Lessons from National Park Service Planning





Recently, several of us in the planning staff in the Rocky Mountain Region here in Lakewood, Colorado went a few miles down the road to visit the Denver Service Center of the National Park Service.  This center has a planning staff, which enters into an agreement with each Park Service Region and individual Park Service units to do a general management plan for each Park unit. The advantages of this approach are the organizational efficiencies from having a trained professional staff in a centralized location. There are some disadvantages such as travel costs, etc., and there appear to be some budget battles between the Service Center and the Park Service regions that sometimes have their own planning personnel. What’s also interesting is that some parks (notably Yellowstone) have refused to do a general management plan, preferring a local planning approach for each area of the Park.  Overall, however, there are many lessons from the Park Service planning model that might be useful for the Forest Service.  Here is the Park Service planning website.

Here are some further thoughts from Dave Loomis, a regional environmental coordinator on our staff, who also attended the meeting, about an intriguing issue – how much simpler the overall Park Service planning direction appears to be when compared to the Forest Service, and how the guidance sets the stage for planning that is less costly and more efficient.

Forest Service planning is in a state of disarray because it costs too much and takes too long. The agency is currently operating (indirectly) under planning regulations from the 1970s, a time when most of the planning profession was operating under the theory of “rational comprehensive” planning. This theory held that we solve a huge comprehensive list of land use issues by studying them really hard, conducting extensive inventories, and applying rational scientific problem solving models. Sounded great, but did not work. It was too expensive, too time consuming, and did not reflect the reality that land use planning is largely a political process.

Nationwide, the planning profession has moved beyond the old rational comprehensive model towards more efficient, more effective collaborative processes that are extremely difficult to codify in a detailed ordinance or regulation. For example, the National Park Service has a very simple regulatory structure that allows it the flexibility to develop Park general plans efficiently and effectively. The average cost of a Park Plan is $700,000 compared to $2,000,000 for a Forest Plan. Yes, the Park Service mission is more focused and its plans deal with a narrower range of controversies, but its recreation vs preservation controversies are every bit as intensive as any controversy facing a Forest Service plan. Yet, the Park Service is able to complete its plans at a fraction of the cost of Forest Plans and with far less litigation. Simple, straightforward planning directives contribute to this effectiveness. By contrast, the complex Forest Service rational comprehensive planning regulatory structure has contributed to our lack of effectiveness. Think Windows 7 simplicity vs Windows Vista complexity.

OK here’s two caveats. One, Park Service efficiency is not solely the result of its streamlined directives. The Park Service has also developed business models that also contribute to planning effectiveness. However, the ability of the Park Service to develop innovative business practices is related to its less prescriptive directives. Two, the Park Service plans do not solve many land use issues on many of the Parks. They are not all things to all people. Some tough decisions are made during program, project, or site specific planning. There are clearly tradeoffs to be made in developing planning hierarchies.

That said, it’s important to consider efficiency and effectiveness as the Forest Service continues to update its planning regulations. The agency should focus on successful planning structures developed by other federal, state, and local land use planning agencies. The fact that the Park Service’s simple regulatory structure has contributed to its ability to develop plans at a fraction of the cost of Forest plans cannot be ignored.

Mark Your Calendars – Land Law Review Enthusiasts!

Professor Mark Squillace, the Director of the Natural Resources Law Center at University of Colorado Law School brought this to my attention with regard to our interest in a land law review. Check the NRLC website for more details and registration information as the time grows closer.

The Past, Present, and Future of Our Public Lands
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Public Land Law Review Commissions’
Report – One Third of Our Nation’s Lands
NRLC Martz Summer Conference 2010, June 2‐4, 2010

The Natural Resources Law Center is proud to announce its 31st annual summer
conference, which will examine the past, present and future of our public lands as we
celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1970 Public Land Law Review Commission’s Report –One Third of Our Nation’s Lands. Please join us as we bring together past and present
agency officials, policymakers, lawyers, and interested citizens for what promises to be an informative and provocative program.
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of One Third of Our Nation’s Lands
In 1964 Congress established the Public Land Law Review Commission to review the public land laws of the United States and to determine whether revisions were necessary. The Commission was comprised of six members appointed by the President, six by the U.S. Senate and six by the U.S. House. Congressman Wayne Aspinall of Colorado served as chair. In 1970, the Commission issued its report – One Third of Our Nation’s Lands. This influential report became a blueprint for much future public lands legislation including, most notably, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Forest Management Act.

