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September 15, 2006

Jeremiah was a Bullfrog Forest Planner

Some may remember Three Dog Night's old rock and roll tune, "Joy to the World." It begins like this:

Jeremiah was a bullfrog
Was good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said
But I helped him drink his wine.
He always had some mighty fine wine
Joy to the World…
Those lyrics have taken on new meaning to me lately, in the context of forest planning, accompanying Regulation and Directives, and generally in what I'll call Forest Service WO-speak.

As an indicator of the problem, reflected in practice, all should read a recent N. District of Calif., US District Court decision ("People of the State of California"(Bill Lockyer, Calif. Attorney Gen.) v. US Forest Service) [PDF] on the Grand Sequoia National Monument plan. In this case the court found that the Forest Service failed "to create a discernable and comprehensible plan" in violation of the law. Although argued under the 1982 "planning rule," I think the decision is a harbinger of things to come under the 2005 planning rule/directives as well. On many fronts, it seems to me that the Forest Service is proving itself incapable of anything that would pass a "discernable and comprehensible" test.

In the last couple of weeks Forest Service in-house email flurries have focused on so-called "prohibitions" in forest plans. Some Forest Service Washington Office (WO) staffers are suggesting that forest plans, in order to be "aspirational," cannot prohibit things. Instead the plans can articulate "desired conditions, "objectives," and guidelines, but must do with positive rather than negative words. Some Forest Service field practitioners are pushing back a bit, trying to figure out just what forest plans are intended to be and how they are to comply with the 2005 Planning Rule (36 CRF part 219) and with the voluminous FS Directives that accompany the rule.

Just yesterday practiterions got the latest in "prohibition," via email as "Planning Tip of the Day" from DeAnn Zwight, [Assistant Director for Planning, Ecosystem Management Coordination Staff, USFS WO]. The email focused on "implementation as commonly used in forest plans." Here's a snip:

Ms. [Kathryn] Toffenetti [USDA Office of the General Counsel (OGC)] has made a comment approximately 9,437 times that she does not like, will never ever ever like the word "implementation" as it is commonly used in plans. [W]hen we talk about implementing the plans, it implies there's one path laid out, it's some ministerial action w/ no discretion, on one set of projects, and that the plan can indeed be "implemented" in some particular way--instead of the strategic framework envisioned. …

Kathryn [Toffenetti, USDA Office of the General Counsel (OGC)] would like to move forward in life without ever having to see the words "implementation" or "implement the plan" or "plan implementation" in plans again, and I would like to move forward in life without ever having to read Kathryn's comments on this matter again. OGC attorneys are very, very focused, and besides that, I bow to her OGC expertise.

SO! Please say something like "future projects and activities" or "subsequent projects and activities" proposed (or carried out, or approved) under the plan. [Kathryn Toffenetti] says the message we want to send is: that the plan is a general framework to guide the forest when it will propose, analyze, and decide upon on-the- ground management actions.

Not much argument from me. For a many years I have advocated that the agency use scenario planning and abandon its longtime focus on "comprehensive rational planning" with detailed plans, but….

Scenario planning is not what the FS seems to be about. Scenario planning is a means to simply rehash the past and rehearse the future. It is a way to set a stage from which to do adaptive management. Scenario planning stops short of articulating "desired futures." Scenario planning stops short of laying out "objectives." Scenario planning doesn't prescribe "guidelines." Scenario planning doesn't lay out elaborate monitoring and evaluation schemes associated with "the plan," including language that says (36 CFR 219. 6 (b) (2)):

The plan-monitoring program shall provide for: (i) Monitoring to determine whether plan implementation is achieving multiple use objectives; … (iii) Monitoring of the degree to which on-the-ground management is maintaining or making progress toward the desired conditions and objectives for the plan…. (emphasis added by Iverson)

The Forest Service still appears to want it both ways: "aspirational" and loose when challenged in court, but "by the book," when dealing with things internally. I see more storm clouds ahead. "Discernable and comprehensible plans" are hard to envision when planning-related "rules" and "directives" continue to be a mess.

Here is an example of my pleas to move to scenario planning:

Planning is indeed a big opportunity (if an opportunity lost on the FS). Royal Dutch Shell and others champion scenario planning, where the object is to do two simple tasks: 1) rehash the past, and 2) rehearse the future. The idea is to hone skills in planning games, so that as the universe unfolds in daily organizational life we can be ready to practice adaptive management and organizational learning .

This may be considered a planning opportunity lost, so far, by the Forest Service. We hatched Planning in the FS as comprehensive, rational planning and although we are slouching toward scenario planning we have not yet arrived.

Posted by Dave on September 15, 2006 at 02:38 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 13, 2006

A Few Questions about "Strategic and Aspirational" Forest Plans
Martin Nie

The other day I had a chance to comment on the forest planning process for the Western Montana Forest Planning Zone. It provided me a chance to think through my frustrations, stemming from the fact that the US Forest Service is only providing direction that is "strategic and aspirational" (often vague in other words), but asking the public to focus on particulars. There is a lot to like in some of these plans. But the process, as I see it, runs the risk of further diminishing public trust in the agency.

Here is my full comment:

To Whom it May Concern:

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in the forest planning process. There is a lot to like in all three plans, but rather than go through the particulars of each, I would rather ask a few general questions.

First off, I find it a bit frustrating to ask the public to provide specifics and details in providing public comment, when there is no such specificity in the draft plans. It seems that the USFS is able to provide direction that is merely "strategic and aspirational" (often vague in other words) in nature, but the public is admonished to focus on the particulars. I certainly would like to do such a thing, but only if the agency does so first.

It would be helpful to contrast the original forest plan with its proposed revision. What's changed and stayed the same?

