The end of ‘analysis paralysis’?

The Forest Service overhauls its forest-planning process — but goes too far

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...