As we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of this seminal document, it is time to reflect on
the need for a new Commission and a new report to address the challenges for our public
lands in the 21st century. The NRLC’s Martz summer conference for 2010 will offer a venue to consider this important idea.

Barriers to collaboration: NEPA concerns?

Interesting story. from the Billings Gazette.. I noticed a couple of things..

First, the FS process looks good- so having a cooperators group is clearly something that can work well. Right now it is not a requirement of any rule but something that makes some sense (at least it is popular in Wyoming).

Second, the BLM seems to be caught up in concerns of “pre-decisionality”, which is a concern about talking to people violating the NEPA process. Since this is a topic that is worrisome to FS folks, it would be useful to explore further.

My pragmatic view is that you talk to people and they talk to you, throughout the NEPA process. Unless you convene a formal group (without FACA), you don’t have to worry about FACA. At some point, the decision maker has to go behind closed doors and make a decision, and they and their staff bring all the conversations, formal public comment, views of cooperator groups and make a decision.

What really concerns me is that NEPA can become a reason for “not talking” to people, and I don’t think that is the spirit of NEPA. Anyway, perhaps some of you could shed some light on these concerns- you can see some of the issues that can be raised in this news story.

Forest Options Group- Some thoughts and questions

Here I suggested we meet back here in a week after we had time to read the report of the Forest Options Group.

I’m glad that Andy brought this paper to our attention. Many of the problems are still as relevant today as they were in 1997.

Not really about planning but interesting to me..

FS pilots
I don’t know how many current FS employees were on the pilot forests in the 80’s. I was on the Ochoco at the time and we thought the bucket of money concept was fantastic. As I recall, it foundered on the shoals of budget line item accountability to Congress or our regional or Washington Office’s view of that. Here’s a summary of that effort to decentralize from the bottom up..

User fees– we have experience with rec fee demo and the Valles Caldera, which suggests that people are worried that if FS units get funds from uses, they will be inclined to favor those uses to the detriment of the environment. Just on its face, the simple act of charging for recreation is a concept that works for state and federal parks… why not national forests?

On to collaborative planning.. Pilot 3. I am not so sure that collaborative councils to help with planning and monitoring are all that different from cooperators’ groups or FACA committees that exist for some forests around the country, except where the final authority rests.

But the forest plan would be developed under a new hierarchy in which a collaborative council helps the forest planning team prepare and evaluate alternatives. Forest planners act as staff for the council, and the council replaces the regional forester in selecting the final plan.

Would the ultimate locus of the decision in and of itself really help people become less polarized? I wonder how the Group thought that would work.

Also, being from a region with low timber values, and as I said above, unable to charge for most recreation, and unlikely to wrest oil and gas revenues from Interior, I don’t think getting receipts directly to the unit is a strong enough incentive to get a plan done. We could think of other mechanisms, but collaboration can take time. In my experience, in general, the fact that the plan is old does not seem to unduly inconvenience anyone (if you can do amendments). Hence there may need to be additional incentives to get plans done, even with a collaborative council.

Jack Ward Thomas on Tester’s Bill

The Pioneers. Photo by Jacob Cowgill.
Here’s a piece by Jack Ward Thomas, former Chief of the Forest Service about Tester’s bill.

A couple of his criticisms are interesting to me..

The “deal” assumes status quo conditions – political, economic, ecological and legal. But, dramatic change is but one insect and/or disease outbreak, one fire season, one mill closure, one appeal, one successful legal challenge, one budget, one new research result or one shift in market conditions away.

