Forest management changes take root
Missoula, MT - Proposed rule would modify appeals process for emerging federal plans
Insisting it should not take 10 years to write a 15-year plan, U.S. Forest Service officials on Wednesday proposed regulations overhauling the way national forest management plans are written and reviewed.
Under the proposed rule, citizens who object to a forest plan could not appeal the decision - although they could file an "objection" before a decision was announced and meet with forest officials to air their complaints.
Gone, too, would be the requirement that a full-blown environmental impact statement accompany forest plan revisions. Instead, forest supervisors could develop management plans collaboratively with local citizens, emphasizing the need to "find harmony" among all forest uses.
And scientists would be asked to help the agency decide whether it should continue a requirement that the nation's forests provide the habitat needed to maintain healthy populations of rare plant and animal species.
Perhaps, agency officials said, the national forests should merely contribute to species conservation.
"We want to turn planning inside-out," said Sally Collins, the Forest Service's associate chief. "We're trying for an externally driven, much more public process. We want to emphasize the notion that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away."
Wednesday's proposal would govern only the writing and revising of forest management plans - the long-range planning documents that guide the use of each of the nation's 155 national forests. Rather than listing projects, the plans designate wide swaths of forestland for different uses: timber, recreation, scenic, wildlife habitat and so on.
Environmentalists and some Democratic congressmen quickly panned the proposal as an assault on the National Environmental Policy Act and the protections it affords forest resources.
"Nearly a quarter of a century of environmental safeguards for our national forests are about to be tossed aside," said William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. "The proposed national forest management regulation is one of the most egregious assaults our public lands have faced from the current administration."
By allowing the agency to adopt a forest plan without preparing an EIS, the Forest Service would leave "the American people with minimum information about the environmental effects," he said. Clean drinking water would suffer, he said, as would recreation and roadless areas and wilderness values.
"The American people deserve better for their national forests' stewardship," Meadows said.
But Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said the forest planning process is broken; the overhaul, he said, is essential.
"I really believe that if we can do forest planning in a more simplified way, people will stay engaged," Bosworth said by telephone from his Washington, D.C., office. "When it takes us 10 years to adopt a plan, the only people who stick with us are the ones who are paid to. Average people can't really stay engaged. They can't donate their time every Wednesday night for 10 years."
Open for 90 days of public comment, the proposed rule change would emphasize public participation early in the plan-writing process, said Fred Norberry, the Forest Service's director of ecosystem management.
"What we're trying to do is take the planning process back to ordinary people," he said. "I've been doing planning for 30 years, with the Forest Service for 20 years. I am very deeply frustrated with it; it's become so technical and complicated and convoluted and drawn out. That doesn't serve the average person anymore."
Under the proposed process, forest plans could be written or revised in two years - maybe three. Instead of filing administrative appeals after a final decision was announced, citizens could file objections after a draft plan was released.
"We want a process that brings people into the room earlier, that makes them a real partner in problem solving," said Collins. "What we are trying to do is instill the value of finding harmony among the social, economic and environmental aspects of our environment."
Bosworth said the National Environmental Policy Act provides for considerable flexibility, as long as foresters do a top-notch job of evaluating their actions and mitigating the impacts.
"Most forest plans are basically zoning documents," he said. "They tell what uses can occur and where: recreation here, timber management there. Most plans don't commit you to making any changes in the physical environment. Before anybody can turn dirt, they have to come back and do a proposal and do the environmental analysis."
"I think we're going beyond what NEPA requires," said Norberry. "What we've got here is consistent with the spirit of NEPA."
Before the day ended, though, eight U.S. senators and seven House members put their complaints about the proposal in writing. In a letter to Bosworth, the congressmen said the proposal includes "no solid protections for wildlife and environmental sustainability."
Even minimum environmental protections are removed, they wrote. "And there is nothing to replace them, nothing but entirely discretionary tasks which Forest Service personnel may freely choose to ignore."
All 12 of the national forests in Montana and northern Idaho are due for forest plan revisions, said regional planner Tom Rhode. All would employ the new regulations, if they are adopted in the months ahead.
"These changes are pretty important to our region," he said. "To me, if we can do the work quicker and be more adaptive to changing issues, that's a benefit. We'll have to see, of course, if it plays out that way. But what we'd like is to have more adaptive plans that continually reflect our concerns and desires and issues."
"When it takes six, eight or 10 years to write a 15-year plan, you can't be very responsive," said Collins, the associate chief. "We need to be more responsive."
Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you're interested
The U.S. Forest Service's Web site includes the full text of the proposed forest management planning regulations at www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma. Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, likely next week, the agency will open a 90-day public comment period.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]