NFMA, the Timber Wars Filter and the 21st Century

I agree with Jack Ward Thomas when he talked about “walking around the field of battle bayoneting the wounded” in, I think,  this still relevant testimony from 2000. There are also some other relevant observations from this testimony for this planning rule discussion.

21st century planning is obviously tied to NFMA, but a challenge is to divorce ourselves from the timber -o-centric nature of the statute and the “timber wars filter” that affects the way we see and frame issues . Sometimes I wonder if those of us who remember that time have some kind of filter that we can’t see beyond- and I am speaking of both those outside and inside the agency.

My wake-up call to see my own filter was moving to the Rocky Mountain Region where day to day questions include skiing, oil and gas, travel management, grazing, fuels treatments- and the supply of wood far exceeds the demand. We have little-talked about (nationally) issues of urban forests everywhere dumping, shooting ranges, crime; we also have encroachment, trespass, the need to keep our water rights and deal with water developers, we have the important but often overlooked national grasslands with prairie dogs and energy development issues.

It is only by spending time outside the larger forest policy discussion that I came to see how the old timber filter can get in the way of seeing the future clearly, including the future of the timber industry.

One idea would be to take the Southern Cal forest plans (which are relatively timber free), and see what issues they have and how they were framed, both by the forests and the plantiffs in the lawsuit.

Another idea would be to take a group of 20-35 year olds, a combination of externals and internals  – some of our most creative  thinkers and soome  experienced with current procedures, and ask them to design a  planning rule alternative. After all, they will probably be implementing, appealing and litigating the plans while we are sitting on porches sipping iced beverages and playing with grandkids.

Finally, I think that if there were a broadly supported, surgical amendment to NFMA to get rid of requirement that were clearly outdated (or relieve low-timber production forests from dealing with them) it is within the realm of possibility to pursue it.

K.I.S.S. Part II

Contributed by Andy Stahl

In comments on K.I.S.S. (Part 1, I now realize), John Rupe suggests that NFMA requires that forest plans be an “umbrella document” to guide all national forest activities.  There are three reasons for thinking that’s not the case.  First, the existing plethora of non-NFMA forest-wide plans argues that the Forest Service has never acted as if NFMA plans are all-encompassing.  These include separate plans for roads and trails (“Access and Travel Management Plans”), fire suppression and use (“Fire Management Plans”), and recreation infrastructure (“Recreation Facilities Analysis”).  None of these forest-wide plans is a part of the NFMA planning process or that law’s planning regulations.

Second, NFMA is most parsimoniously read as I suggested in K.I.S.S. Part 1.  The “one integrated plan” language Rupe cites requires only that plans include “all of the features required by this section.”  As I noted previously, the only mandatory feature NFMA requires of its plans is “forest management systems, harvesting levels, and procedures.”  What makes NFMA revolutionary, for its day, is that NFMA plans must make timbering decisions “in light of” the multiple uses.  That means the Forest Service must demonstrate that logging decisions are not made in a vacuum as if other natural resources don’t exist.  Thus, for example, NFMA requires an interdisciplinary team prepare the plan and that the plan be based on inventories of “applicable resources,” e.g., fish and wildlife.

NFMA further emphasizes that logging’s environmental consequences are important by its reference to the National Environmental Policy Act.  16 U.S.C. 1604(g)(1).  But disclosing the environmental consequences of timbering decisions is not the same as comprehensively planning the future of all natural resource activities on a national forest in a single plan.  NFMA requires the first; it does not the second.

Third, NFMA’s legislative history shows that Congress was 100% preoccupied with curing the real and perceived sins of over-logging the national forests.  Beginning with the 1970 Bolle Report that criticized clearcutting and terracing on the Bitterroot National Forest, the 1971 hearings on clearcutting held by Senator Frank Church (the recommendations of which were adopted almost verbatim in NFMA), and culminating in the spirited debate between Senator Randolph (who favored a bill that would have banned clearcutting outright) and Senator Humphrey (who favored a planning process), it is clear that Congress cared about how logging was regulated on national forests.  Nothing about mining, grazing, ski area development, water use, campgrounds, utility corridors, recreation cabins, or any other national forest use, except insofar as it is harmed by logging, can be found in the Act’s extensive legislative history.

Far from a call for all-resource, comprehensive planning, Senator Humphrey believed the Act’s purpose was to “get the practice of forestry out of the courts and back in the forests.”  He wanted foresters to stop seeing forests “only as trees and trees viewed only as timber.”  Humphrey wanted “the soil and water, the grasses and the shrubs, the fish and the wildlife and the beauty that is the forest” to be integrated into “resource managers’ thinking and actions.”  That is, their “thinking and actions” about silviculture and logging.

Planning & Collaboration

Here’s an interesting piece by our friend John Freemuth, making some provocative connections between forest planning regulations, collaboration, and Senator Tester’s proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

I don’t see it John’s way on this matter.  But the interconnections are worth considering. 

