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National Forest Service planning regulation changes proposed

Preliminary comments by Tom Crimmins, recreation consultant, retired USFS recreation staff

October 27, 1999

The following is a list of my comments following a preliminary review of the U.S. Forest Service planning regulations issued on September 30, 1999. First will be a section of comments based on the general nature of the regulations. And second, will be some comments specifically addressed in the regulations and specific regulation sections.

General comments

The proposed changes in the planning regulations represent a significant departure from existing processes and existing laws. Under the circumstances, an EIS that clearly analyzes all of the impacts caused by the change in regulations must be prepared. The analysis must include consideration of impacts resulting from the shifting of demand for products and uses to private land to offshore sites with lower environmental standards. By completing an environmental analysis the Forest Service has agreed that the document falls under the NEPA process.

The requirements set forth in this proposal will be so demanding on Forest Service time and budgets that it will be virtually impossible to accomplish any task. The EIS to be completed must analyze the full and complete costs of implementing these regulations and the potential for success.

The regulations as proposed fail to set any specific guidance for the planning process. This will result in significant differences from area to area and unit to unit. This will make it virtually impossible for the public to understand the type of planning being done and the process is being used.

The emphasis on involving scientists will merely complicate the process rather than add any level of confidence. Forest Service units generally have a full compliment of qualified scientists that understand the area and the scientific information associated with specific issues. Adding another level of scientists will only further obstructs the analysis process.

The proposed regulations completely change the focus of the Forest Service from an agency that provides for public needs to agency that only protects natural systems and attempts to return the forests to pre European conditions.

The regulations as proposed violate direction in the National Forest Management Act and the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act.

The emphasis in the regulations that raise the level of the decision making process higher in the chain of command make this clearly a top down process. This destroys one of the advantages of the Forest Service, which is that decisions are made at a local level. The regulations attempt to indicate that decisions will be local but it also states that all local decisions will be consistent with national decisions, which can increase under these regulations.

Specific issues

Section 219.1 the regulations say sustainability can be difficult to define in concrete terms but also indicates the sustainability means "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." I believe this is a reasonable definition that most people can accept. However, in section 219.2 the regulations redefine sustainability as something that "does not impair the functioning of ecological processes". This is a significant change that will become more obvious when we discuss the desired ecological conditions later.

Section 219.2 (a)(2)(iii) guiding principles indicate that " Planning requires independent scientific review of assessments and plans before their publication" This requirement completely skews the involvement process, and gives scientists ultimate veto authority over collaborative decisions.

Section 219.2 (b)(1) states," plans promote economic and social sustainability by providing for a wide variety of uses, and services and by enhancing societies capability to make sustainable choices". There is no definition or explanation of the meaning of the last phrase. This will basically allow local Land Managers to ignore the first part of this goal and to make any decisions they see fit.

This section also attempts to redefine the words of Gifford Pinchot from "Providing the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run." to a statement that "the lands be devoted to their most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people always bearing in mind that conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanent value." This attempt to rewrite history clearly points out the underlying objectives of these regulations.

One guiding principles for this goal indicates "the Forest Service cannot and should not be expected to single-handedly sustain existing economies and communities, the national forests and grasslands nonetheless contribute many values, services, outputs, and uses that allow economies and communities to persist, prosper, and evolve." While this may be true, the regulations indicate later that national forest land should be managed to compensate for changes caused by management of private land and therefore the flow of direct benefits from the national forests will substantially decline.

Section 219.2 (b)(2)(v) states that the planning must recognize the regional, national, and global implications of management. This should require the Forest Service to analyze the true environmental impacts resulting from shifting to timber harvest from national forest land to private lands and to other countries where environmental regulations are less restrictive than here. It also shows that the intent of the regulations is to make national forest lands in the US some sort of buffer for ecological conditions in the "global village"

This section also indicates "federal lands will need to anchor regional and national conservation strategies for species and ecosystems so other landowners can continue production of products and services without undue restrictions. In addition the wood, forage, water, and recreation they provide are often important to regional economies." This clearly indicates that the role envisioned for national forest land is that of preservation rather than production of goods and services and that the impacts for productive management will be shifted to private or foreign lands.

