If there's a driver's manual for each of the nation's 155 national forests, it's the forest plan. Tailor-made for each forest and revised every 15 years, the plans provide the broad framework for decisions about how forests are used. They specify where logging, grazing and motorized-vehicle use can take place, which areas may be eligible for protection as wilderness, which areas are priorities for reducing fire hazard by thinning trees and lighting controlled burns, and which are especially critical for rare plants and animals.
Almost everyone who's done time in the U.S. Forest Service agrees that the rules governing the planning process, last amended in 1982, have problems. On Dec. 6, the Forest Service announced a major new rule that's the most significant overhaul of the forest planning process in two decades.
"This rule's about to bring the planning process into the 21st century," says Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins.
But in an era when Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth says his agency is bedeviled by "the process predicament" of endless appeals and lawsuits, it's unclear whether the new rule will help the agency out of the woods. Critics say the plan not only cuts out an important layer of environmental oversight, but also slashes public involvement - and could create even more gridlock in the courts.
A one-two punch
This isn't the first time the Forest Service has tried to revise the forest planning process. In November 2000, the Clinton administration made its own revisions to the rule, giving "ecological sustainability" top priority. But that rule was frozen soon after President George W. Bush took office (HCN, 2/12/01: The power of love, and its opposite).
The new rule takes aim at some of the more onerous pieces of the forest planning process, including "viability" requirements meant to protect species not listed under the Endangered Species Act (HCN, 10/14/02: Forest protection under the knife). Even former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, who championed ecological sustainability in the traditionally pro-logging agency, says a little less red tape isn't necessarily a bad thing. "The viability rule is more restrictive than the Endangered Species Act," he says.
The new nationwide rule goes much further, however, giving "social sustainability" and "economic sustainability" equal clout with ecological sustainability. Adding to a series of Bush administration moves exempting federal projects from analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the rule no longer requires an environmental impact statement on forest plans (HCN, 10/28/02: Bush undermines bedrock environmental law).
Conservationists say that eliminating NEPA analysis cuts out a crucial, broadscale assessment of impacts on sensitive species and the environment generally. NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the "cumulative effects" of any action they take: A proposal to build a new road, for example, must also consider existing roads and their overall effects on wildlife migration corridors.
Forest Service officials point out that forest plans are like zoning blueprints for community planners: While they lay out the framework of what can happen where, they don't represent a decision to actually do anything on the ground.
Project-level decisions such as timber sales often require separate environmental impact statements (EISes) which duplicate the work done at the forest-plan level, says Fred Norbury, a career Forest Service planner who's now the agency's director of Ecosystem Management Coordination. Eliminating the forest plan EIS is simply "a practical, pragmatic judgment about where's the best place to spend the money for cumulative analysis."
But pushing environmental analysis down to the project level could bring its own problems. "They've come up with a short-term salve which will potentially expedite planning at the forest level," says Chris Wood, who served as the senior policy advisor to Clinton-era Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck. "But to do that kind of cumulative analysis on a project-by-project basis is going to slow down individual projects by years."
Maybe not: The Wilderness Society's Michael Anderson says there is also a push to exempt many individual projects from NEPA. Earlier this year, attempts in Congress to wrangle such exemptions for fire-hazard reduction projects fizzled out. But on Dec. 11, both the Interior and Agriculture departments announced a proposal that would fast-track and exempt forest-thinning projects from NEPA review. Says Anderson, "It's an attack on NEPA from both ends of the forest management process."
And although the Forest Service says the new rule promotes collaborative, consensus-based public involvement in forest planning, critics say it actually cuts people out. The agency can enact four-year-long "interim amendments" that aren't subject to public comment. When public input is allowed, the agency will no longer consider mass-produced forms of public comment, such as postcards printed by environmental groups.
Perhaps most significantly, the new rule eliminates the public's right to appeal forest plans administratively. This gave individuals and organizations the opportunity to challenge a plan before an agency review board without resorting to lawsuits.
Instead, the agency is proposing a 30-day "pre-decisional objection process" during which individuals and groups can submit written objections to a proposed plan or amendment. "Getting people involved early on generally keeps you from going to court," says Associate Chief Collins. Under the new rule, she says, "You have the same right to appeal - it's just before the decision is made."
But by eliminating the opportunity to file an administrative appeal after the final decision is made, the Forest Service could be driving itself into the path of more lawsuits. "By saying you're going to eliminate (administrative) appeals," says Chris Wood, "you're basically saying: 'Go straight to litigation.' "
The public comment on the proposed rule runs through March 6.
The author is an HCN assistant editor.
You can comment ...The proposed rule can be viewed online at www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma/. Comments on the rule must be received by March 6, 2003. Send to USDA FS Planning Rule, Content Analysis Team, P.O. Box 8359, Missoula, MT 59807; e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; or fax to Planning Rule Comments at 406/329-3556.