Timber sustained-yield requirements for forest plans

In our recent discussion of the Nantahala-Pisgah forest plan revision, Sharon said, “Jon, that raises a question, how is sustained yield considered in the 2012 Rule and regulations?”  Nicholas Holshauser did a pretty good job at answering there, but I want to provide a little more context because it’s a really good question with a complicated answer. I’ve highlighted terms to keep an eye on to help understand this.

Here are the relevant sections of NFMA:

  • 1604(e)

In developing, maintaining, and revising plans for units of the National Forest System pursuant to this section, the Secretary shall assure that such plans—

(2) determine forest management systems, harvesting levels, and procedures in the light of all of the uses set forth in subsection (c)(1) of this section, the definition of the terms ‘‘multiple use’’ and ‘‘sustained yield’’ as provided in the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960, and the availability of lands and their suitability for resource management.

  • 1611(a)

The Secretary of Agriculture shall limit the sale of timber from each national forest to a quantity equal to or less than a quantity which can be removed from such forest annually in perpetuity on a sustained-yield basis: Provided, That, in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives, the Secretary may establish an allowable sale quantity for any decade which departs from the projected long-term average sale quantity that would otherwise be established…  Provided further, That any such planned departure must be consistent with the multiple-use management objectives of the land management plan. Plans for variations in the allowable sale quantity must be made with public participation as required by section 1604(d) of this title (procedures for plan revisions).

The law does not define sustained yield, and other language used here is not self-explanatory.  That is most likely because it merely codifies the historic practice of the agency in its timber management planning, which was thoroughly understood by everyone at the time.  Wilkinson and Anderson take this view in their contemporaneous examination of NFMA where they state:  “The Forest Service has always placed a ceiling on each national forest’s annual timber sales from the suitable land base to insure a perpetual yield of timber” (p. 122), and, “the NFMA requires the Forest Service to follow NDEF policy (see below), with some exceptions.”   That historical understanding was reflected in the 1982 planning regulations, and is still included in the Forest Service timber management planning handbook (§2409.13, Chapter 30).

Thus, sustained yield was always, and would be under NFMA, determined by identifying the land that would be used for timber production (suitable acres) and the volume per acre that would be yielded over time (including any reductions to accommodate other uses), and projecting the maximum harvest that could be achieved per decade over time without declining between any two decades (perpetually).  Sustained yield thus required non-declining even flow of timber volume (NDEF), which was characterized as the “base sale schedule” for a forest plan.  A declining flow would be referred to as a “departure” from this schedule and from non-declining flow.  Because the parameters determining timber volume (acreage and competing uses) would change for each forest plan alternative, the sustained yield would also be different.

The 2012 Planning Rule states:

  • 219.11(d)(6)

“The quantity of timber that may be sold from the national forest is limited to an amount equal to or less than that which can be removed from such forest annually in perpetuity on a sustained yield basis. This limit may be measured on a decadal basis. The plan may provide for departures from this limit as provided by the NFMA when departure would be consistent with the plan’s desired conditions and objectives. Exceptions for departure from this limit on the quantity sold may be made only after a public review and comment period of at least 90 days. The Chief must include in the Forest Service Directive System procedures for estimating the quantity of timber that can be removed annually in perpetuity on a sustained-yield basis, and exceptions, consistent with 16 U.S.C. 1611.

Planning Handbook now states

  • (§63.41)

 “The Responsible Official shall determine of the sustained yield limit as the amount of timber that could be produced on all lands that may be suitable for timber production, assuming all of these lands were managed to produce timber without considering other multiple uses or fiscal or organizational capability.

This new “sustained-yield limit” is obviously an entirely different beast.  The acreage used includes lands that are not suitable for timber management, and the projected volume does not reflect other multiple-use decisions made in a forest plan (including such NFMA requirements as plant and animal diversity).  The SYL does not vary by alternative, and would obviously be much higher than under existing forest plans.  And since the replacements for ASQ (PTSQ and PWSQ) are supposed to be based on expected resource conflicts and financial constraints, volume targets based on these figures could never exceed that “capacity.”

The sustained yield “limit” is not actually a limit, and does not serve the purpose intended by NFMA of sustainable harvest volumes through its non-declining flow requirement.  In fact, the Rule (despite requiring consistency with NFMA language) refers to “departures from this limit” instead of departures from NDEF.  While the sustained yield “limit” may be non-declining, there is no determination that the actual harvest volume (PTSQ/PWSQ) could be sustained (unlike the former ASQ).  Consequently, harvest levels (over time) have not been determined for the plan based on all multiple uses or based on NDEF, as required by NFMA.  This seems especially problematic on the Nantahala-Pisgah, where they admit they calculated the sustained yield based on lands suitable for timber production that they claim will never be harvested; that’s an inherent contradiction.  Until someone does the correct analysis, it’s hard to say how these changes affect this plan’s timber volume or whether there is a departure from NDEF that they should have disclosed to the public.

While there was some public involvement in developing the Planning Handbook (much less than for the 2012 Planning Rule), this radical break from tradition (and possibly from NFMA), was not made apparent to the public.  It was only acknowledged in comments when the final Handbook was published.  The Administrative Procedure Act requires effective public notice when an agency changes its procedures to this degree.  There are therefore both substantive and procedural questions about this change in how timber management is being addressed in this and other forest plans.

It has always looked to me like this was a search for the “holy grail” of having their trees and logging them, too.  More to the point, a national forest would have a much expanded land base relative to their expected timber volume targets, so they have a much easier job finding where to meet them.




8 thoughts on “Timber sustained-yield requirements for forest plans”

  1. I want good forest roads, to maintained trailheads, that lead to maintained and signed trails.
    I want wood from National Forests that can help build homes for Americans, not going overseas or up in smoke.
    Anyone in Region 5 knows neither of these things are happening. Anyone in Region 5 knows a radically lower level of harvest is happening from the “Suitable Land Base” than is possible, practical, or rational. Meanwhile, externalities from this failure are shifted to private timberland in Region 5, and then other states in the US (with radically lower environmental protections), and beyond that to countries that could care less about enviro protection.
    It is like NIMBY-ism combined with the worst of trustafarianism, really.

    Planning and process and law is great for a select few groups. It isn’t working in the real world.

    • Planning and process and law would work fine it what is needed to meet the law were included in the planning process and realistic projected volumes were recognized in the plan.

  2. Thanks for this, Jon, I had some inklings of it when we discussed the GMUG plan, but this is a very clear lay-out. So the entire concept that had lasted for decades was not changed in the reg itself but in the Handbook? Were you involved in that? Seems like there must be a backstory here.

    • I did work on the Handbook, but I wasn’t directly involved in the timber parts, and I retired before it was done. I could see how this would have been an appealing option, and it’s complicated enough that arguments against it are hard. There should be a good back story about how much was deviousness or ignorance or where either the Timber staff or OGC were on this issue, but I’m not sure who’s left to tell it.

      Sometime I’d like to see it done both ways on a forest to see what difference it makes. If the scheduling model were constrained to non-declining flow on suitable acres, it is possible that that gaps in later years would force a reduction in the near term. The 1982 regulations used to require what is now the SYL as a “benchmark” to maximize timber volume for comparison to alternatives, which would have been included in the “Analysis of the Management Situation,” which is probably not readily available any more.)

  3. Wow, this is even more messed up than the fundamentally flawed sustained yield calculations I thought I knew.

    It’s already a huge problem when sustained yield estimates are calculated based on the inclusion of vast areas that are never going to logged (due to old-growth conditions, fires, proximity to sacred ground, etc), so even without the shenanigans described here, ASQ is grossly overestimated.

      • Some of the mess results from the lack of transparency in how timber targets are developed. ASQ used to be a basis for that (which had plenty of problems), and it would be interesting to see what in the forest plan (if anything) is now being used for forests that have revised their forest plans. ASQ was never “correct,” but everyone understood where it came from. I’m not sure that’s true of TPSQ/WPSQ or plan objectives.


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