The section also recognizes the effect that budgets may have on the planning effort. However, it does nothing to indicate appropriate priorities.

Section 219.2 (d)(1) discusses the role of the public in the planning process. However, the way this portion is written it will allow the Forest Service to select individuals with specific objectives and allow them to become directly involved in the decision making process. This removes the ability of the decision-maker to analyze the range of opinions and to make a balanced decision.

The guiding principles for this goal indicate that "planning and plans must be understandable", "Planning should actively seek out and address key issues", and "Effective planning should restore and maintain the trust of American people in the management of national forests and grasslands." These proposed planning regulations fail to accomplish any of these items. Firsts, the regulations are vague and in some cases misleading and by their nature will result in a variety of planning approaches that will be confusing to the public, participants and perhaps the courts. Second, the overriding focus on naturalness and restoring the forests to a pre European condition preclude consideration of many issues. Finally, these regulations do more to obscure the planning process than to develop the public's trust.

Section (e)(1) 219.2 indicates that "plans must be working guides the Forest Service employees find useful and motivating." Preliminary discussions with several Forest Service employees indicate this will not be the case with the regulations. They express frustration in the level of outside involvement in the process, and the amount of effort that will be required to achieve any positive result other than complete preservation of the lands. They also feel that the costs of implementing the proposed regulations will be extreme and that virtually all projects will be hindered.

The guiding principles for this goal indicate that "planning should be efficient in achieving goals", "Planning must be innovative and practical" and " Planning must be done expeditiously. "The vague and confusing nature of these regulations will make it virtually impossible to achieve these objectives. The process will do more to reduce efficiencies, and practicality.

Section 219.3 Overview

Subpart (a)(2) allows managers to "engage the skills and interests of any appropriate combination of Forest Service Staff, consultants and contractors" in the decision making process. This is a clear violation that it will allow outside individuals undue influence in the planning and decision making process it could also tie the hands of the line officers who are supposed to be making the decisions.

Subpart (a)(4) restricts site specific projects to those consistent with the decisions applicable to the plan area. Since many of the decisions applicable to the plan area can be made at the Chief's level, as we will see later, the Chief will have the ability to totally manipulate the accomplishments of any and all Forests.

Subpart (b) States " Planning is undertaken at the national, regional, and/or national forest or grassland administrative levels depending on the nature and scope of the topic of general interest or concern. "This is this section that will allow the Chief to personally to override decisions made at local level or to preempt the local decision-maker's ability to make certain site specific decisions.

Section 219.4 Topics of general interest or concern

Subpart (a) allows these topics of general interest and concern to be identified by any number of sources including " Forest Service conservation leadership initiatives "(which can be another way of saying Chief's mandates), or "discussions among people, organizations where governments interests are affected by National Forest System Management." This action would clearly allow national environmental organizations a strong role in directing Forest Service planning efforts. Since the previous section indicates that national issues will be dealt with on a national basis, this could conceivably result in an issue such as motorized recreation policies being decided completely at the Chief's level.

Section 219.5 Information development and interpretation

This section indicates "The results from inventories and broad scale assessments local analysis and other studies are not proposed actions or decisions subject to NEPA procedures." In many cases under these proposed regulations, broad scale assessments local analysis and other studies may set specific management objectives that must be met by decision maker. Therefore, these documents should be subject to the NEPA procedures.

The explanation of the regulations (page 18) indicates "persons only have a legal right to comment or participate if responsible official makes actual decisions regarding revisions, amendments, or site specific projects." This significantly reduces the public's ability to have any influence on broad scale assessments. The regulations indicated broad scale assessments may be led by the Forest Service or "by others." Here again, the decision making process is placed in the hands of individuals, outside the Forest Service and the public's ability to influence the process is further diluted.

The explanation of the regulations (page 19) indicates that even with a formal NEPA process the broad scale assessment can be used as the scoping process. This could be used to further limit the public's ability to influence the process. It is conceivable that a planning scenario result that would have a broad scale assessment completed by selected scientists, outside the public process, used as the scoping document to set the sideboards for planning on large national issues with public involvement coming through a collaborative process that is ultimately subject to review and oversight by the same scientists that developed recommendations in the broad scale assessment.

Section 219.8 Amendment

This section deals with the definition of a significant amendment. It attempts to limit the definition of a significant amendment too only those that "may create a significant environmental impact and thus require preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement ." This section is an attempt to undermine the requirements of the National Forest Management Act regarding the authority for making significant changes in a plan. Under this section, it is conceivable that an action such as elimination of timber harvest, which could have a significant economic effect, may not have a significant environmental effect. Therefore, these changes could be implemented with a limited analysis as an insignificant plan amendment. The requirements in the National Forest Management Act must be left in place

Section 219.10 Site-specific decisions and authorized uses of land

This section requires that "the responsible official must follow the planning requirements of this subpart to make site specific decisions." The vagueness and complexity of these regulations make accomplish of site specific decisions virtually impossible.

Section 219.11 Monitoring and evaluation

The level monitoring required in these regulations will take virtually the entire Forest Service budget. This section requires the project not be authorized unless there's a reasonable expectation that adequate funding will be available to complete any required monitoring and evaluation. This wording will allow a manager who wants to obstruct a project the opportunity to inflate monitoring requirements to make the project uneconomical. It may, in fact, make it impossible for the manager to accomplish a desired project as well since outside scientists, who may benefit from Forest Service monitoring requirements, will have a major role in setting the requirements.

This section also requires that the public and scientists be actively involved in the evaluation of monitoring results. On its surface, this may appear to be a worthwhile requirement. However, focusing on scientists that may have a specific agenda allow the analysis of the results of monitoring to be significantly biased.

Section 219.11(e)(2)(ii) requires the habitat conditions be monitored but it also includes a statement that " habitat conditions should include all conditions necessary to support the species not just the vegetate component of habitat " This could allow the inclusion of all types of issues into the monitoring process. For example, the absence of noise could be defined as a necessary habitat condition and therefore used to declare habitat unsuitable even though animals can and do habituate noise in their environment.

Section (6)(f) includes a requirement to monitor "national, regional, and local supply and demand for products, services, and values." The addition of the "values" term into this equation will allow a manager to use a variety of "values" to counteract demand for products or services.

Section 219.12 Collaboration and cooperatively developed landscape goals

Section (a) encourages the responsible official to use collaboration in the planning process. However, it also states "The responsible official has full discretion to determine how and to what extent to use the collaborative process". This will allow the decision-maker to ignore the collaborative process if they choose.

Section (b)(2) says "The responsible official should consider cooperatively developed landscaped goals, whether initiated by the Forest Service or others, within the framework of planning as a topic of general interest insert ". This basically allows outside groups individuals or organizations to develop landscaped goals for management of national forests and encourages the manager to consider these goals and incorporate them into the process.

Section 219.14 Involvement of state and local governments

This section requires the responsible official to recognize the jurisdiction, expertise, and roll of state and local governments as regulators, land managers and representatives of State constituencies and local community. This may provide some balance in the states that have a reasonable approach to land management.

Section 219.18 Role of advisory groups and committees

This section allows the formation and use of the advisory committees but offers no guidance in the makeup of these committees. For this reason it would be quite easy for advisory committees to be slanted in one direction or another. The regulations must have guidance in the makeup of these advisory committees.

Section 219.20 Ecological sustainability

The regulations dance around this term but really fail to specifically indicate what it is or how it is to be achieved. The definition in 219.1 is not reemphasized here and so one could assume it does not apply.

Section (a)(3) indicates the effect of human activities must be considered in the planning process. However, it also indicates a need to distinguish between activities prior to European settlement "which had an integral role in the landscape for a long period of time" from activities after European settlement which "are of a type, size, and rate that were not typical of disturbances under which native plant and animal species in ecosystems developed." This statement is clearly an attempt to direct that national forest land be returned to a condition that existed prior to European settlement, and a blatant attempt to remove man and man's influence from the ecosystem.

Section (a)(7)(ii) discusses species at risk that include endangered, threatened, candidate, proposed, and sensitive species. This wording places " sensitive species "which are specifically identified by the Forest Service on the same level as species listed by the fish and Wildlife Service.

Section (b)(3)(ii) indicates "where current ecological conditions falls outside the historical range of variability, decisions must not shift those conditions further from the historical range of variability, and should provide for restoration towards likely states within that range." The definition of the historical range of variability given in the definition section indicates that it represents the limits of change in the biological and physical component of an ecosystem resulting from natural variations before European settlement. This is another direct attempt to take man out of the ecosystem. It also directs managers to attempt to create a natural system that existed prior to European man's arrival one the scene.

Section 219.21 Social and economic sustainability

This section gives lip service to the Forest Service mandate to produce products and services that support local communities. During the social and economic analysis process managers are required to consider "opportunities to provide social and economic benefits to communities through natural resources restoration strategies." It is interesting to note there's no mention of products. In addition they are urged to analyze the "the ability of communities to adapt to change." One could assume this could be an attempt to justify further reductions in goods, services and uses that benefit local economies

Section 219.22 The contribution of science -- The role of assessments analysis and monitoring

This entire section of the regulations fails to recognize that the Forest Service has a number of skilled, qualified scientists on staff. Instead, it requires managers to go outside the agency to find additional scientists to assist in a variety of activities. Section (c) requires that responsible officials must include scientists in designing and evaluation of monitoring and inventory strategies and protocols. One could anticipate that the emphasis on using outside scientists will result in a significant reduction of staff scientists, however, this is probably not the case.

Section 219.24 Science consistency evaluations

This section requires that the responsible official "must insure the plan decisions are consistent with the best available scientific information and analysis."All this may sound good on the surface, but there is no guidance on how to determine what is best available scientific information. Therefore, it's entirely possible for the committee of scientists or the manager to select information that supports their decision and reject other valid information. There is no mention of considering or balancing opposing views.

Section 219.25 Science advisory boards

This section discusses the formation of regional and national science advisory boards. It requires Forest Service Research Station directors to establish a science advisory board to be available to monitor the implementation of plan decisions for National Forest System lands. In essence, this gives scientists complete and total oversight of National Forest Management.

This emphasis on using scientists for goal setting, evaluation, and monitoring allows the manager to select scientists who support their point of view. A good example of some of the problems associated with this type of process can be seen in the activities of the committee of scientists involved in the Sierra framework planning process. There was a significant disagreement within the committee as to the roles and scope of the committee. The end result was that the committee defined it's own rules and proceeded as they wished.

Section 219.27 Special designations

Section (a) requires that "all roadless, undeveloped areas that are of sufficient size as to make practicable their preservation in and unimpaired condition must be evaluated for wilderness designation during the land and resource management plan revision process." This requirement basically ignores all the prior analyses that had been done on roadless areas and requires a completely new process. In addition, it fails to mention what actions are appropriate for roadless areas deemed unsuitable for Wilderness designation.

Section 219.36 Definitions

In addition to problems with the definition of historical range of variability previously mentioned, there are also problems with several other terms.

The definition of unroaded areas includes any area without the presence of a classified road. The size of the area must be sufficient and in a manageable configuration to protect the inherent values associated with the unroaded condition. This definition attempts to restate the definitions developed during the road construction moratorium, which is still under challenge.

In conclusion, the emphasis in these regulations which focus on such things as removing man and man's influence from the ecosystem, returning the National Forest to a pre European condition, and giving scientists and other outside individuals the ability to direct the planning process set regulations absolutely unacceptable. If these regulations allowed to be implemented the national forests will be a little value to anyone other than extreme environmental preservationists.