Surprise! Not: Lawsuit Filed on Pisgah-Nantahala Plan and the Prophetic Andy Stahl

Normally, this is Jon’s area,  but I thought that this is an interesting example.. just on the forest planning side.  Apparently forest planning has been going on since 2014 (for almost 10 years) to make a 15 year plan.. which should be a “30 year plan” according to this article.  And of course, there will be many changes in those  years from climate and other factors, and hopefully the plan will be flexible enough to adapt to these new situations or be easily amended.

In the notice of the lawsuit, filed Wednesday, lawyers for the Southern Environmental Law Center say the forest is home to 28 federally listed endangered and threatened species, as well as 29 other species that are candidates for that recognition. Many of those species have declined dramatically over past decades and require more stringent protection than the final forest plan offers them.

“For example, the northern long-eared bat, which relies on mature forested habitat in the [forests], has declined by more than 90% over the past few decades,” attorneys for the SELC said in the notice. “These declines should not be secondary considerations, subordinated to timber or game wildlife management. Instead, reversing these declines is central to the Forest Service’s mission.”

The filing also alleges that the Forest Service years ago provided incomplete or incorrect information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which subsequently issued an official opinion that the additional logging planned would have little impact on the listed species.

“We cannot sit back while this irresponsible forest plan ignores the science, breaks the law, and puts these remarkable species at risk.” Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program, said in a news release. “Forest plans are revised only every 20 years or so, and our endangered bats won’t last that long unless we get this plan right.”

I am reminded of a prophetic statement by Andy Stahl here on The Smokey Wire in 2011.

The big difference between the old (1982) rule and the new proposal is that the new eschews any pretense of “rational” economic planning. The old rule regarded the national forests as factories of goods and services from which planners could divine, with the help of linear programming models, an optimum allocation and schedule of harvests. Each output was assigned a value; each input was assigned a cost. When the model didn’t give the desired answer, planners tweaked the numbers. When the tweaks didn’t work, planners made-up the numbers.

The edifice came crashing down in the late 1980s. A quarter-century later, the Forest Service is still digging itself out from under the rubble.

The new rule replaces economic rationality with ecological rationality. The old gurus (e.g., Krutilla, Hyde, Clawson and Teeguarden) have been deposed by Soule, Ehrlich, MacArthur and Wilson. Leopold is the new God (is it coincidence that the Forest Service released this month a new Leopold biopic?); Pinchot is history.

Perhaps ecologically rational planning will be more successful. But I doubt it. The new forest planning process still pits bitter ideological enemies against each other with the Forest Service serving as self-interested arbiter. The modern-day critic will turn from deconstructing FORPLAN to deciphering HexSim. Every plan will be appealed and most will be litigated.

Perhaps in another quarter-century the FS will abandon any pretense of rational comprehensive planning and consider the incremental, on-the-ground K.I.S.S. approach I suggested. I should live so long.

Andy’s comment was in a post on Pete Nelson’s views on the wildlife provision, posted by our old friend Martin Nie.  And now Pete has been hired by the Forest Service to help with policy options for MOG..  and folks are writing in about needing Martin’s specific triggers determined beforehand based on monitoring, and the Forest Service circle of planning to plan continues…

Personally the biggest problem I see is the tension between “with climate unknown emergencies could arise at any time, forests will burn up and or convert to grasslands or brushfields and management will need to be flexible with these unforeseen futures” and “we need planning that’s based on ideas from the past (reference conditions) and is highly structured with many many sideboards. ” Maybe the conversation we need to have is… why don’t you trust federal employees to make the right conservation decisions in the moment? Can we have both, flexibility and trust, without lengthy and protracted exercises that are just another opportunity for “ideological enemies” as Andy says, to attempt to renegotiate previous agreements?

3 thoughts on “Surprise! Not: Lawsuit Filed on Pisgah-Nantahala Plan and the Prophetic Andy Stahl”

  1. Is it possible to express “constructive sarcasm”? If “yes”, Andy’s previous comment provides a template – saying the things that most people are thinking, but no one is talking.

    It seems the 1982 rule’s approach to land management planning tainted all perspectives on how to accomplish plans. No one is taking the approach that the 2012 rule is a totally different beast (as Andy points out), thus requiring a fresh new approach (from everyone!) rather than attempting to retrofit “what we’ve always done”.

    Alas, I do not think it matters. The war is the same, only the warriors change.

  2. I found the SELC comments on oak and locust not being matched for future climates amusing. Right now you couldn’t burn the Pisgah with all of Exxon’s gasoline – too wet. That forest is rapidly shifting to a mesic maple at low and medium elevations and needs more fire and cutting to perpetuate oak and establish a forest type compatible with a hotter climate. And badly needs intervention to restore red spruce at high elevations before that is subsumed by beech-birch maple. Sadly, NC’s national forests are managed by the attitudes of the elite second home types.

  3. Andy: “Perhaps ecologically rational planning will be more successful.”

    That probably depends a lot on how you define “success.” I’m going to take off from “The edifice came crashing down in the late 1980s.” What came crashing down was the idea that new, better integrated forest plans could predict a sustainable flow of timber volume (if not a high flow of timber volume). What happened (and I think I’m agreeing with Andy on this) is that models were “tweaked” to continue to produce unsustainable timber volumes, or future factors that would lower volumes were discounted or ignored. The marquis version of this was spotted owls, but it played out in other places with other wildlife species. On the N-P it looks like the tradition may be continuing with bat species. It looks like the Forest Service hasn’t changed, and any change in planning rules is apparently a non-factor in agency behavior.

    Of course, this isn’t a planning rule lawsuit (it’s actually not even a lawsuit yet). The Endangered Species Act hasn’t been changed, but there’s more and more species listed, so there’s more and more reasons for a federal land management agency to cut back on things that increase their vulnerability. And to let the numbers show the results of that.

    Some might point to spotted owls as an example of another kind of failure of forest planning, but that argument implies that the species would have been better off with a lot more timber harvest in their habitat, and I don’t think that’s an easy scientific argument to make. “Ecologically rational planning,” if not perverted by the agency, should be more beneficial to the ecosystem and its species than planning driven by economics. However, I don’t think you can define “failure” of forest planning in terms of downward species population trends when those are affected by many other things.

    The 2012 Planning Rule did clarify that it is the mission of the Forest Service to “contribute to recovery” of listed species. A notice of intent to sue is only necessary for ESA litigation. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are more claims in the actual lawsuit, and the same flaws they allege in the ESA NOI may be relevant to compliance with NFMA and NEPA.


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