Should Forest Plans Establish Management Areas?

For some people, the essence of a Forest Plan is the establishment of “management areas”.  But do they work?  Does it make sense to equate a Forest Plan to a zoning document?

Under the 1982 planning rule, management area prescriptions are one of the Forest Plan content requirements (along with a summary of the management situation, multiple-use goals and objectives, and monitoring/evaluation requirements.)  A management area prescription addresses multiple-uses with “associated standards and guidelines for each management area including proposed and probable management practices such as the planned timber sale program.”  (36 CFR 219.11(c) – 1982 version)

The weakness of this approach is that management areas are often viewed as single resource by single resource emphasis areas.

In their book Designing Sustainability Forest Landscapes, Simon Bell and Dean Apostol observe:

“NFMA led to development of complicated zoning maps for each national forest.  In essence, the attempt was (and still is) to resolve competing uses by creating overlays and associated standards, very similar to what one finds in local land use planning.  The Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon, for example, identified over 40 separate zones, including such designations as timber emphasis, developed winter sports, scenic viewsheds, a big-game winter range, and late successional reserves.  Each zone has a set of standards that specify whether logging can occur, and if so at what rotation, the size of clearcuts, the allowable density of roads and so forth.

 The level of zoning typical on US national forests today demonstrates the limits of what can be accomplished through zoning-based plans.  At its worst, it represents an absurd division of the forest to a point where it cannot even be understood, let alone competently managed.  The managers are tied in knots, and neither they nor the public who owns these forests can effectively visualize what the forest will look like or be.”  p. 25

 The requirement to identify management areas was absent in the 2005/2008 planning rule.  Rather than “prescriptions”, the intent was to identify “desired conditions” at multiple scales, and “overlays” of specific suitable use maps at broad scales with approximate lines.  There are many advantages to this approach – plans are more adaptable, maps are consistent with the unique role and scales of contributions that a particular Forest may serve, and plans don’t seem more prescriptive than they really are.  Still, it seems like planning teams couldn’t get away from the concept of management areas.   In some cases, some teams used the identification of “special areas” as a replacement for management areas.  While it certainly makes intuitive sense that you don’t need zones to cover every inch of a National Forest, it also makes sense to limit the types of special areas to a consistent National set (recommended Wilderness, research natural areas, botanical areas, National Recreation Areas, etc.)

Should management areas still be a component of Forest Plans in a new planning rule?    Are Forest Plans really zoning documents, and how can they represent themes rather than specific actions?

The Blame Game

Whether we are talking about planning, assessments, monitoring, or any other managerial function it is good practice to also talk about what I like to call the “p” words, psychology and politics. Here is a little tidbit I’ve been thinking about again recently.

How often do we resort to blaming others for our own problems/failings? Think first of international relations and war. Think second of our own families. Think third of the organizations we work for and with. Admittedly, everything depends on everything and relationships are a two-way street. But I still believe that much of our undiscussed, and often undiscussable conflict derives from our own inability to see ourselves as others see us. This too, is a two-way street. Anyone or any groups we are in conflict with usually have the same problem, which we might think of as a special case of “frame blindness.”

(See generally Chris Argyris’ Action Science ideas. For the Forest Service specifically, see my Catch-22 and Maladaptive Organizations, and on “frame blindness” and other decision traps, see How to Avoid Harebrained, Cockamamie Schemes.)

Not only do we too-often think of ourselves as victims, but usually “frame” ourselves as well-meaning heroes — hardworking, fair and sensitive heroes — stopped in our tracks by those who we vilify as enemies, or malcontents, who we to-often view as lazy, inconsiderate, unappreciative, and insensitive. The problem gets worse as each side digs in, nurturing a co-dependency. In organizations the problem spreads as more and more people buy into the blame game, setting up a contagion that afflicts entire organizations.

I just finished a little book, Leadership and Self-Deception (2000, Second edition 2010, link) that captures the organizational “blame game” well. Importantly, the authors give hints on how to move beyond victim/blame both in interpersonal relations, management and leadership, and organizational effectiveness measures.

One key toward organizational betterment is to learn to appreciate people as people, not as cogs in organizational machinery. Another key is to learn how to accept and share responsibility for organizational problems. In an afterword, the authors describe how in applying lessons learned from the book a CEO instituted a new way of tracking and dealing with problems in a company:

Whereas before, he would go to the person he thought was causing the problem and demand that the person fix it, the CEO began to consider how he himself might have contributed to the problem. He then convened a meeting including each person in the chain of command down to the level where the problem was manifest. He began the meeting by identifying the problem. He laid out all the ways he thought he had negatively contributed to the culture that had produced the problem and proposed a plan to rectify his contributions to the problem. He invited the person directly below him to do the same thing. And so on down the line. By the time it got to the person most immediately responsible for the problem, that person publicly took responsibility for his contributions to the problem and the proposed a plan for what he would do about it. In this way, a problem that had gone on literally for years was solved nearly overnight when the leaders stopped simply assigning responsibility and began holding themselves strictly accountable.