But so are forest plans and (in particular) forest plan EIS’s. That was a criticism of the utility of the forest plan EIS that led to the 2005 to use CE’s instead. If you don’t meet your timber target from the plan, if you need to change your standards based on new scientific information, we have a tendency to just not change and just live with a growing deviation between the plan and reality. I don’t think the solution is to do another EIS. I think (perhaps agreeing with Iverson) that standards for wildlife don’t belong in individual forest plans- they belong somewhere they can be updated on a broader scale. JWT has put his finger right on the forest plan conundrum- we need to lay out some kind of future (or do we?) yet conditions change before we actually implement what we have planned. Too many moving parts.

The “deal” hinges upon trade-offs between interest groups.

The interest groups have negotiated their own “deal” as I understand it, rather than the agency responsible official weighing all their views and making a decision. But are the interests of “interest groups” seemingly longer lived than the opinions of one federal official? I don’t know. This reminds me of this piece in the Denver Post over the weekend on Secretary Salazar.

“I only half-heartedly joke with those in industry that, during the prior administration, their names were chiseled above the chairs outside the office of the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals,” wrote Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, to Salazar this month, criticizing recent changes to oil and gas leasing policy.

“I fear that we are merely swapping the names above those same chairs to environmental interests, giving them a stranglehold on an already cumbersome process,” Freudenthal wrote.

I am being a bit of a devil’s advocate here, but is a deal between interests who have honestly met and hashed things out “worse” than pendulum swings between administrations?

Finally, JWT says..

Clearly, the governance of national forests is dysfunctional due to numerous, overlapping, contradictory laws continuously and variously interpreted by the courts. That is the problem. These bills are “sick canaries in the mine shaft” – indications that something is dangerously amiss.

Would it not be better to recognize and comprehensibly address that dysfunction?

One path would be a law review, as suggested by many.

Question: Could a planning rule help with this “dysfunction”? And if so, how, in advance of such a comprehensive review of laws?


see the whole article:
Tester’s forest bill not a feasible, long-term solution

Milepost 0 on the NFMA Diversity Provision Trail

I’d like to revisit, at a deliberate and meditative speed, the path that led from diversity in NFMA to viability and the sustainability provisions in the different planning rules. My experience is that it has been mostly the domain of wildlife biologists and lawyers, and perhaps a discussion that 1) brings the rest of us up to speed on where we’ve been and why, and 2) asks us where we want to go, may be illuminating. Particularly if we consider a broader range of views from different scientific disciplines and practitioners, and consider the context of management in the 21st century, including climate change.

Some people think that this is the most important piece of the planning rule. Others think there are plenty of procedural and substantive protections for species without this. Perhaps we will end up in a previously explored place at the end of the journey, but perhaps not.

Based on this piece by the Department of Justice:

“In conclusion, given the vague and equivocal language of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), whether the statute will operate as a substantive constraint on the discretion of the Forest Service to allocate uses which adversely affect the viability of the wildlife resource, depends almost entirely on the language of the NFMA implementing regulations, as the exercise with the viability regulation shows. Whether the Forest Service utilizes the 1982 or the 2000 regulations in future planning to deal with diversity and its viability component, future litigation will continue to determine the moving boundary between discretion and constraint inherent in NFMA.”

First question, what do we think the writers of NFMA meant by “diversity of plant and animal communities, and what was the context?” For those of us who don’t have time to read an extensive legislative history, what is a short synopsis and some key papers and concepts? Is there consensus on this in within and among our communities (of discipline and of practice)?

Here’s what DOJ says (here):

NFMA�s Diversity Requirement

NFMA required the Forest Service to develop the planning regulations in consultation with a committee of independent scientists. 16 U.S.C. 1604(h). What NFMA gave them to work with on biological diversity was vague and equivocal, and subjected diversity to a subsidiary role in multiple use planning. The regulations were directed to specify guidelines which would:

provide for diversity of plant and animal communities based on the suitability and capability of the specific land area in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives, and within the multiple-use objectives of a land management plan adopted pursuant to this section, provide, where appropriate, to the degree practicable, for steps to be taken to preserve the diversity of tree species similar to that existing in the region controlled by the plan.

16 U.S.C. 1604(g)(3)(B).

Back to keeping it simple, it seems to me that the easiest way to deal with this legal requirement would be to require an analysis for each plan of the existing diversity, and possible threats and show that “based on the suitability and capability of the specific land area in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives” the plan provided for a diversity of plant and animal communities.

Second Question: What do you think is the simplest (KISS) approach to translate the NFMA diversity requirement to a planning rule?

Reposted from Ray Vaughan on the Official Blog

From time to time we’ll cross-post interesting items from other blogs including the official Forest Service new rule blog. In my view, Ray Vaughan is a real leader in our world of seeking peaceful solutions to Forest Service land management issues. I got to know him by seeing him work on the RACNAC (national roadless advisory committee). It is no small part due to the work of people like him and Dale Harris and the others that I have such a positive feeling about formal FACA committees for seemingly intractable and (unnecessarily, in my view) politicized national disputes. The kind of disputes that end up spending years in court and keep agreements from being made and all of us from moving on to a decision about how to protect, connect, restore and sustain. I think a FACA committee can do a better job of making a recommendation for a decision worth sticking to than a judge who is ruling on specific (relatively narrow, in my view) legal issues. But that’s probably another post.

As one of the “ecos” Fotoware seems so afraid of, and so ignorant of, let me say that I applaud this effort at a collaborative development of a new NFMA rule. The NOI was the most thoughtful and thought-provoking scoping document I have ever seen from any agency. Exceptional! If the rest of the process meets the same standards, we will have a final rule that will not just survive the courts (regardless of what side dues) but will THRIVE and really set the course for a new century of management for the Forest Service. Yes, I said “management.” As an “eco,” I want nothing more than sound, science-based management from the USFS. As an “eco,” I have signed off on, approved and even been the instigator for more than 300,000 acres of ACTIVE management (read, logging and burning and more) on our National Forests. Real restoration work has been done in many forests and can be done successfully on ALL of them. This is not the time to keep minds closed on any side of the issues. We need to be open and honest and work cooperatively to find a set of regulations that will allow the agency to effectively protect what needs protecting, restore what is damaged or lost, and then maintain all that into the future against the external impacts of climate change, population growth, and more. All tools need to be available, including silvicultural ones. All people who care need to be involved. All judgments of others and their motivations need to be suspended. All efforts at finding the common ground that is there need to be explored. I have been involved with National Forest management for 27 years. I have never seen a better opportunity to find real solutions to make this agency what it is meant to be, to give these public forests a new century of success. Thanks to the great efforts of the USFS thus far, including the great NOI and this blog. I look forward to making this new rule the one that really works, legally and on the ground.

Isn’t 30 Years Enough Forest Planning?

I smiled when I saw the title of this blog. Another century of forest planning? Another century of gridlock?

I think that Dick Behan said it first, and perhaps best in 1981:

… Idealized, perfect planning that is mandated in law [and Regulation], and constrained only by an agency’s budget, will exhaust that budget. … There will come a time when the Forest Service can do nothing but plan …

RPA/NFMA cannot be made to work. Its flaw is fundamental: it is a law, and it needs to be repealed. We failed, in our collective problem solving, by placing too much faith in planning and placing far too much faith in statute. It is time to punt.

As I suggested in 2007, maybe we ought to use the NFMA rulemaking process to begin the journey of changing to a new approach to planning wherein we use scenario planning (wikipedia link) simply to “rehash the past, and rehearse the future”. And to begin a journey to learn how to practice adaptive management (wikipedia link) as an agency. Note that management is not directly linked to planning. Note that there is no “desired future.” Instead, scenarios simply help guide strategic thinking as part of adaptive management, in part by keeping forest managers’ minds open to an emergent future.

Here is a link to my Adaptive Forest Management blog for more.

Forest Options Report- Meet Here in a Week!

Andy Stahl, in a comment below on Forest  Planning #2, mentioned the Forest Options Report that he had worked on with others.  A cursory glance suggested to me that it would be good if some of us took the time to read it and came up with what ideas from there we think are still valid today, and why.  They may not strictly have to do with forest planning, but that’s OK in my view. So let’s meet back here in this space next Wednesday or thereabouts-I’ll post what I think and we can talk about it. See you then!


Forest Planning #2- The Participation-Shed

Jim Burchfield
January 18, 2009

If genuine, deliberative collaborative processes become an inviolate principle in the development and implementation of a new generation of National Forest plans, then the geographic scale of planning becomes one of the most important early decisions in the establishment of planning rules. I will argue that a vital, but not singular variable in determining a planning area boundary is the capacity of resident populations to participate in ongoing deliberations, “a participation-shed,” if you will. Even though participation has many styles and flavors, the type upon which meaningful collaboration has depended for some time is the form in which people see, hear, touch, and even smell each other – face-to-face deliberation. There is no more meaningful or creative decision environment, in terms of empathy, compromise, and learning, than the physical confrontation with your adversaries and friends. Technology gives us the ability to supplement these direct interactions, of course, and it will continue to provide enormous advantages in exchanging information and ideas, but the virtual world will always fall short of the goal to make progress. Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

So how do we design a set of geographic areas that create opportunities for people to get together and confront our very real resource management problems? I would suggest considering a few additional variables that encourage action and the ongoing measurement of consequences. First, watersheds have a logical as well as historical significance in the management of western lands. The availability of clean, fresh water will only accelerate under warming climatic conditions. Second, local government boundaries, such as state and county lines, remain stubbornly stable and administratively unavoidable. We can’t make a specious claims that these “artificial” boundaries don’t count. They do. Finally, we have the administrative boundaries of the National Forests and their dependent Ranger Districts. A planning area requires a leader to convene and guide public discussions. This is often best fulfilled by a trained, responsible federal official, a person who pays attention to the actions emerging from planning and the monitoring and evaluation that follows to adapt to new conditions. The perfect unit for planning on a National Forest would be a place like the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where the 4th code hydrologic unit happens to coincide nicely with the Ravalli County and National Forest boundary. These cases are rare, so for everywhere else, there will be fudge factors.

What we cannot fudge, however, is the potential for citizens to engage regularly, honestly, and with feeling. Someone has to be able to get in their car after work and attend a well-organized, focused meeting that lasts no longer than two hours, isn’t a lot more frequent than once per month, and gets something done on the ground within a year. This is not too much to ask, and in fact, has been done on many occasions in the past. Yet participation in Forest Service meetings often does not go well, either because of poor meeting design, lack of independent, quality facilitation, a myopia on assessment, and a never-ending ambivalence on the purpose of planning (again, all together now: getting something done to change the future!). Having planning units defined on geographic areas that would encompass recognized, community-centered places would get all of us very far down the path. Just think of all the Ranger Districts that already meet the criteria of being a relatively short driving distance (less than an hour) from the land to be affected. The genius of the National Forest System has always been its administrative decentralization. Let’s use it.

This does not imply that the geographic area is the only unit of analysis in preparing planning documents. Larger scale patterns on regional areas inform more localized decisions and offer critical explanations for potential consequences of actions. Other stochastic, broad-scale disturbances might require rather rapid changes in planning assumptions used on the geographic scale. But then, planning isn’t perfect, which is why it’s an ongoing, learning activity. Allowing people to be able to regularly participate in the decision-making regarding actions, and then to help evaluate whether the future has been changed toward a desirable trajectory allows Forest Service professional to be responsive to the highest quality knowledge and commitment of the most directly affected stakeholders. It will make planning into the political activity that is deserves to be. It will build confidence and capacity among the population. It might even foster a nation of conservationists.

Note: Sharon posted this entry and this was the only photo she could find within the time available. She would appreciate any real “forest planning” photos to use here.