I’m certain, for example, that widespread frustration with the forest planning process helps explain the growing interest in place-based (national forest-specific) legislation.  If you’re looking for greater certainty and stability in forest management (from roadless areas to timber supply), you’re not going to find it in plans that are nothing but “strategic and aspirational.”  Instead, you seek it through legislation, or some other formal agreement with the agency.  Of course, this is not the whole story.  But problems in planning most definitely help explain the growing interest in place-based forest law.


Contributed by Andy Stahl

Forest planning has been hijacked by a generation of planners who turned what should have been a narrowly-focused effort to constrain an out-of-control Forest Service logging program and turned it into a wasteful, endless, bureaucratic exercise with little merit.  Let’s review what the National Forest Management Act actually requires of plans and the planning regulations.  The reader can follow along here:—-000-.html

Here’s what a NFMA plan must contain:

1) the “planned timber sale program” including the “proportion of probable methods of timber harvest.”

That’s it.  There is no second item.

Now look at what NFMA requires of the planning regulations.  First, there must be guidelines

1) to identify the suitability of land for resource management;

2) for obtaining inventory data; and,

3) for identifying special conditions or situations involving hazards.

Second, the planning rules must

1) insure that economic and environmental matters are considered in the forest plan;

2) insure that plans provide for diversity of plant and animal communities;

3) insure plans address research and evaluation of management systems to prevent substantial and permanent impairment of land productivity;

4) permit increases in harvest levels based on growing trees faster;

5) ensure that timber will be harvested only where soil, slope or watershed conditions will not be irreversibly damaged, land is restocked within 5 years, protection is provided to water from detrimental changes, and harvest methods are not chosen based on greatest dollar return or unit output; and, finally,

6) ensure that even-aged cutting is used only where it is appropriate, natural appearing, not too big, and protective of other resources.

That’s it.  When read in the context of the times, i.e., the clearcutting scandals of the mid-1970s, it makes perfect sense that what Congress sought were timber sale programs for each national forest that ensured logging levels and methods were light-on-the-land and protected other resources.

In the 1980s, with national forest logging beyond 10 billion and up 12 billion board feet annually, that was no mean feat.  Today, with logging at or below 3 billion board feet, forest planning ought to be a snap.  But only if the Forest Service sets its cross-hairs only on the target Congress demanded.  Otherwise, it will continue to take 15 or more years to write 15-year plans that will make no decisions and be irrelevant in the real world the day they are signed.

Andy Stahl is the Executive Director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics

Development, Forest Planning and an All Lands Approach

In the news over the weekend,  we have seen stories on the the move toward community forests in the Oregonian, and an article in the New York Times entitled “Housing Boom Near Preserves Hamstrings Conservation” on a study of the housing boom near forests and other conservation areas.

Given the pressure of development, and the desire for forest planning to take an “all lands” approach, what kinds of things should a planning rule or a forest plan contain?

Should a precursor to a forest plan be a mapping of wildlife corridors and linkages?

Do we need another COS?

This letter from Center for Biological Diversity and more than 100 groups:

Forest Planning Rulemaking to Vilsack 16Dec2009

can serve to initiate our discussion on what is the appropriate role of science and scientists in the development of a planning rule.

NFMA (1976) says ” the Secretary of Agriculture shall appoint a committee of scientists who are not officers or employees of the Forest Service. The committee shall provide scientific and technical advice and counsel on proposed guidelines and procedures to assure that an effective interdisciplinary approach is proposed and adopted. The committee shall terminate upon promulgation of the regulations. The views of the committees shall be included in the public information supplied when the regulations are proposed for adoption.”

Since NFMA was passed in 1976, which was 34 years ago, we can imagine that our knowledge of best how to use science in policy has improved along with other scientific fields of study.

So one could reasonably ask, if we were to design something today, would we use current thinking, for example, use a perspective based committee such as the RACNAC was for roadless? This would provide also provide an independent view.  See for example, Brown’s piece “Fairly Balanced”.

Does external advice need to stop at the promulgation of the regulations? I would argue that it should not, rather the development of directives and implementation could also benefit from the advice of an independent group.

Due to the recent interest in “Climategate” there have been some  examples of  current thinking on the role of science in developing policy.  For example, see Hulme’s and Sarewitz and Thernstrom’s recent op-eds.

As a scientist, and having been involved with the 05 Rule, I think we have to be very careful about what we determine is a “science” issue; which disciplines of science we choose to get involved; whether the development of consensus via arbitration of disagreements among individuals from different fields on an interdisciplinary science advisory panel can be claimed to be “science.”

I think that we can learn from the substantial literature on using science in developing policy and advisory panels that has accumulated since 1976.

This letter also highlights one of the tensions about developing  NFMA planning regulation.  Some see it as a process to arrive at a forest plan, where the substance occurs at the forest plan level. Others see it as an opportunity to hardwire policy choices at the national level through these regulations

So the discussion,  if you are a process proponent,  is simply  how to use science in forest planning; if you are a “national policy content” proponent, it may be about specific science to be used in determining national policy choices. Where you are in this “process to content” or “decide in a forest plan or decide in the Rule”  continuum may determine how you see the utility of science in the development of a rule.

Thank you to CBD and to the the other groups for articulating their perspective.