Forests test-drive collaboration


It was a big deal when the Forest Service introduced its new planning rule in 2012. The rule dictates how the nation's 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands write their individual plans, which in turn regulate nearly every aspect of how these public lands are managed: where logging and grazing occur, what's set aside as wilderness, when motorized travel and other uses are allowed, how species are protected. The last time the rule was successfully changed was in 1982.

As you'd expect, both industry and environmentalists had high hopes for the new rule, which is holding its ground despite a lawsuit from timber, grazing, and recreation groups claiming the unlawfulness of making "ecological sustainability" the primary purpose of forest management. Groups like The Wilderness Society are encouraged by the emphasis on ecological integrity and restoration, but they're also worried that the new rule loosens the Forest Service's obligations to protect species and habitat (see HCN 3/7/11 "New national forest rule lacks rigor"). What seemed less controversial all around was the rule's talk about "collaboration."

But now that the rule is being phased-in by a handful of "early-adopter" national forests, that's changed. In Idaho's Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, which are furthest along in implementing the new rule and have made the most proactive use of its new collaborative principles, the collaboration process is drawing criticism. In a letter to Department of Agriculture head Tom Vilsack, a dozen environmental groups, including the Friends of the Clearwater and the Center for Biological Diversity, say the new approach is moving too fast, gives too much influence to locals, and undercuts the standard planning process.

"There are some of us in the environmental movement who are very skeptical of 'collaboration,'" says Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, "because we see it as a way, basically, to circumvent existing environmental laws."

The idea of collaborative process has had its skeptics ever since it got a foothold in the 1990s, as people looked for ways through the polarization of the timber wars. The basic idea was to get traditional foes like loggers and wilderness advocates into the same room to hammer out proposals that might spare the Forest Service some costly litigation. But critics complain that these local, collaborative groups shift power from urban conservation interests to a rural minority.

Collaboration also has its champions, who have seen practical results. "In Colville (National Forest), when I got there (in 2004 as Forest Supervisor), everything was appealed and litigated . . . it was almost to a standstill," says Rick Brazzel, who is now the Forest Supervisor for the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forests. "Everyone was tired of fighting. We started meeting together, because we all love the forest. And before you know it . . . we went for six years without any appeals or litigation, because everybody's voices were heard."

By the time Brazzel got to the Nez Perce-Clearwater in 2010, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, an independent group, had already garnered a reputation for resolving old battles in an area where a strong timber economy exists alongside some big chunks of unprotected wilderness. In 2010, a partnership between the group and the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forests resulted in a plan, one of ten in the country, funded by the Forest Service's Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program to do ecosystem restoration. The project decommissioned miles of forest roads, logged and burned 2,600 acres, and treated thousands of other acres with prescribed burning and weed control.

Now, encouraged by these successes and the emphasis on collaboration in the 2012 planning rule, the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forests have adopted the collaborative process to create their new forest management plan. About 60 volunteers from the general public have been meeting with the Forest Service one Saturday each month. So far, they've hammered out several draft pieces of the comprehensive plan.

One of the many diagrams volunteers get to consider on Saturdays while helping shape forest management. (ROS stands for Recreation Opportunity Spectrum.)

But Macfarlane is concerned that the forest’s managers are moving too fast in a direction that undermines the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a view shared by the other groups that signed onto the letter to Vilsack. Under NEPA, the Forest Service analyzes and proposes various alternative actions, then fine-tunes them by considering public comment before making a decision. But in the collaborative process, Macfarlane fears, the proposal drafted by locals will be given inordinate weight, and people who don't attend the meetings, but comment during the NEPA review -- which the collaborative draft must still go through -- won't be heard.

Despite the concerns, Pete Nelson, senior policy advisor for Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the national committee that advises the Forest Service on implementing the new planning rule, says there's widespread interest in how the Nez Perce-Clearwater experiment works out. "There's a lot of talk about collaborative processes (in the planning rule)," he says, "but when you look at the regulation, it really doesn't say very much about how to collaborate.” This vagueness, which characterizes other parts of the rule, like how it protects habitat, will be clarified by the experience of the early-adopters and by later court rulings, Nelson says.

"What we're going to see is these early adopter forests making some mistakes, trying some things that not everyone would agree are prescribed under the regulation," he says. "They really are test labs . . . you've got to tip your hat to them for putting themselves out there."

Marshall Swearingen is a High Country News intern.

Images courtesy Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

Sharon Friedman
Sharon Friedman
Mar 17, 2013 09:20 AM
Marshall- Thank you for this excellent article. I do have a couple of comments on the claims about NEPA, though... here is a blog post on that. It's a bit arcane but hopefully will shed some light.
Here's an excerpt.
Did we just go from “environmental laws” to one procedural law? I find this confusing because in the development of the Forest Service NEPA regulations and the NFMA regulations, collaboratively developed alternatives were thought to be a good thing and were written in to the regulations. As readers are also aware any regulations need to be “cleared” by other agencies, which include the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Justice. CEQ folks are supposed to be the experts on NEPA. For our partisanized friends, it seems unlikely on its face that in a D administration, CEQ and DOJ would seek to undermine NEPA. Perhaps the FS led them astray, somehow? Based on my knowledge of Beltway power relationships, this seems exceedingly unlikely.

I think there is something there, but it’s not about NEPA. I have an associate (I’ll just call him TIG for “timber industry guy”) who feels the same as Macfarlane about “violating NEPA.” If you listen carefully, though, he is afraid that the collaborative will get overly invested in a dumb idea (say diameter limits, in his worldview) and the flush of joy at achieving agreement, plus the inertia of changing something collaborated upon, will overwhelm common sense, scientific reality, or careful analysis. Which, in the world of humans, is a reasonable fear. And it actually may be the same as Macfarlane’s fear.

But I think we need to go back to the way things used to work to really understand. In the past, the FS, helped by others, would develop a “more management” alternative and a “less management” alternative and attempt to get somewhere in the middle. Each coalition of interests would have discussions with the Forest Service. Maybe there would be phone calls from the Administration to the RF or the Supe providing positive vibes for moving in the direction of that Administration’s supporters. But the interpolation of all these points of view in the preferred, at the end of the day, was internal. The true deciders were the Forest, the Region, the Administration and (if litigated) the Courts. These remain the ultimate deciders.

It seems to me that the advantage of collaboratively developed preferred alternatives is that it is out there on the table as to how the alternative was developed, not behind closed doors. So if there’s a dumb idea somewhere in there, people will have an opportunity to comment and the ultimate decision will be made by the same old forces.

When I observe the Black Hills FACA Committee, the Forest Supe doesn’t always do what they recommend. But the Supe has to stand up and say what his arguments are for not doing so.

The bottom line is that there is no argument really that it “violates NEPA” to have a collaboratively developed proposal. People have had special places at the table, based on various characteristics, including political connections and the threat of litigation. They still have those very same places when the ultimate decision is made."
Here's the link.[…]/

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Mar 21, 2013 01:36 PM
Here's some more context and substance RE: Nez Perce-Clearwater NF forest plan revision process.[…]/

We have this Friend, see, who’s stumped us
By Lee Rozen, for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News editorial board[…]/article_245cf435-b50e-58a3-a9e4-98e2b09b816a.html

Sometimes, you have to wonder whether the Friends of the Clearwater can see the national forest for the trees. Generally speaking, we agree with much of what the Friends, and groups like them, stand for. We are skeptical whenever industry or local government tells us to just trust them because they are acting in our best interest.

But when government in the form of the U.S. Forest Service comes forward and seeks the informed advice of a wide variety of groups – both industry and Friends included – we don’t see sinister conspiracies lurking behind the next stump. Challenges, perhaps, but not conspiracies.

The Forest Service is trying a “collaborative” process to develop a management plan for the newly combined administration of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. That’s instead of proposing a plan and offering it up for industry, governments, recreationists and environmentalists to take potshots at, and eventually go to court over.

It seems that’s what Friends of the Clearwater want them to do. The Friends seem to be afraid their principles will be co-opted if they sit down across the table from industry, government, hunters, motorcyclists and ski-mobilers and negotiate the best way to reach an acceptable compromise on the use of this forest. More practically, they argue that industry and government can pay to have their representatives at the discussions but groups of volunteers with day jobs can neither afford the time off nor the travel expenses. As a result, the Forest Service has offered to help the collaboration occur online.

A plan for running a national forest poses a complex problem because it is so unclear what national forests are and what they should be. It’s pretty clear what’s intended for national parks, wilderness areas and national recreational areas. But national forests are different. They are supposed to support a mix of goals, many of which can be contradictory – logging and recreation, for instance. The Friends of the Clearwater, and other interest groups, should be working to make the “collaborative process” work for all, rather trying to shoot it down in hopes of “total victory” in the courts.

US Forest Service must follow the law
By Gary Macfarlane[…]/article_1207ba0f-0a26-5e2d-a44f-ac89653a0672.html

Lee Rozen’s criticism of Friends of the Clearwater (Our View, written for the editorial board, March 13) is off base, misinformed and reflects a lack of understanding concerning our public land laws and the public involvement process. Had he contacted us, he would have learned why we believe the Forest Service is not following the law. It appears the agency has stumbled into a quagmire, under the guise of collaboration, with its new forest planning process.

The process the Forest Service is currently following on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests plan revision circumvents existing law, creates a contradictory and confusing public involvement process and lacks accountability. For 40 years, the National Environmental Policy Act has governed public input and analysis of agency proposals. NEPA mandates that the first step of the public involvement process is to identify pertinent issues. However, this collaborative process is seeking to resolve issues before the genuine public involvement process even begins. How can the Forest Service resolve issues before they are properly identified?

Under NEPA, all citizens can participate equally. However, the new collaborative forest plan revision process – which has no statutory authority – creates two unequal classes of citizens. The E-collaborative invention funnels citizen comments from the second class through the first class citizen collaborative group. Why should a special working group have more input and be allowed to determine whether or how other citizen comments are used?

Furthermore, NEPA requires an objective analysis of alternatives before decisions are made. Thus, the integrity of NEPA is compromised when the agency reaches a deal or understanding with the collaborative forest planning group before the NEPA process even begins. NEPA must be more than a pro forma exercise. Can you imagine having a collaborative group decide the outcome of an election before the election begins in order to avoid the contentiousness of elections?

Another stated reason behind the new forest planning process is to save time and money. How is having two competing public involvement processes for national forest planning more efficient? Indeed, the Forest Service recently admitted the collaborative process would take longer than anticipated. We feel that such redundancy wastes time and money and also creates conflict and confusion. In fact, a member of the forest planning collaborative for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests – Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League – recently termed the process as collective collaborative confusion at a presentation given in Eugene, Ore. Even proponents of collaboration find the new process fatally flawed.

Retired Forest Service fishery biologist and Moscow resident Al Espinosa stated in a comment letter on the new process, “The intent here is to avoid accountability by eliminating the appeal process and providing a phony pathway around the regulations and laws.”

He also noted the new planning process would circumvent the national interest. Removing accountability and de-legitimizing NEPA’s public involvement and decision-making process is not in the public interest. The Forest Service could have prevented scrutiny, confusion and distrust had the agency followed citizen suggestions made in an October meeting in how to lawfully proceed with the forest plan revision process.

If national forest management is to be determined by local collaborative groups, then existing laws like NEPA need to be repealed first. If the goal is to remove the ability of citizens to have judicial redress and to challenge agency decisions in court, then the Constitution must be amended. The new process for national forest planning clashes with the law. Friends of the Clearwater simply believes the Forest Service should be accountable to U.S. citizens and the law. We think the majority of Americans would agree with us.