Does the Forest Service Truly Believe in Collaboration?


Recently, the U.S. Forest Service announced another attempt to revise its planning regulations. While the agency takes aim at making its decision-making more collaborative, at the same time it's running into conflict from other planning processes at the state level.

Many readers are probably familiar with the Forest Service's saga of revision, as the agency has made several attempts to rework these regulations in the recent past. Somewhat predictably, the focus and approach of the various regulations has varied with the presidential administration in power at the time the rewrite was initiated. Readers interested in a short but eye-crossing synopsis of all that might read "Reinstating the 2000 Rule" on page 67059 of the December 18, 2009 Federal Register [PDF]. That summary offers a window into some of the difficulties facing the Forest Service.

This time around, the agency has said that it wants to focus on a number of principles that it hopes will guide the planning rule development process, including an emphasis on "restoration, conservation, and the improved resilience of ecosystems; watershed health; climate change response; species diversity and wildlife habitat; sustainable National Forest System lands; proactive collaboration; and working across landscapes." The agency has emphasized that this will be an "open, collaborative process."

All this is to be applauded. Well, maybe. Montanans reading this blog post are probably aware that a different sort of collaborative process has been at work in their state, where Senator John Tester has crafted a Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Reports say that Tester has spent much time and effort working with and reaching out to various interest and parties that care about and pay attention to forest policy in their state. Supporters praise the bill as a "rare compromise" while, predictably, others think it allows for too much/not enough  logging or not enough/too much wilderness and restoration What is most interesting is the official response of high level Department of Agriculture officials to Tester's effort. The bill is said to be too costly to implement, will drain resource from other forests, undermine existing environmental review process and encourage efforts like Tester's in other states, thus wrecking the notion of a national forest policy. This is a predictable response if one wants to maintain the status quo and keep the agency in charge of determining policy; sort of like back in the days when the agency said only it knew best how to allocate all of the multiple uses on the national forests.

It seems though, that the admirable goals articulated as the agency embarks on planning regulation revision run square into a classic turf protection, we-are-in-charge mantra when confronted with Tester's effort. It's not that there are not issues of law and policy reinterpretation that might have to be dealt with; there are. But it is odd when a good faith effort by a United States Senator is not seen by the agency as proactive collaboration, while at the same time the Forest Service hopes that we will see its latest efforts as collaborative. Let's hope it doesn't end this way.

For more background on Senator John Tester's wilderness bill, read HCN editor Ray Ring's story "Taking Control of the Machine," and check out his additional blog posts on the topic.

Anonymous says:
Jan 04, 2010 08:57 PM
I need to educate myself about this some more, but I think my gut instinct is to be sympathetic to the Forest Service's concern. We need look no farther than the wolf reintroduction plans worked up in Montana and other western states to see where Tester's route might lead us. Montana behaved well in that transfer of power from the feds to the state, but Wyoming and Idaho more than erased those gains.

And these are federal lands, not just wildlife. Lands that fall unambiguously under the direction of the feds; lands that belong to and are paid for by the taxes of Easterners as much as by Montanans (or Coloradans or whoever).

The Forest Service was founded to provide a protective umbrella to lands that were rapidly being piecemealed away by local interests. While the FS has a far-from-perfect record of managig those lands for the public good, that is its mission.

And while I certainly believe in the process of collaboration, I think the FS has a valid concern in wanting to take hold of that process. Just as Clinton's USDA sought and crafted its Roadless Rule with massive public input, I would expect Obama's USDA to do the same.

And I'm sure Tester, along with every other Western politician, will have a lot to say about such a document, as it should be. He deserves to have his two cents added in, along with all the rest of the owners of our national forests. That's my idea of collaboration.
Anonymous says:
Jan 05, 2010 04:33 PM
With the usual disclaimers as to the USFS' imperfect record, I agree with Mike. I am strongly opposed to Tester's bill and extremely skeptical of what I've seen so far in the ever-accelerating trend of "collaboration." But even with that aside, I don't think the Forest Service's problem with this particular effort necessarily says anything about its approach to the idea of collaboration overall. Nor is it simply a territorial thing. For one thing, the FS wasn't part of this supposed collaboration, so why would you expect them to support it? The Tester bill encompasses drastic departures from what has been determined by the agency to be a "sustainable" level of logging in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge (for example). It would also cost a massive amount of money to implement the fast-tracked NEPA requirements, thereby setting up another classic trainwreck for the agency (not to mention the forest) and further fueling the anti-NEPA "analysis paralysis" obsessives.

Your question may be worth exploring (academically, at least), but to conflate the FS' legitimate objections to the Tester bill to a general inability to collaborate is a stretch.
Anonymous says:
Jan 06, 2010 11:08 AM
Not sure what an 'academic" question is in this case..I find these sort of blogs much more interesting and informative and, well influential, in some ways that anything academic. The question to me is a real one...USFS is in danger of appearing to support collaboration only when it gets to define the terms. There may be problems with Testers approach, but it is another forum and place to talk about better forest policy. The national forests are creatures of democracy, not USFS..everything is always open to negotiation and new ideas and I find that healthy.
Anonymous says:
Jan 06, 2010 04:13 PM
Academic in the sense of unanswerable, perhaps. As you point out, policy changes with each administration and it's not clear how collaboration could become institutionalized. Moreover,many of the so-called collaborative schemes bypass and/or alter NEPA and other laws that apply to public land and with which the agencies are required to comply. Circumvention of these laws is one of the central objections people have to collaboration.

If NFs are creatures of democracy, they can't be run by small, self-selected, exclusive groups of people such as those in the B-D Partnership. And if we are going to continue to have national forests, we need to have national policies and nationally-applicable laws. If one is in favor of the forests being run locally or within the state, collaboration probably works just fine--with a ruling oligarchy for each area, "non-traditional allies" duking it out until they all come to an agreement that "makes them equally unhappy," as the saying goes. But no national forests anymore.
Anonymous says:
Jan 06, 2010 06:46 PM
Well a few thoughts. Some people think NEPA works fine, others think it needs changing..hence some of these collaboration attempts to alter that playing field. Certainly there are those within USFS who are not fans of NEPA as it stands today, either. Not sure about the national forests point, though I certainly acknowledge its a legitimate argument. Seems to me that Congress has the ability and the right to try and rethink all of this if it chooses....all national park units do follow the Organic Act but also do have, at times, different specific mandates within them, too.
Anonymous says:
Jan 07, 2010 04:13 PM
The real issue is one of who controls and how decisions are made on public lands (including national forests). Under current laws and policy, for better or worse, decisions are made by agencies like the Forest Service after an analysis (NEPA) that is open to all citizens. The goal of this model is to have professional decisions—informed by science and public input—that are made in the broad public interest. In contract, collaborative processes on public land are usually a group of self-selected special interests making decisions couched as recommendations. While I disagree with the author’s implicit support of these kinds of collaborative processes, at least he recognizes, in a later post, they are a departure from current laws like NEPA. NEPA requires analysis and public input before decisions are made. If we citizens truly want to change fundamental public land laws, let’s have that debate in the open.

The author’s point (in a later post) that because a few national parks have special management provisions (usually weakened protection), it is proper for individual national forests to have them is an invalid comparison. First, national forests are managed under broad "multiple-use" mandates that don’t apply to the narrower protective mandates of national parks. The Forest Service already has broad discretion to adapt management to local conditions. Second, the very few special management provisions in a few national parks of which I am aware were established when the park was established. This was done to continue some existing, nonconforming use. The national forests in Montana that are the subject of Senator Tester’s bill have been in existence for about a century.
Anonymous says:
Jan 08, 2010 12:16 PM
Well, Im not sure. First there are a number of pretty thoughtful folks that argue that NEPA needs to be reformed. I suggest this, not because thst means they are right or wrong, but because there is evidence that NEPA is not uniformally well thought of. We have to be careful here, we have amended the Constitution and many other laws because of changed values, beliefs and so on. One can argue that NEPA should NOT be changed, but that is hardly a consensus position.

As for collaboration as....well, lets say a scholarly topic, Id urge folks to check with people like Matt Mckinney up at the University of Montana, who has both written about and practiced consensus building..see if he thinks all these efforts are merely a bunch of "self-selected" individuals.

As for national parks, we need to remember that the are many different units of the system besides national parks. It seems entirely appropriate (though we may want to disagree with the action)for Congress to establish and change management direction of these units, and sometimes Congress authorizes certain activities becuse of potential future resource needs, with caveats. Moving the other way, Congress has designated national recreation areas under USFS management. Here, USFS has come under criticism for NOT treating them as more protected, as it were.

But most fundamentally, we take these positions because we are advantaged by law being certain ways. Some like NEPA the way it is, others do not. USFS talks about collaboration, sometime practices it well, but likes to define it in a way that advantages the agency. So I think I agree with the authors first sentence..but this is why others want to chsnge the rules of the game.
Anonymous says:
Jan 10, 2010 07:37 AM
I'm about as conservation-minded as they come, but I am of the opinion that NEPA reform is desperately needed. BLM (whom I've alternately worked for and with for the past 6 years) is crippled by their need for NEPA compliance. Rather than biologists and arch's going out and doing meaningful work on public land to improve our management of it, they spend all of their time working on NEPA-related issues for developments on public land. Rather than spending money on more law enforcement to curb illegal OHV use (the single biggest problem facing BLM lands, particularly in the southwest), they hire more GIS technicians to make more maps for NEPA documents.

Another case-in-point: I was recently contracted (independently, in a non-BLM capacity) to do some ecological restoration work on BLM land. The company who contracted me spent twice as much money to contract biological and cultural monitors, who had to watch our every move (due to NEPA), than they did to contract me for my services. So the amount of money spent on regulatory compliance was twice that spent on restoring the land.

NEPA is important: it holds the federal government responsible for the things it does. But when land management agencies are completely hamstrung by attempting to comply with NEPA, there are serious revisions needed.
Anonymous says:
Jan 10, 2010 03:37 PM
There are many horror stories involving the obstacles NEPA might present. While it takes considerable effort to comply with NEPA, that does not mean, because of difficulty, that the law itself needs reform. NEPA has language that attempts to curtail lenghthy and nonessential procedures and information. It is a procedural law that guides decision making and does not set specific limitations or demand alternatives to be chosen. This does not mean that NEPA does not need to be reformed, it probably could use some revision. But what specifically needs to be revised? There's alot, and I mean a lot, of project oriented folks who feel like they are being handcuffed by NEPA. To me, good decison-making, much like a good democracy, is slow and deliberative and all the people who want to jump in the backhoe and go to work are going to have to wait for impact studies to come in-because of NEPA.

As for the implementation of NEPA. It's much better to have monitoring and implementation occur to ensure that the project is compliant-otherwise all of the NEPA process, including the millions spent on environmental assessements and impact statements, is for not. So spending a bit more, although it may seem counterintuitive, to ensure NEPA compliance might be the most important part of NEPA.
Anonymous says:
Jan 12, 2010 11:18 AM
NEPA is flawed at its core, but not irreparably. Here's a letter I sent the President that tries to sum up the problem and part of the solution.

Tom King
Silver Spring, MD

January 7, 2010

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington DC 20500

Subject: National Environmental Policy Act

Dear Mr. President:

As a strong supporter of your administration, and as one who has worked with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) since very shortly after its enactment, I want to thank you for your proclamation of December 31, 2009 on the occasion of NEPA’s fortieth anniversary. I especially appreciate your call for executive branch agencies to promote public involvement and transparency in NEPA implementation.

I fear, however, that in the last decade or so most federal agencies have forgotten how to make their decision making transparent, and moreover, forgotten why doing so is a good idea. It is all very well and good for the concerned public to be able to look through the transparent window and see what an agency is doing, but if that public is unable to do anything about it, it only produces frustration. For this reason, I hope you will look closely at the regulations of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (36 CFR 800), which (while themselves far from perfect) promote consultation – that is, back-and-forth discussion aimed at reaching agreement – as the means of involving the interested public in decision making. If such consultation were routinely (and honestly) carried out in all NEPA-based analyses, we would, I think, have a far stronger and more accountable impact assessment process.

I also suggest – understanding that you have a good many more urgent concerns on your plate at the moment – that changes are needed at least in the NEPA regulations if not in the statute itself to make it effective and accessible to the public. I enclose two excerpts from the last chapter of my recent book, Our Unprotected Heritage (Left Coast Press 2009), a copy of which has been provided to your Council on Environmental Quality, that elaborate on this suggestion.

Thank you again for your proclamation, and best wishes for success in all you are endeavoring to do on behalf of the nation and its people.


Thomas F. King
Anonymous says:
Jan 13, 2010 03:22 PM
Janine wrote: “Moreover,many of the so-called collaborative schemes bypass and/or alter NEPA and other laws that apply to public land and with which the agencies are required to comply. Circumvention of these laws is one of the central objections people have to collaboration.”

This simply isn’t true. NEPA’s mandatory comment periods and other requirements are still abided by in collaborative processes. Collaborative efforts supplement NEPA, never circumvent it. (At least legal collaboratives don’t. If the basic public participation requirements of NEPA aren’t being met, you can bet someone will sue the agency and win. If this hasn’t happened, NEPA was not circumvented.)

Collaborative processes are not “departures from NEPA” either, as Gary Macfarlane states. Collaboration enhances NEPA and is the very spirit of NEPA and its “productive harmony” clause. Many collaborative processes go above and beyond basic NEPA requirements, providing everyone and anyone with an opportunity to engage in a more intimate discussion with the agency. How is providing more opportunities to participate departing from NEPA?

What do people mean when they say collaborative are “self-selected, exclusive groups”? You mean certain publics choose to sit down and talk with the agency while others don’t? How is this different from only select people writing a comment letter in a “traditional” “basic” NEPA approach? You can’t mean that the agency selects or limits who to sit down with, as that’s illegal under FACA (unless the group as a FACA charter such as the BLM RACs). Most processes are open, so how can that be self-selecting and exclusive?
Anonymous says:
Jan 14, 2010 11:57 AM
Like Freemuth, you are conflating a collaborative process conducted within the forest planning structure with the collaboratives like that which went into Tester’s bill that are designed by, yes, self-selected groups and then incorporated into legislation. Which, as I said, often circumvents NEPA. Other examples have been the Owyhee bill as originally put together by the Owyhee Working Group, and CIEDRA.

There is a brand of collaboration that works within existing law and regulations—I know forest groups in the Southwest have engaged in this. The WildWest Institute and Friends of the Bitterroot--groups that oppose the Tester bill and have voiced concerns about the exclusive Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership—have also done so pretty extensively, but all within existing law and the forest-planning process. These are not the efforts I’m talking about when I refer to NEPA being circumvented.

“What people mean” when they say collaboratives are self-selected groups is that, for example, the Owyhee Working Group expressly barred Western Watersheds Project from participation, even though, ironically, WW was the most active and the most successful in challenging overgrazing and other environmental problems in the Owyhee.

Many Montana groups let their concerns be known about the Beaverhead deal as soon as it started coming together. At a Wild Rockies conference I attended in 2006, they had asked at least two of the conservation groups in the Partnership to come and speak with the rest of us who were attending about what would be in the proposal and engage in some discussion, but they declined—and have continued to shut out others’ concerns.

Similarly, ICL , TWS, and other groups that put together Mike Simpson’s CIEDRA bill kept specifics of that bill private for a very long time –-to the extent that Simpson would introduce drafts of the bill that literally had no site-specific information on the thousands of acres of public land that would be given away for free. FACA doesn’t apply in these circumstances.

It’s good to take comfort in the idea that if NEPA is violated “you can bet someone will sue the agency and win,” but that is not possible when collaborative proposals are incorporated into legislation that truncates or circumvents NEPA. You can’t sue Congress.

The collaboration you tout, which falls under existing laws and has apparently been successful, is really not close to being the same creature as the collaboration behind something like Tester’s bill.

So, I guess the real answer to Freemuth’s question is—yes, the Forest Service is demonstrably willing to engage in collaboration of the former sort. But their input is not asked for in legislative projects such as CIEDRA and Tester’s bill.
Anonymous says:
Jan 14, 2010 12:34 PM
Hi Janise. To clarify, yes, I am referring to agency’s grassroots collaborative planning efforts, not collaborative policy or law development. You’re right that in these high-level “collaboratives” aren’t subject to the same laws and processes that agencies are. And although I don’t think Western Watersheds would ever be constructive in a collaborative setting, I do agree some groups/interests are excluded.

Thanks for clarifying. I agree with everything you’ve written.