See too: Difficult Conversations (1999) ( link) (Google Books preview)

None of this is new, of course, both the aforementioned books were written around 2000. In a 2006 Forest Policy-Forest Practice post titled Perplexed by Principles for Process Improvement , I alluded to the “power-over” v. “power-with” dilemma, and reiterated my 2003 suggestion to get us beyond gridlock by beginning the journey toward true collaboration.

Maybe I was planting seeds of thought, maybe I was whistling in the wind. Maybe the time is right now, or is yet to come. But maybe it will never come!

Why ? Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Capital P “Politics” is a power-over game, and US government agency administration is “political”. It used to be that the Timber Barons and their Congressional and Administration lackeys were never far from earshot of anything that the Forest Service did (remember especially the 1950s through 1970s or 80s). Now the game has shifted, and Fire Money (and assoicated power) has more sway, as increasingly does Recreation Money. Maybe we will get a chance for better collaboration, even adaptive co-management as the Resilience Alliance folks call it.

But I won’t be surprised if we don’t. I have been hoping for a “collaborative future” for a very long time, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve not fallen into the insanity trap: doing (saying) the same things over and over, and expecting different results.

Returning to more optimistic thoughts, Leadership and Self-Deception got me to thinking about other books like Argyris and Schön’s Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, (1990) and Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations (2002). (See my 2005 Forest Policy-Practice Fierce Conversations post). Only after learning to own up to and defeat the victim/blame game do we have any chance at other important organizational learning opportunities.

A key question: Is it really possible, or remotely likely that the US Forest Service (or any other large government bureau) will ever be able to move beyond the blame game?

The New Energy Economy and Forest Plans

The process that we determine whether public or private land for transmission lines or a combination, is environmentally, socially and economically “best” for new powerlines is critical in our new energy economy is a key policy question. See today’s story about Governor Freudenthal’s concerns. One thing that’s for sure is that forest plans in and of themselves can’t keep up with these requests, although management areas or themes or suitability (lines on maps) may be helpful concepts when these questions come up.

Timber Wars Over.. Role of Forest Planning Process??

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (center) expresses his appreciation for being given the opportunity to tour and learn more about Arizona’s groundbreaking effort to restore forest health and protect fire-threatened communities. Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick (left) and various local and forest officials accompanied Vilsack on the tour.

Please see story on Four Forests Initiative in Arizona.

It would seem to support the ideas of landscape scale decisions and collaboration, and the forest plan as a compilation of decisions made, rather than the instrument of decision making. Also, as Andy maintains, if NFMA is about timber, and if timber wars are over, then should forest plans be simply a large loose-leaf notebook of decisions made at different scales? Is there any “there” there?

Also it brings up Martin’s question of large scale NEPA- will ask around how they are handling it and report back.

Should Congress Let the Forest Service Off for Good Behavior?

From Andy Stahl

Some have suggested that Congress amend NFMA, establish a public land law review commission, or otherwise lessen the binds of environmental law. They say that the Forest Service has been reformed, that logging is no longer a problem, or that other problems (e.g., climate, insects, private land use) not addressed by NFMA are now paramount.

Wall Street bankers made the same plea in 1999 when they persuaded Congress to repeal the Depression-era regulations that separated commercial and investment banking. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for the banks to remind us that where there’s money to be made, it will be, and damn the consequences.

Money still grows on Forest Service trees, ripe for the agency’s plucking. The well-intentioned laws (Knutson-Vandenberg, Brush Disposal, Salvage Sale Fund) that allow the Forest Service to supplement its appropriated budget with timber sale dollars remain on the books. In 2000, President Clinton’s USDA proposed to eliminate the off-budget timber funds by re-directing all timber sale receipts to the U.S. Treasury. Guess who opposed the move? Mark Rey, who in 2005, thanks to a midnight appropriations bill rider, expanded K-V spending authority to include paying for green timber sale planning and administration.

Randal O’Toole’s diagnosis, if not his therapy, remains as sound today as when he published Reforming the Forest Service in 1988. And the odds of eliminating these perverse legislative incentives remain as unlikely as the reimposition of any limits on bankers’ greed.

Milepost 2: Through the fog from “tree species diversity” to “the wildlife resource”

As I said in the first post, species diversity and viability are some of the most difficult pieces of a new planning rule, and so my plan is to listen to others responses, ruminate (figuratively, no GHG’s involved) for a week and post something new each week until we develop an understanding of who thinks what and why. This is long for a blog post, but John, Andy and Martin raised many interesting ideas.

First, thanks for the feedback from John, Andy and Martin. This has helped me get from the actual statutory language:

“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.”

to some of the ideas we talk about today from the 82 regs.

If I read this in plain English, especially going back in time to how we used those terms in the mid-70’s, I see “plant and animal communities” as being communities in the simplest sense, for example, at the Shaw Nature Reserve.
They have these kinds of plant communities: woodland, bottomland forest, prairie.
Or this example, pinyon juniper, sagebrush, salt desert shrub. , .

