FORESTS:

'21st century' planning rule designed to meet new challenges

The sweeping new planning rule unveiled last week by the Forest Service should bring federal forest management in line with 21st century forest science and public values, forest experts say.

The 94-page draft rule, which will provide the framework for how management plans are crafted for 155 national forests and 20 grasslands covering 193 million acres, will replace a directive that dates back to 1982. All existing forest plans were written under the current rule.

But a lot has changed in the 29 years since the Reagan administration adopted the first planning rule.

Forest ecologists have a better understanding of what constitutes forest health, and how to restore damaged or diminished forests. Commercial timber production, a booming industry in the 1980s, has declined due to changing market dynamics and environmental safeguards; at the same time, the forest restoration industry has grown. And forest managers are grappling with new threats, including unprecedented beetle outbreaks, unnaturally hot and large wildfires and the vagaries of climate change. Furthermore, recreation on public lands has skyrocketed, creating new challenges for forest managers and planners.

As a result, experts say, many of the changes put forth in the new planning rule reflect a new understanding of forest ecology and public values.

"Together we have created a collaborative and science-based planning process to guide the management of the national forest system in the 21st century," Forest Service Associate Chief Mary Wagner said last week when the rule was unveiled (E&ENews PM, Feb. 10). "The proposed rule will guide forest management planning in a way that meets the needs of today and tomorrow."

The new rule -- the Forest Service's third attempt to update the directive -- emphasizes ecological restoration, the creation of rural job opportunities, shorter timeframes for crafting forest plans, protection of wildlife and water resources, and responding to climate change impacts. It also calls for gathering public input on management decisions earlier in the planning process.

The new rule also embraces the concept of "adaptive management," allowing forest managers to test management prescriptions and fine-tune them as needed. Such an approach, the rule notes, is especially important given the uncertainties of how climate change will affect wildlife habitat, waterways and other forest resources.

The Forest Service also calls for forest managers to adopt a landscape-scale approach instead of focusing on individual districts. Under that strategy, which reflects recent developments in the field of ecology, each forest unit will consider conditions beyond its borders when creating its forest plan.

A big-picture approach should be more efficient and less costly than the old way of doing things, said Wally Covington, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University who is also the director of the university's Ecological Restoration Institute.

"I think at those levels, at large landscape levels, you can really make a difference in unnatural fire and unnatural insect outbreaks, but it's also big enough where you can start to approach economies of scale, for fuel treatments, for example."

For instance, forest managers will be able to plan thinning projects across much larger areas than they do now, saving time and administrative costs and providing greater certainty to the contractors who do the work, said Covington, who has worked with the Forest Service on a broad-scale restoration pilot project in northern Arizona called the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (Land Letter, Feb. 3).

The landscape approach also will help managers address multiple concerns simultaneously, instead of examining each element or problem separately, Covington said. For example, management actions aimed at reducing the risk of unnatural wildfire can also benefit wildlife, reducing the need for targeted species management later on, he said.

"If you can restore self-regulating mechanisms, then a lot of our biological diversity and conservation goals will kind of be met automatically," he said. "It's not just restoring natural fire, but the structure and processes across the landscape."

Perceived shortcomings

Some environmental groups, however, say the new planning rule falls short when it comes to wildlife protection. Unlike the 1982 rule, the latest version does not include a requirement for maintaining "viable populations" of native wildlife species.

"Its protections for wildlife are pretty weak," said Jane Danowitz, public lands director for the Pew Environment Group. "There are some good aspects to the rule, but when it comes to a couple of key protections [for] wildlife and watersheds, they're not strong and they tend to be left up to the discretion" of local forest managers, she added.

Michael Francis, national forest program director for the Wilderness Society says the new rule has a lot of good provisions, although he finds it long on vision but short on direction.

"It's a big change from the previous rules for sure, and it has a lot of lofty ideas," he said. "Unfortunately, the devil's in the details. There isn't much assurance that these lofty ideas are going to get accomplished. There's a lot of discretion. The forest manager could do it, or they could not do it. It doesn't do enough to tell them what they have to do and what's expected from them."

Forest Service officials say they want the rule to provide flexibility to account for varying local conditions. What is best for a forest in Alaska, for example, is likely to be different from what is needed in a Florida forest. They also want to make sure the new rule is simple enough that it can be easily implemented. One of the complaints from forest managers about the 1982 rule is that it was too complex, and the planning process takes too long as a result.

But Francis says simplicity should not come at the expense of effectiveness.

"It could be complicated, because we're heading into somewhat unchartered waters, and we don't know how climate change is going to affect things," he said. "So you need the transparency and the accountability that we're going to move in those directions [put forth in the rule]. That's what the forest needs. Just because it's hard and will require some tough decisions doesn't mean we shouldn't do it."

Rebuilding economies

The new rule also reflects the Forest Service's efforts to help rebuild rural economies that have been harmed by the decline in commercial timber production. Only this time, the focus will be on long-term forest restoration rather than commercial timber harvesting.

In Alaska's 16.8-million-acre Tongass National Forest, for example, which once produced more timber than any other national forest, timber production has dropped from 471 million board feet of timber in 1990 to less than 34 million board feet annually in recent years (Land Letter, April 22, 2010).

Karen Hardigg, forest program manager for the Wilderness Society in Alaska, said if Tongass managers incorporate the new planning rule's objectives into the forest's management plan, it could help accelerate a shift away from old-growth logging to a more restoration-based economy.

"The emphasis on restoration and resiliency, on climate change, on collaboration -- getting to shared priority-setting and preventing conflict -- that could all be especially beneficial in southeast Alaska," she said.

But like Francis, Hardigg believes the new rule leaves too much up to local forest managers. "We would have liked to have seen more solid direction. A little more teeth," she said.

The new effort, crafted with feedback from 40 stakeholder group meetings and 26,000 comments, marks the Forest Service's third attempt to update its planning rule. A Clinton administration revision in 2000 was deemed too complex to implement, and federal courts invalidated the Bush administration's 2005 and 2008 revisions.

The draft rule is open for public comment until May 16. The Forest Service plans to hold a public listening session on the new rule on March 10 in Washington, D.C., and is planning other public information sessions around the country, officials said.

Click here to read the draft rule.

Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.

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