from contractors — which the deputy chief said it already does — and whether the Senate could do more to help.

“Everybody, Democrat and Republican, is all for this, so all we need is your-all’s cooperation,” Manchin said.

Congress has appropriated $540 million to the Forest Service for land management plans in the past three years, Manchin said. But much of that money goes to efforts like environmental reviews, leaving just $40 million to $50 million for actual land management planning, French said.

To address the backlog, French said, the agency is taking a new approach — beginning this week — that’s based on regional, rather than forest-by-forest, analysis.

My bold.  I can see why the regional approach is being considered, but it’s one more step away from the residents and stakeholders on the ground. And I can imagine that some forests might get shorter shrift than others (imagine east side versus west side in Oregon, say.) Are we repeating the errors of the past? And if it’s not really “forest” planning, what is it?

Earlier I posted this “Fire Planning Amendments with EISs” approach that would seem to satisfy most ENGO’s. So the FS could do what needs to be done fire planning wise, and wait for a better solution to the revision problem, by doing a stand-down on plan revisions for now.

After all, it’s an emergency, and a unique window in which the FS has the bipartisan attention of Congress. The Admin could develop a FACA committee, with public comment, built on “do plans do anything useful to anyone?” (not “how to tweak the 2012 Rule?”) and starting there on revisions to NFMA. The Biden Administration has at least three years to do it and make it through the window.

Talk about an opportunity for the Administration to leave the government in a better place than they found it, and to do something with bipartisan support!

The election is in 2024 and in 2026 NFMA will be 50 years old. It’s not the latest planning science…plus conditions have also changed greatly. Perhaps it’s time to put it out to pasture.

The whole article is here.

11 thoughts on “You Can’t Pull a Fire Engine with a Dead Horse: Are Plan Revisions a Roadblock to Dealing With Fire Planning? AND A Bipartisan Window to Revise NFMA?”

  1. There’s quite a few things to unpack here, but can’t do so at the moment.
    Initial thoughts are the problematic aspects.

    Hypothesis up front: 1. French’s talking points are the standard woes regarding funding, as if the NFS couldn’t emphasize funding planning if it chose to do so. 2. Regional approach seems likely to be burdened with problems and only nominal effectiveness like other major drives for centralization.

    1. Particularly odd statement: “We just can’t pay for those positions anymore,” French said, adding that the Forest Service has recently seen a decline of about 40 percent in natural resources professionals who work on the management plans.”

    Anyone bother to ask why they lose those positions and don’t fund them? (can’t read the E&E through paywall). The pouty, tragedian act, as if this is like we’re watching a mudslide take out a house, always strikes me as odd. Funding allocation, position allocation, priority allocation, these are all the results of choices made, not of laws of nature. I don’t think FS internally idolizes plans, but the FS internally, at least on my experience, does not love centralization nor benefit from it greatly (ahem* Albuquerque Service Center, AQM, Contracting, Fire Hire)

    2. Why would regional planning be more effective, really? Is the problem actually the planning process or just legal hooks that occur in that process? What about the planning process not having a separate programmatic NEPA (can of worms!) Again can’t read testimony / article through paywall, so i’m not sure if any of this is addressed.

    Consolidated, centralized, and supposedly money saving approaches like this are stock talking points of managerial wisdom that ultimately seem to mostly gut the capacity of local units to work well, make the organization as a whole less responsive to local needs and input, and give truth to the caricatures about the federal gov’t.

    So my questions, following on those points and realizing i’ve only skimmed the surface here, are why, precisely, is the focus on a regional approach is the go-to, why the capacity problems continue to be discussed as if they’re inexorable, and a third would be less a question than a cautious reminder that “catastrophic” fire planning is not the total FS game nor even a majority part of it on considerable portions of the NF system (R8 / R9 comes to mind)

    • A. due to the unique nature of this particular article… I added a link to the whole story at the end of the post. Like I said, I wonder if we watched the same session, would we get the same impression?

      • Thanks! Upon reading the whole article, I wonder the same thing. Ultimately, I still hang up on whether or not it’s a NFMA problem per se, or a case for increasing the investment in plan revision and simplifying the planning rule requirements? (Easier said than done I know)

        What I mean is that I don’t think increased use of contractors or centralization is going to do anything other than perpetuate disfunction. I’m just extremely skeptical of the centralization impulse in government generally.

        As the discussion below highlights, it doesn’t really respond to the question of what we want plans to do, and nothing in the French testimony seemed to get at that, though it’s a brief article.

        In addition to what we want plans to do, what level of environmental analysis should plans have up front versus in the project level, especially if that’s such a time / $$$ sink? The programmatic and project level NEPA distinction is one that I know the usual answer on, ie. project level tiered to programmatic effects from plan revision, but is that level of analysis up front worth it or just detracting from the overall point of plan revision?

        • A. I think those are good questions. The original idea was that projects would be tiered and have less analysis. However that did not work out in practice, except in certain cases. Personally I found that what I call NEPA for “might could” was not all that helpful, because everything changes by the time you actually get to a project. Plus you have to make a variety of assumptions.. like how many acres will be burned and so on, that never turn out in reality. I like deciding once about wildlife protections (like the Lynx Amendment) over a relevant scale (where the species is) and that was helpful, but not necessarily the plans themselves.

          There are some The Smokey Wire classics that are relevant to this…

          Rupe is one of the most experienced, knowledgeable, and thoughtful planners I worked with, but we differ in our experiences with the utility of tiering. Houck’s argument is interesting.. the FS doesn’t want to do an EIS because people will be in their stuff. My experience was the level of analysis for things that might never happen is not all that meaningful. Even when I worked in DC with NEPA and I attended interagency NEPA meetings it seemed like other agencies weren’t as enthusiastic about tiering, as say, CEQ.
          There are probably many other classic TSW posts from that time period (when the 2012 Rule was being developed) but I couldn’t find any easily.

  2. To be clear, when French says “regional planning,” he’s talking about the new “Centers of Excellence” (I don’t make up the names, I just report out on them), which are regional planning teams that are tasked with forest plan revision only. Think: the old “enterprise team” model. The idea is that this approach frees up forests to do project planning, centralizing forest planning expertise.

    That idea has some merit: I find that forest planners don’t know or understand the 2012 planning rule, so perhaps it makes sense to have that knowledge centralized and deployed. I’m not convinced we’ll get better plans as a result, though.

  3. Susan, here’s my perspective as someone who was involved in the development of the 2012 rule (not as much as you or Jon), but also (through a phone call from Tony Tooke to me and our Regional Planner) it became clear that the correct position was not to question.. so I don’t think many people (including planners) with misgivings about the complexity of carrying it out were adequately heard.

    So.. that being said… one reason planners “don’t understand” is that it’s enormously complicated and the Directives (!!!!). .. and we won’t really know what it is and isn’t until the case law is established. Simple questions like “how does ecological integrity relate to “diversity of plant and animal communities”, if at all?
    Not so speak about NRV being a bit out of cycle with “all lands all hands” who want to focus on resilience to climate change (say, BLM or the State of Washington). Unless it’s kind of the same thing.. or not?

    My point being, that those are fundamental questions.. “what do we want plans to do?” “how can we design a process where regular people can get involved in a meaningful way?” “how can we design a process so that is easy to stay current (the old “plans as loose-leaf notebook” idea). Do we want to do what’s useful under current conditions, and if NFMA is an impediment to that, let’s think about revising it.

  4. No question that the rule and Directives are complex; but also, the USFS has had almost a decade to figure it out. At some point, “planning is hard” stops being an excuse, particularly when forest planning has been the agency’s job since NFMA was enacted.

    Don’t disagree that we need to come to agreement on what “we” want forest plans to do. I’m a broken record, but the 21-member FACA committee was pretty clear about what those stakeholders (who represented the full breadth of the public interest) thought plans should do, and in response, the agency has basically said “bring me a different rock.”

    So, I don’t think this is a NFMA issue: if anything, I think this is a multiple use problem. Being all things to all people *IS* hard, and perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps, a dominant use of ecological integrity is more tractable? 🙂

    • Susan, I acknowledge that the FACA committee represented public interest (groups), and interest groups are an important part of government; but I think it’s also important to consider how regular people could get involved other than by joining an existing interest group. Also while the FACA committee had lots of experience, it wasn’t necessarily about conducting the work of forest planning.

      It seems to me that doing something is different from observing others do it, and we usually respect that form of knowledge.

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on whether it a NFMA/2012 reg problem, or a multiple use problem. The key question would be “how successful is BLM at getting out RMP’s compared to the FS” and to examine their approach and compare.

      It would be interesting to have different groups get together separately and answer those questions. Say, FS planners in one group. FS Resource specialists in another group. The latest in planning from public admin schools. Natural resource law professors.

      • I’m probably the least experienced one in this conversation, so take this for what it’s worth, but the threads seem to converge, a bit, this way:

        – It may not be a NFMA / NEPA problem per se, but an implementing reg problem for those. Meaning, how we do NFMA in the form of forest plans and how we do NEPA on those forest plans? The “nitty-gritty” of producing a forest plan and doing analysis on it seems to be where the difficulty occurs. So is that something addressed by changes to NFMA / NEPA or something changed by rulemaking?

        – I see how multiple use complicates the planning process, but have reservations about how moving away from multiple use may create equal or greater complications overall (w/ reference to susan’s comment). For one, the legal foundations of the FS are heavily based in multiple use. For two, I harbor significant doubts that an “ecological integrity” dominant use would be more tractable, particularly at the local level. Finally, I think that multiple use, for all its difficulties, is a more durable concept that can incorporate ecological objectives while weathering changing political winds. I haven’t developed this thought all the way.

        – Upshot is that it’s probably an issue emerging in a complex way from each of the above: NEPA / NFMA / implementing rules / multiple use / institutional inertia and garden-variety dysfunctions. So what’s the easiest way to change it *without indulging in “magic wand” solutions that are easy to get behind but fail to produce meaningful results in the long run*? I think taking planning too far away from the Forests themselves will not work well in the long run, nor does further gutting of the institutional capacity of the agency in the long run actually help anyone who is concerned with results on the Forests and Districts.

        What does that mean in practice? I’m not sure. I think there’s a legitimate role for “centers of excellence” or expertise at the RO level. But, I think a stove-piped plan that has little to no local input or buy-in (except from the very highest level like a Forest Sup), the funneling away of any remnant planning expertise at the forest or district level, and contributing to the sense of inexorable decline in the agency outside of the ever-burgeoning fire realm, is a high cost. Thus I think I tend to be interested in changes to planning rules and how we do NEPA for plans instead of retaining the same (perhaps overly) complex set of demands and further reducing the actual units tied to the land in favor of those working at higher levels of abstraction.

        My rationale for the latter comment is not to denigrate RO / WO levels, rather just to raise the issue that those levels of the organization seem to have issues retaining employees and expertise to a degree that is similar to the Forest level (and maybe only marginally better than Districts at retaining), and that those levels of the organization could end up producing plans that more closely reflect the politics of a given administration in power at the time when compared to levels of the organization that are more responsive or more directly accountable to local interests and needs. I know from reading here that the local vs. top-down approaches to things are much debated.

        Anyway, food for thought.

  5. Yes, any time we start talking about rewriting NFMA there is a lot to unpack. A 50-year review might be worthwhile, and by then we’ll have a better sample of what the 2012 Rule has wrought than the few revised plans (and fewer court cases) that we have so far. (Of course by then I may be ready to drop out of the conversation!) I think the core premise of NFMA is still valid – give the public an honest accounting of where and how much you are planning to log based on where and how much other needs conflict with that. I don’t see how current fire concerns would change that, but they do add to the importance of the planning question of where fire and protection from fire are needed.

    I agree with the comment that French’s testimony is traditional budget lobbying. I didn’t do budgets with the Forest Service, but I understood that planning was funded by taking money from other accounts, so it would make sense that fire is drying up those sources. If “Everybody, Democrat and Republican, is all for this,” I don’t see why they couldn’t fund planning directly and specifically. Then the Forest Service could just gear up and get it done.

    I have supported centralized forrest planning ever since the original planning cohort I was a part of started to retire. There is a specific set of knowledge and skills that goes into planning (including knowing where the “legal hooks are”), and it really isn’t cost/time-effective for a lot of people to be diverted from their chosen jobs to learn them. (A plan should be written so you don’t have to know how the plan was made to be able to follow it.) The interface with the local staff and public has to be done thoughtfully, but I don’t think much is lost by “outsourcing” analysis and documentation (the “nitty gritty”) to experts. The decision would still be made by forest supervisors based on their consideration of staff and public input.

    On the NEPA question, courts have pretty much said that forest plans require an EIS, and the Forest Service has agreed, so it would be hard to move from that position unless the nature of forest plans is changed. Programmatic EISs don’t get as close of a look from the courts, and I think the FS could figure out a way to do forest plan EISs in a centralized way that reduces the size of that job, and maybe even contributes meaningfully to simplifying project-level analysis. (I don’t get the distinction between “environmental reviews” and “actual land management planning.”)

    I will take issue with a general premise that outdated forest plans are a substantial barrier to reducing fire risk. A plan can prohibit actions, but someone should have asked French for specific examples. I suspect those are usually standards that protect at-risk species, and more money is not going to change that. I suppose a leading example would be the Eastside Screens type of language that limits removal of large trees, but the difference that kind of limitation makes to actual fuel reduction seems to be scientifically debatable. This should be considered based on local conditions through forest planning efforts.


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