If we read it this way it makes more sense, as we would not want to get rid of different plant communities; among other reasons, because different kinds of animals live in different plant communities. We would want to keep all the different plant (and animal) communities (with the caveat “based on the suitability and capability of the specific land area in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives”) The next clause clearly says to preserve the diversity of tree species, with these additional clauses “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…” (my italics).

These seem to be important statements in the statute that acknowledge that tree species diversity is not an overarching goal regardless of context, but rather resides within the context of practicality, overall multiple use objectives and appropriateness. It does not directly require preservation of the diversity of tree species, even then, but rather for “steps to be taken.”

In plain English, that would say “try to keep all the communities, and try to keep all the tree species, within a given context.” It seems to me if the legislators meant “keep all the animal species’ they had the opportunity to say “for steps to be taken to preserve the diversity of tree and other plant and animal species similar…”

Plant communities can have individual species go in and out, depending on the climate, predators, diseases and stochastic factors, but a prairie remains a prairie. Through time and changes in climate, where the prairies or bottomlands are found on a landscape can change. It is far easier to retain some prairie habitat on a landscape than to retain all species in all communities, and it is also easier and less expensive to monitor.

Another odd thing, to me, about this transition from dealing with communities to species in NFMA is that ESA was passed in 1973, just prior to NFMA.

“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”; -President Nixon, upon signing the Endangered Species Act…

Isn’t this law about species diversity? So why would we need another law to be interpreted for one agency to do the same thing or more.. if more, why one agency only?

Back to Andy’s quote:

“Here’s what Judge Dwyer had to say on the subject:
When the [NFMA’s diversity] section is read in light of the historical context and overall purposes of the NFMA, as well as the legislative history of the section, it is evident that section 6(g)(3)(B) requires Forest Service planners to treat the wildlife resource as a controlling, co-equal factor in forest management and, in particular, as a substantive limitation on timber production.

The Ninth Circuit sustained Judge Dwyer on appeal. In sum, the FS may not adopt a forest plan that fails to assure any species’ viability. As Aldo Leopold cautioned, you’ve got save all the pieces.”

Somehow, we are reading 6(g)(3)(B) differently. For one thing, I see nothing about wildlife per se but rather plant and animal communities. Then wouldn’t rare plants be equally a “controlling coequal factor in forest management.” Given the parsing of NFMA as described above, I still can’t get there (Judge Dwyer’s interpretation) from the actual language of the statute.

And when Aldo Leopold talked about “saving all the pieces”, I think he meant “try to save all the pieces” not “you must.” Because you can’t. No one can. Neither can forest plans “assure species viability.” They can try to make conditions that foster species viability, but they can’t assure it.

Leopold’s lucid and inspirational writing obscures the realities that every time an organism dies “all the pieces” (genetically speaking) are not saved. And Leopold lived before current scientific information on the dynamic nature of species, populations, and ecosystems.

In my view, somehow we have to incorporate the dynamic nature of populations, species, communities and ecosystems into our regulations. The Forest Service can’t make the American chestnut come back throughout its range in the next 50 years (we can do some, but..). The Forest Service can’t afford to keep species from expanding into areas where they haven’t been, with associated wildlife impacts, due to climate change or drought. We can do some things about some things (e.g., invasive species) but putting something in a regulation that is patently unachievable (even if we fenced the national forests and kept all people and uses out) is questionable, in my view.

With climate change, one approach would be to focus on the basics air, water quality and soils, and accept that vegetation and species are going to shift. This harkens back to NFMA sec. 5 c.

If you haven’t read it lately, I recommend taking another look at Botkin’s 1990 book “Discordant Harmonies” which talks about dynamics and also about climate change.

Finally Martin, you raise a good point about accountability. My questions are:

1) “is legal accountability the only kind that counts- what other mechanisms can we imagine?” Is the best NFMA regulation one that bristles with legal hooks? The much-maligned EMS in the 2005 Rule was designed to have transparent on-the-ground reality-based accountability, a la adaptive management. That didn’t work, but one can imagine other forms of accountability than legal accountability.

Fred Norbury, one of the architects of the 2005 Rule was heard saying more than once “Appeals and litigation are the Forest Service method of quality control of decisions.” I think he was suggesting there might be less expensive, more effective methods. Additionally, and problematically, in my view, appeals and litigation are generally about documentation (you didn’t analyze this) and not directly about impacts (you shouldn’t do this).

2) Why aren’t the environmental laws that work for the other federal agencies (including the sister multiple-use agency BLM) “enough” for the Forest Service? Especially given that the “timber wars” are over.

3) If we have to have a tighter reg than everyone else, and it has to have legal hooks, could we imagine one more sensitive to climate change and faithful to the plain English interpretation of NFMA? Like “protect plant and animal species diversity to the extent practicable, given the multiple use mandate and changing environmental conditions”?

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.