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.
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.
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.