In 1994, the Forest Service released the Northwest Forest Plan, which banned logging in more than three-quarters of the federal forests in western Washington and Oregon and in Northern California to protect the northern spotted owl. This landmark example of environmental protection was rooted in an agency requirement to protect viable wildlife populations in each national forest. Today, creating such a plan would be almost impossible. Forest policy experts say that a recent overhaul of forest-planning rules, while long overdue, has gone too far, throwing out the viability requirement and other key provisions.
The previous rule had stood for 25 years, during which the Forest Service produced massive plans for managing the 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. These “forest blueprints” described areas suited for logging, grazing, mining and wilderness, explained how wildlife will be protected, and estimated the effects of 10 to 15 years’ worth of timber, recreation, habitat and water projects.
Each plan took five to seven years of effort and cost around $5 million to $7 million. That’s largely because of the National Environ-mental Policy Act, or NEPA, which required the agency to consider several management alternatives and their environmental consequences before deciding on one. But because plans took so long to finish, their projections quickly became irrelevant.
All those with a stake in plan creation — agency staffers, environmentalists and citizens alike — recognize that the planning process had to change. “We’ve sort of run the course (with the previous rule) and a lot of things haven’t worked,” says Tony Cheng, associate professor of forestry and natural resource policy at Colorado State University. “Maybe it’s time to try something new. Public lands are an experiment in participatory democracy.”
The Forest Service set about revising its planning rules, and in 2005 adopted several reforms. Then, in December, the final and most controversial reform took effect: Forest plans would no longer be required to go through NEPA analysis.
The changes mean that forest plans will now cost about half as much and take half as long to create. But in making planning more efficient, the Forest Service may have compromised the reason forest plans are done in the first place. “These rule revisions brought out the worst instincts in the Forest Service — its compulsion to be free of oversight from outside,” says Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Forest planners who had worked for decades under the cumbersome 1982 rule suggested many of the changes. Instead of massive overhauls every 15 years, plans will now be updated on a five-year basis. Independent scientists will review the science used, and professional environmental auditors will verify that plans are being followed. Individual forest supervisors will have broad latitude in interpreting terms such as “best available science,” “sustainability” and “collaboration.” “The new rules give the Forest Service a whole lot of discretion,” says Martin Nie, associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana. “In some districts, it could be a disaster. In others it could do wonders.”
Rick Cables, regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region, says the changes will help the agency adapt more rapidly to changing ground conditions and spend its ever-shrinking funding on actual work, like trail construction, habitat improvement and bark beetle management. Forest Service officials emphasize that although NEPA environmental reviews have been taken out of the planning process, they haven’t disappeared altogether. Individual projects must still go through environmental analysis, just as they did before. “We believe a plan is a plan,” says Cables. “It doesn’t affect the ground. What affects the ground are projects.”
But assessing environmental impacts in this piecemeal fashion doesn’t allow for a big-picture look, say critics. Now, says Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, the agency no longer has to describe the forest-wide consequences of actions like logging. “When you get rid of NEPA analysis,” says Stahl, “you get rid of the legal basis for decisions in forest plans. There’s no way to hold the Forest Service legally accountable.”
Supporters of the revisions say that environmental groups are upset mostly because the new rules offer scant toeholds for litigation. “It won’t be as easy to take (the Forest Service) to court,” says Bryan Armel, a planner for Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. “They’ll have to wait for specific projects to look at environmental effects.”
Not surprisingly, lawsuits are in the works. Last fall, a coalition of groups and the state of California sued the Forest Service, claiming that it failed to consult with other federal agencies about the new rule’s effect on wildlife. And on Jan. 29, Forest Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife also sued, noting that because the agency now exempts both forest plans and small logging and thinning projects from NEPA analysis, some three-quarters of its projects will never be evaluated at either level.
Environmental groups may succeed in overturning the ’05 rule — but most have a hard time defining just what an ideal planning rule would look like. “Built more on the Reagan (’82) rules, with a range of alternatives and stronger commitments, but streamlined,” says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilder-ness Association.
And if the ’82 rule is simply reinstated, the Forest Service will still face the challenge of fixing its “process predicament” without dropping cornerstones like overall NEPA analysis and the wildlife viability requirement. “Something was broken (in the ’82 rule), but this is not the answer,” says Nie. “These are untested ideas that should have been tried out at a smaller scale first.”
The author is HCN’s news editor.