I would like to learn more about the binding nature of the forest plan, and how it will be used as a guiding document in the future. I understand how the 2005 planning regulations are different from the 1982 regulations, so no need to respond in that direction. But how exactly will responsible officials use the plan to make and base future decisions? I certainly hope that officials will not say that various matters have already been resolved at the plan level, because many issues have clearly not been resolved—nor have they gone through NEPA's EIS process.

It is also important to clarify how the forest plan revisions interact with all of the other recent regulatory changes to forest management (e.g., the roadless rule, travel management rule, Healthy Forests Initiative, etc.). The plan seems like the best place to explain the decision making environment to the public. How does it all fit together?

I hope that you can provide more detailed information about the future decision making process under the 2005 planning regulations, and how decisions will be tiered to the plan in the future. If any meaningful "decisions" have been made in the plan, with significant environmental effects, then why was NEPA not used? The 2005 planning regulations will fail if the agency plays a type of shell game wherein managers say that project decisions have already been resolved at the plan level, and when plan level direction is challenged, they say that such decisions will be made at the project level. That would not be a good way of building trust and public confidence in the planning process.

Thankfully, the 2005 regulations talk a lot about monitoring. But how exactly will monitoring be done and how will it be paid for? What will happen to various projects and activities if monitoring money, as usual, is not forthcoming?

Most importantly, I’m very frustrated by the agency's refusal to look at the big picture when it comes to forest management. The rapid population growth in the region, coupled with decentralized development and rampant subdivision, should give the agency much to consider (see e.g., RPA Assessment documenting this growth and development). Not so long ago, National Forests in the region lowered their timber harvests because of the liquidation taking place on corporate timber lands. At what point will these National Forests consider what is happening on these private lands, from the amount of timber being cut to real estate transactions?

From Plum Creek divestment to sprawl in the Bitterroot Valley, intermixed public-private lands are a major concern. For all of the talk and rhetoric about ecosystem management, when and where will the agency address these intermixed ownership issues? Will they be considered in future cumulative effects analyses? How will future private lands development be considered and anticipated in the future? NEPA regulations require that agencies consider cumulative impacts in their decision making, defined as "the incremental impact of past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future action regardless of what agency (Federal or non-Federal) or person undertakes such other actions." (40 C.F.R. §1508.7). In short, it is necessary for the agency to seriously consider what is happening on nearby private lands, and modify management accordingly. This was clearly not done at the forest plan level, so when and how will such cumulative effects be considered in the future?

Thank you for your consideration.


Martin Nie
Missoula, MT

Posted by Martin Nie on September 13, 2006 at 03:26 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 01, 2006

Is the federal land debate over? Don't count on it
John Freemuth

Every decade or so, people start pushing the idea of selling off big chunks of public land or transferring that land to state ownership and management. Outside of small parcels, it has never happened, probably because most of us support leaving public lands in federal hands.

With the recent pronouncements of Idaho's own Dirk Kempthorne, now Interior secretary, and Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho that large-scale federal land sell-offs are politically dead, it might appear that the latest attempt is finally over.

Conventional wisdom says the West has grown up, and we all realize that we need those open spaces to bike, shoot, boat, ride, hike, climb and picnic in. Maybe so, but there are a couple of trends that bear watching as they lead to privatization of our birthright.

The first trend has to do with land transfers done in the name of economic development. In some cases, these transfers, small in acreage, may make sense if important public purposes are met. But in southern Utah, for example, it's much messier. There, booming development in St. George has led to a proposal to sell off 40 square miles of federal land, while at the same time protecting some wilderness, much of it in Zion National Park, and desert tortoise habitat.

Environmentalists oppose the bill; developers and the county support it. Its main purpose appears to be making more land available for the "New West" phenomena of second homes and footloose retiree money. This is a land exchange that caters to the upper middle class, and the irony here should not escape us. This is mountain bike country, get-your-piece-of-the-West land. Perhaps these folks need public land to play on, but they want private land to live on, preferably close to the public land. And if that private land needs to be removed from the public estate - so be it.

This is not a small-scale transfer to allow an economically disadvantaged place like Salmon or Challis, Idaho, get some help. Just imagine the cascade effect as other booming towns seek to dig deeper and deeper into our common estate.

Trend number two may be worse. It is the outsourcing virus that is sweeping agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. Here, an idea that made sense in the past when applied to urban services such as trash collection may be focused on 75 percent of all the jobs in the agency, including fire suppression.

If we do this long enough, and the ideologues push for this hard enough, it's going to go like this: Why do we need the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, even the Park Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? So much of what they do has been outsourced; let's just get rid of them. Put some private sector, beltway, politically connected, market-mantra-chanting consulting firm in charge. It can manage the land, or else we could transfer the land to states. This move could make trend number one easier to accomplish.

While were at it, let's be consistent. Why not outsource the Congress, the White House and the courts? Clearly, the private sector can be more efficient in the running of government than politicians can, and outsourcing is all about efficiency. But since when is efficiency the primary aim of government?

Through the years I have been a critic as well as a supporter of federal land management. But I have a touchstone for what public service can mean. I once worked as a seasonal ranger at a national park and found that you cannot replace what rangers and other park staffers do or the way they approach their jobs. It may sound overwrought and ridiculous, but many believe they are on the "staff" of the Grand Canyon, of the Sawtooths, Escalante, Rocky Mountain National Park.

They work for the land they love. Can that kind of commitment be outsourced?

Right now, a majority of Americans want most public lands to remain public and under federal management. But pay attention. The debate won't be about that, as it should be, and it may not be a debate at all. The chipping away at our publicly owned lands will happen incrementally, over time. With the population growth in places like St. George, Utah, the battles will likely never end.

Posted as Opinion, the Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 1, 2006

Posted by John Freemuth on September 1, 2006 at 02:34 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack