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February 23, 2012

Illegal 'Adventure Pass': What were they thinking?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned a lower court's ruling, declaring that the Forest Service's Adventure Pass violated the Recreation Enhancement Act (pdf). What I wonder is how the Forest Service thought that the Adventure Pass could pass a 'red face test' both in public and in the courts? Moreover, how did their USDA Office of General Counsel legal advisors feel that they could pass that red face test?

Is this yet another example of the Forest Service pushing forward with an initiative without much regard for the law, with both 'professional arrogance' and 'budget protection/maximization' motivations as backdrop? Finally, where does the Forest Service go from here?

In my book, given the austerity that the American people now face, and will face more squarely in the future, I think it time to talk seriously about what ought the Forest Service to manage for and at what cost, both in terms of direct cost to the US taxpayer and in terms of environmental costs. For me there is plenty of programs to prune, both within what the agency calls recreation and elsewhere. I believe it past time to take a careful look at Forest Service cash flows, sources and uses. Let's then try to figure out what more and what less to do, and what to do differently.

A Flashback
Fee Demo and Adventure pass discussions are not new to the Forest Service. The Forest Service had a chance to respond to critics of both way back in 1999-2000 on Eco-Watch [Note this link provides a flat file readout of a forum that was largely devoted to fee demo discussion/criticism]. The Forest Service chose to be silent, just as they did with the recent forest planning rulemaking process. See, e.g my Earth to Forest Planning: Get a Blog. In 1999 I could understand their silence, their reluctance to engage in social media discussion. Social Media was brand new and the Forest Service was toying with it.I no longer have patience with their reluctance to engage.

Evidently the Congress did listen, passing the Recreation Enhancement Act in 2004,to replace the Recreation Fee Demo Program of 1994. But the Forest Service somehow thought that it could evade the clear language of the latter Act.

My question is broader than to allege that the Forest Service routinely ignores the Congress and the Courts. My question is, When will the Forest Service engage in public discourse, in public deliberation? And I'm not taking about the many, mostly facilitated, highly spun so-called dialogue efforts that the Forest Service too often employs. [Note: I am a champion of dialogue, when used for deep inquiry. But I'm afraid that the Forest Service is now in the process of turning "dialogue" into another "inform and involve" spin mechanism.]

Footnote on Framing, Blaming
I threw this post together in response to Sharon Freidman's earlier post over at New Century of Forest Planning on this subject. Both posts are examples of what I call The Frame Game and The Blame Game. Sharon's post frames this as "a problem if the FS can’t charge fees and doesn’t get funding from Congress." Whether by oversight or by design, the Forest Service is framed as the victim and the Congress or those who block general fees/contributions are framed as villains. My post frames the issue as one where the taxpayer and/or the public interest are victims and the Forest Service is villain. Neither frame adequately addresses the problem at hand.

In both cases—in every case—we ought not to forget that these twin forces, framing and blaming, are almost always at work. And we must never forget that there are plenty of victims (real and imagined) and plenty of us who can rightfully be viewed as villains from time to time. What remains a challenge and an opportunity is to be able to work together toward betterment of the public interest as best we can when we mostly see only our own shadows playing in reflection off the walls of caves that keep our thoughts narrowly confined.

Posted by Dave on February 23, 2012 at 08:09 PM Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 09, 2012

Parsing Economic Sustainability: The 2012 NFMA Rule

To make sense of economic sustainability we have to delve into sustainability. Then we can see what sense is (or is not) made of 'economic sustainability' in the 2012 proposed NFMA rule (pdf).

At root, what we call sustainability (Wikipedia link) is a vision quest—a movement to better align human action with Nature and natural systems evolution. In Wikipedia, sustainability is said to have ecological, social and economic dimensions. All dimensions are interconnected. Sustainability found its way into the 2000 NFMA rule, and has been there since. But the framing has been tweaked at bit since. Let's take a close look at "economic sustainability" as framed in the newly proposed NFMA rule, in the context of the overall quest for sustainability.

Social and Economic Sustainability

§ 219.8 SUSTAINABILITY. ... (b) Social and economic sustainability. The plan must include plan components, including standards or guidelines, to guide the plan area’s contribution to social and economic sustainability, taking into account: (1) Social, cultural, and economic conditions relevant to the area influenced by the plan; (2) Sustainable recreation; including recreation settings, opportunities, and access; and scenic character; (3) Multiple uses that contribute to local, regional, and national economies in a sustainable manner; (4) Ecosystem services; (5) Cultural and historic resources and uses; and (6) Opportunities to connect people with nature.

Sustainability Defined

§ 219.19 DEFINITIONS. ... Sustainability. The capability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. For purposes of this part, “ecological sustainability” refers to the capability of ecosystems to maintain ecological integrity; “economic sustainability” refers to the capability of society to produce and consume or otherwise benefit from goods and services including contributions to jobs and market and nonmarket benefits; and “social sustainability” refers to the capability of society to support the network of relationships, traditions, culture, and activities that connect people to the land and to one another, and support vibrant communities. {emphasis added}

I don't quibble with the framing on social sustainability, but the language on economic sustainability seems tortured to me. Worse perchance is the fact that what is called 'economic sustainability' is not linked to 'ecological sustainability', not even to 'social sustainability'. How bizarre is this 'economic sustainability' frame? As I read the 2012 rule, economic actors can do whatever they want with an umbrella of 'economic sustainability' overhead. Is this by intent? By oversight? Or am I off base in my allegation?

I looked to the 2000 NFMA Rule (pdf) to see if they had allowed such discretion. Nope. Not that I agreed with that rule either, but at least that particular mistake was avoided. I went to the 2005 rule (pdf) to see if the economic sustainability language was separate from ecological sustainability. Yep. This is where it began. It was framed as if economic sustainability and ecological sustainability were competitors instead of compliments. The 2008 rule (pdf) is similar to the 2005 rule in this regard. And so is the proposed 2012 rule.

The Wikipedia page on Sustainability, by contrast does not allow for such separation of ecological, social and economics in their rendition of sustainability. In Wikipedia, sustainability is said to have ecological, social and economic 'dimensions'. All is interconnected.

Perhaps I'm nitpicking. But I believe that something is lost when 'dimensions' or aspects of sustainability are framed separately as if they are independent, without interconnections to affirm wholeness. Bridging the gap from philosophy to actionable procedure proves difficult when dealing with something as novel, important, and threatening to the status quo as sustainability. I get that. But the Forest Service has had a few years to mull over this misstep. How was it missed? Or was the separation set up on purpose? Anyone care to clear the air on this?

Personal Addendum (for sustainability nuts)
I began promoting sustainability in the early 1990s (see, Eco-Watch Archives, particularly 1991 , 1994, 1995). In 1994 Zane Cornett and I even proffered a definition for sustainability in the context of what we then called ecosystem management. Our definition, like most others, focuses both on the need for humans to relate better to the environment, and for humans to act in less destructive ways toward the environment. Like most others we tied ALL together, following John Muir: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." Here is our rendition:

Sustainability is a relationship between dynamic cultural, economic, and biophysical systems associated across the landscape such that quality of life for humans continues -- both for individuals and cultures. It is a relationship in which the effects of human activities do not threaten the integrity of the self-organizing systems that provide the context for these activities. To further clarify this definition of sustainability, we need a complementary definition for integrity. The philosophy of ecosystem management integrates biophysical, cultural, and economic systems into the single concept of "ecosystems". An ecosystem has integrity if it retains its complexity and capacity for self-organization (arguably its health) and sufficient diversity, within its structures and functions, to maintain the ecosystem's self-organizing complexity through time. The definition for integrity is applicable to each of the economic, cultural, and biophysical subsystems, as well as to the integrated ecosystem.

At the end of the 1998, when I penned my First Epistle to the Clinton Era NFMA Committee of Scientists, I anchored the whole of my commentary around sustainability and the contextual, multi-scale/scope nature of public lands management. To approach sustainability, public lands management must interrelate various ecological and social systems at various scale across multiple ownerships. Anything short of this is to miss important linkages needed to inform prudent decision-making in setting policy, in program development, and project design. At least that was how I saw it then. I'm still preaching that gospel today, e.g my Adaptive Governance Roadmap for a NFMA rule rewrite.

Posted by Dave on February 9, 2012 at 08:50 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 04, 2012

Opportunity (and Context) Lost: The 2012 NFMA Planning Rule

The long-awaited NFMA "proposed planning rule" is out. It looks pretty much like the Draft rule to me. I have longed to see the Forest Service embrace adaptive management for public lands, or adaptive governance, as I argued here last year in Fixing the Rule: An Adaptive Governance Roadmap. But much like in the Draft, the preferred planning rule (Alternative A, pdf) in the Final Rule workup is a far cry from adaptive management.

Although draped in ecosystems rhetoric, when looked at from the real-world perspective of interrelated natural and social systems the 2012 Rule leaves much to be desired as adaptive management or adaptive governance. Here are four key points: First, the three levels of decision making—national strategic, forest administrative unit, project or activity—belie underlying realities of power and decision-making in the Forest Service. In short it stretches the imagination that important Forest Service decisions regarding ecosystems are to be made at the "forest administrative unit", except for maybe the Tongass, The National Forests of Texas, and so on.

Second, desired (future) conditions are ineffectually dealt with at the forest or project scale, and often cry-out for contexts that don't fit well under the category "national strategic." Admittedly, the Forest Service has left itself an "out" re: broader scale assessments, but it is doubtful that many such efforts will yield substantive results.

Third, "standards" are better structured/set in contexts far from forest-level planning. I'll be watching, but I can't right now think of any meaningful standards that ought to be made in the development or revision of a forest plan.

Fourth, Why is the Forest Service hell-bent on replacing the federally accepted "appeals" process with an "objections process"? Does the Forest Service really believe that this is a change for the better?

My beef is not with many ecological/social concepts embedded in the 2012 rule: sustainability, species diversity, ecological integrity, etc. I have championed these for many years. But I have argued for years that they are better structured in an adaptive governance frame, rather than the rigid straitjacket of this rule. Is it time for Congressional oversight hearings on RPA/NFMA? Has this particular law outlived its usefulness? After all, the law was put in place in an era when production planning was still in vogue, before The Decline and Fall of Rational Planning. The law did not envision an era of collaborative stewardship of public lands.

Let's look at each of the four identified problems in more detail:

Three levels of decision-making
In the old days when forest were viewed in large part through the eyes of production planners, it made sense to empower forest unit managers with setting up goals and objectives for individual national forests (as individual production factories). Projects and activities flowed from this goal setting: timber sales and other output production goals, for example. National or strategic goal and policy setting sat at the top and was informed by lower-level decision-making, although political pressures were arguably the main driving force for production goals like "getting the cut out." This reasoning made its way into the RPA/NFMA and set the stage for the 1982 NFMA rule that still governs (despite repeated attempts to update it) the administration of the national forest system. But the days of viewing forests as production factories has ended.

Desired Conditions
Absent appropriate context, how is a forest supervisor to declare "desired conditions?" In my view, these appropriately derive from broader-scale assessments and policy considerations. Within such, a forest supervisor might make a periodic call as to forest or sub-forest niche(s). But to expect such without appropriate context-setting is asking the impossible. And it escapes me how this rule will promote effective context-setting.

Someone will have to show me just where forest level standards make any sense at all. I have argued before that they do not, and that standards are rightfully set and revised situationally as needed, not according to some time-clock for forest plan revision.

Objections Process to replace Appeals Process
I have never understood the need for this. It is at best a minor variation on a theme that could have as easily been made to work under the more-familiar appeals process. At worst, it proves a means to dodge public deliberation responsibility—to deny collaborators an opportunity to seek redress for surprise changes in proposed action as it becomes "federal action." The only redress then becomes court challenge. It seems to me that in an attempt to streamline the process, the forest service only made things worse.

In Sum
Since the Forest Service has chosen not to take the adaptive management/governance path, why not revisit the RPA/NFMA law with an eye toward collaborative stewardship? I new or revised law might help the agency see how interrelated ecological and social systems require the interrelated efforts—at context-dependent scales—of both forest service line, staff, and research as well as collaborators from other agencies as well as interest groups and others who hold a stake in outcomes.

If the Forest Service had embraced adaptive governance in this rule, we would see broad-scale assessments well up at appropriate scale and scope, accompanied by broad-scale policy, plans, or programs meant to address problems identified in the assessments. Monitoring regimes would accompany both. All would be structured at scope and scale appropriate to resolve issues and problems identified. Maybe we'll see such anyway, somehow welling up for so-called forest plan implementation and other policy. Or maybe we'll see endless, mindless, context-blind rituals at the forest scale: pretend assessment, pretend planning, pretend monitoring—forever missing opportunities for adaptive management, for adaptive governance.

Related: Fixing the Rule: An Adaptive Governance Roadmap

Posted by Dave on February 4, 2012 at 07:14 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack