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.