Condition-Based Management: Forest Service FAQs

Apologies to the Forest Service, the WO Press Office provided this excellent summary of  “What is Condition-Based Management: FAQs” in February,  and it got lost in my e-pile.  My idea was that people of all persuasions often mean different things by CBM and that our discussion would be clearer if we started with “What the Forest Service Thinks it is” since they are the ones using it. There are six pages attached here and I only excerpted the first questions below. Conceivably, we could also look at cases in which the use of CBM wins in court and when it loses, and see if that relates in any way to the topics as addressed below, or to other factors. I was hoping that some law students would look at these cases and share their observations. The Forest Service Office of General Counsel probably has done this work and shared it with the Forest Service, so if anyone would like to share that, it would help our joint learning also.


What is Condition-Based Management (CBM)?
CBM is a management approach which supports responsiveness and flexibility between planning and  implementation in natural resource management. Condition-based management allows for proposed treatments to be aligned—post-decision but prior to implementation—with current conditions on the ground. It does this by focusing on collecting the right data at the right time and selecting the right management activity to move toward desired conditions. Validation surveys completed prior to implementation will determine the current precise site conditions and the best treatment(s).

Here is how it works. At the onset of project planning, known or expected environmental conditions are examined as well as a range of possible management activities. This is done by using mid-scale and site-specific data of current conditions to propose a variety of appropriate treatments to meet the purpose and need and move toward desired conditions. This framework of expected environmental conditions, possible management activities, and likely outcomes are what is disclosed and assessed throughout the NEPA environmental analysis process. Then, once a NEPA decision is made but prior to implementation, current site conditions are confirmed where implementation is to occur. The appropriate management activities are assigned for the site conditions at that time according to the selection criteria and range of management activities in the NEPA analysis and decision. If adjustments are needed to what was proposed, these are made within the constraints of the identified and analyzed range of possible management activities and design features.

NEPA Requirements and CBM
Condition-based management is a method to meet NEPA’s requirements, not to avoid or shortcut them. The increased flexibility CBM offers requires additional work in developing the proposed action, analyzing effects, and engaging the public, and is designed to implement the right treatment in the right place.
CBM projects must meet the site-specificity and public involvement requirements of NEPA. There is no get-outof-NEPA-free card with CBM. CBM is both front-loaded (NEPA) and back-loaded (validation). The courts ultimately decided that NEPA is a procedural statute with twin aims requiring agencies to (1) consider the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and (2) inform the public that they (the agencies) considered environmental concerns in their decision-making process.

It is incumbent upon the Forest Service to provide enough site-specificity in the proposed action, existing conditions, and effects analysis in order to comply with NEPA. A CBM project needs to define and analyze the effects from a range of management activities for defined site conditions in the project area. Using common and easy-to-measure selection criteria (e.g., stand density, level of mistletoe, amount of invasive species) and filters (e.g., vegetation type, critical habitat, nesting habitat) to delineate site-specific conditions for proposed management activities are ways to establish site-specificity. This also gives flexibility to implementers (for example; avoiding important new TES species habitat, putting the right treatment in the right place to move toward desired conditions, and revising stand boundaries if needed to reflect current site conditions).

The following components are recommended in a CBM project:
• Describe the rationale/reasoning for using the CBM approach for the project in the Purpose and Need section. See “When and where should condition-based management be used” section below.
• Use best available site-specific data, for example stand-level data (or data on groups of stands) to describe existing conditions.
• Define a range of treatments/prescriptions needed to move the project area toward desired conditions.
• Based on site-specific data, develop selection criteria (e.g., vegetation/habitat conditions) that will be used to determine which management activities, or range of treatments, should be prescribed, as well as habitat or other filters that will control where treatments will NOT be considered (i.e., condition-management pairings, if-thens).
• Develop design features to be used in alternatives, including those connected to the habitat and other filters described (areas you won’t treat). Include “caps” on number of acres for each management activity/treatment.
• Map anticipated treatment areas by alternative in as much detail as possible.
• Analyze the impacts/effects from the most anticipated treatments for each alternative. Don’t analyze the worst-case scenario, but the “expected,” “anticipated,” or “most likely” scenario or alternative. Clearly and carefully set out all assumptions and methods used in the analysis. Conduct the analysis at the stand or groups-of-stands scale to make the analysis as site-specific as possible. Make the ecological benefits clear.
• Be transparent with the public in identifying the agency’s expectations and anticipated scheduling/timing for implementation. Develop an estimated implementation plan in the NEPA
documents and share with the public.
• Identify in the implementation plan and in the decision how the agency will conduct the required “validation” prior to implementation, such as in a validation checklist. The Responsible Official must ensure that all validation work occurs.

Science informs CBM in the proposal, in the selection criteria used, and in the proposed management activities that will be used with certain site conditions to move them toward desired conditions and make forest ecosystems more resilient to disturbances such as climate change and insect and disease infestations. CBM, as in any other NEPA, uses the best available science to determine what treatments may be needed to do so, to support your effects analysis, and relay uncertainties, but allows the flexibility to determine what is best for site-specific conditions at the time of implementation (rather than a preset prescription based on what is expected).

Why use condition-based management?

Condition-based management allows managers to make decisions with the flexibility to respond to changes in on-the-ground conditions and confirm the right treatment is prescribed and conducted at the right time. This is important because site conditions may change by the time management activities are implemented, they may change rapidly due to disturbance, or a certain order or timing of implementation may be needed. Using a CBM approach works well when there is enough known information to conduct a reasonably detailed analysis and fulfill the twin aims of NEPA. CBM assures that the assigned management activity is responsive to any changes in environmental conditions and is the appropriate treatment to move toward desired conditions. With
the focus on conducting the right treatment(s) for the current condition, more precise implementation choices can be made and there is more certainty in meeting the project purpose and need.

When and where should condition-based management be used?

The CBM management approach is best used when vegetation management activities are being assessed in a landscape where there is a need for flexibility in assigning treatments due to the potential for environmental changes over time. The rationale for this approach and the process for how CBM will be implemented is best described clearly and upfront in the project NEPA document as well as in the decision.
Some situations that indicate when and where CBM may be applicable include:
• When site conditions are dynamic and unpredictable due to reasonably foreseeable environmental stressors, such as insect and disease outbreaks, invasive plant encroachments, and climate change.
• When implementation may take place over a long period of time after the decision, such as in larger, landscape-scale projects.
• Where existing or current data is sufficient to predict effects and outcomes from treatments, but additional site-specific surveys may be needed to confirm the precise current conditions and assign activities at the time of implementation.

These situations are independent of each other and all of them do not need to be present for the potential use of CBM. Condition-based management is not needed when site conditions are predictable and site-specific information and field data are robust and comprehensive for fine-grained analysis. It is recommended that you don’t use CBM if it’s not needed.


8 thoughts on “Condition-Based Management: Forest Service FAQs”

  1. This is helpful for understanding their thinking. I think it should also explicitly acknowledge a couple of specific requirements of NEPA, and how those would be met.

    One is the continuing duty to consider new information and changed circumstances until an action is completed. This obligation works against their criteria for when to use a condition-based approach. “When site conditions are dynamic and unpredictable,” that is when you would expect the predicted effects to change and NEPA would most likely need to be revisited. “When implementation may take place over a long period of time,” it is more likely that intervening events may lead to changes in effects that must be considered pursuant to NEPA.

    The idea is probably that if they can anticipate all of the possible outcomes, and state how the decision would change, and consider the effects now, they would have already completed any effects analysis that would be triggered by changed circumstances. Maybe that’s why they say, “Using a CBM approach works well when there is enough known information to conduct a reasonably detailed analysis.” However, that’s not what you have when site conditions are dynamic and unpredictable.” They also say, “Don’t analyze the worst-case scenario…” If a scenario occurs that they haven’t accounted for, they will have to reconsider the effects in accordance with NEPA.

    They also need to look at and explicitly address the requirements of
    § 1502.21 Incomplete or unavailable information:

    “(a) When an agency is evaluating reasonably foreseeable significant adverse effects on the human environment in an environmental impact statement, and there is incomplete or unavailable information, the agency shall make clear that such information is lacking.”

    There are specific disclosure requirements for this situation.

    The Forest Service gives an example of “avoiding important new TES species habitat.” This raises questions about ESA compliance. If the original decision includes a prohibition against disturbing any (known or unknown) habitat, maybe, but there is not necessarily public (or consulting agency) oversight at this point in the process.

    It looks like they are offering a small window for projects where they can “conduct a reasonably detailed analysis” of a foreseeable range of options that they can reliably predict the effects of (and the court cases seem to agree with this). But the forests may be seeing this as a barn door that’s been left open.

    Then there’s this: “develop selection criteria (e.g., vegetation/habitat conditions) that will be used to determine which management activities, or range of treatments, should be prescribed, as well as habitat or other filters that will control where treatments will NOT be considered.” Why shouldn’t these limits be in the forest plan?

  2. From an ESA perspective, CBM can work fine for some species but can be a nightmare for others. If the project includes a lot of habitat modification for a listed species with a rapidly changing environmental baseline, CBM might not be the best way to go. Due to climate change, the chances the baseline is going to change due to fire and/or insect and disease over the next 20 years is really high. Although one can predict these things are going to happen, their specific effect on the species is far from certain.

    For large CBM projects that include manipulating a lot of habitat for species where the baseline is likely to change for the worse over the term of the action, I recommend not doing CBM, doing a framework programmatic BO for the project, or doing a programmatic BO that includes extremely thoughtful conservation measures that largely avoid or minimize the adverse effects. Line officers are often not very ESA savvy and therefore do not weigh ESA issues heavily when making the CBM decision, then they get impatient when the consultation is difficult.

    • Thanks A, what exactly do you mean by a “listed species with a rapidly changing environmental baseline”.. based on climate projections, wouldn’t they all have a “rapidly changing baseline”? What would make some listed species different from others?

      • There are many species for which climate change is not a primary stressor. Consider wolves, most places where they are listed the protections afforded by the act are resulting in a positive lambda. Then again, wolves have a rapidly changing baseline where they are listed, only it’s a positive lambda. To issue a stand alone BO for CBM the Service must be able to quantify take. This is hard for a 20 year project with a changing species baseline. One way around this is to estimate an annual amount of take and have periodic reporting and monitoring requirements that validate the take statement, baseline, effects analysis, and jeopardy conclusion. For complex landscapes, I think it is best to have PBOs with really good conservation measures for the listed species. The better the measures, the easier it is to do a PBO. The greater the risk to the species from the proposed action, the harder it is to do a PBO.

    • Looking at the environmental baseline is a good way to think about this. It’s important to note (from the ESA Consultation Handbook), “However, a programmatic consultation will not substitute for an individual project consultation, unless the programmatic analysis lays out the species-specific standards within which all individual activities will be conducted.” Also, “Framework” consultation is not addressed in this Handbook, but I understand it to mean that a follow-up site-specific consultation is expected. The point being that a subsequent ESA consultation is likely, which I think means supplementing NEPA is likely, and so is also a case where CBM may not work well if a goal is avoiding another NEPA step.

      (From what I’ve seen, the “streamlining” process for ESA consultation, which promotes programmatic consultation, has developed differently in different parts of the country, so there might be some different interpretations.)

      • I do not believe having a framework PBO triggers the need to do supplemental NEPA. However, a subsequent ESA S7 consultation is required to complete an activity under the framework PBO, but the subsequent consultation is often streamlined. One can also do a mixed PBO, where some activities proposed have enough site-specific information provided to conclude no jeopardy and exempt take, while for other activities there is only enough info to conclude no jeopardy, but not enough info has been provided to exempt take.

        • It’s the required subsequent step of the ESA consultation process that would be likely to also trigger additional NEPA requirements because of any new information it turns up relative to environmental concerns (i.e. listed species). It may or may not lead to a formal “supplement” process with public participation, but this question would have to be addressed and documented.


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