Early comments due on new national forest planning rule, with a Feb. 16 deadline. Sounds boring, but read on, this is critical for Summit County, with 80 percent national forest land that belongs to you
SUMMIT COUNTY — After federal courts thrice rejected federal initiatives to streamline the overall national forest planning process, the U.S. Forest Service is going back to the drawing board with a new, Web 2.0 initiative that includes an interactive planning blog to solicit real-time feedback.
The rule will determine how individual forests formulate their plans. At stake for Summit County residents is how they will be able to help shape the next plan for the White River National Forest. Generally, Forest Service policy requires updates every 15 years. The current version of the White River forest plan was adopted in 2002. The planning rule homepage is here.
About 80 percent of Summit County is national forest land. Critical issues include cleaning up after the pine beetle infestation and balancing recreation and natural resource conservation, including the critical need to maintain adequate wildlife habitat and water quality.
For example, during the last round of planning, the White River National Forest identified new areas to be considered for wilderness status, zoned big areas of the Tenmile Range and the mountains around Keystone for ski area development and identified some areas as wildlife movement corridors or as elk habitat.
Right now, the agency is in an early scoping phase for the new rule. Anyone can comment on what issues should be considered in the proposed rule and in the Environmental Impact Statement. The deadline for this phase is Feb. 16. Click this link to get information on how to comment. If you’re interested in participating in this process, it’s important to get involved at this first step. That will ensure you’ll be contacted about subsequent actions at every stage of the process.
The process has spurred a lively dialogue, with numerous forest planning blogs springing up around the web and offering alternate views. A New Century of Forest Planning is worth reading — especially this post — before making your own comments.
In 2005, under the Bush administration, the agency proposed a new rule that would have stripped important environmental requirements from national forest planning rules. U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in 2008 that the U.S. Forest Service failed to consider the environmental impacts of the proposal.
The ruling was deemed important by conservation groups, who said that it would require the Forest Service to continue using measurable standards to maintain viable wildlife populations for species that reflect ecosystem health.
The long-running debate over planning rules affects 193 million acres of public lands, including the White River National Forest in Summit County. The outcome will determine how forests “zone” land for uses like ski area development, wildife habitat, logging and grazing and development of energy resources.
Under Bush, the agency proposed eliminating the requirement for detailed environmental studies at the forest-planning level, along with axing strict rules aimed at maintaining healthy populations of plants and animals.
Top-level agency leaders, including Rocky Mountain regional forester Rick Cables, said the changes would save time and help the Forest Service put money and people to work on the ground, rather than sitting behind planning desks. Replacing costly and time-consuming planning level studies with site-specific reviews would have helped the agency be more flexible in addressing changing conditions like impacts from climate change or catastrophic events such as wildfire or hurricanes, proponents of the changes said.
Most importantly, the proposed rule would have enabled the agency to write new forest plans outside the framework of the Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That law requires federal agencies to take a thoughtful, hard look at several different alternatives of any proposed action, including a discussion of potential impacts and how to mitigate them.
Conservation groups said the changes were a thinly disguised attempt to cut public involvement and to give the agency free rein for logging projects. They immediately challenged the Forest Service in court and prevailed three times.
Wilken’s ruling chastised the Forest Service for copying legal arguments that were previously rejected by other federal courts. She also ruled that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with other federal agencies on the changes.
New leaders, new rule
Under the Obama administration, the Forest Service is taking a different approach to the planning rule, emphasizing collaboration. The goal is to “create and implement a modern planning rule to address current and future needs of the National Forest System, including restoring forests, protecting watersheds, addressing climate change, sustaining local economies, improving collaboration, and working across landscapes, according to a Forest Service press release.
Along with those values, the agency says it’s embracing “state-of-the-art, new media tools in conjunction with face-to-face interaction to facilitate wide public participation throughout the nation.” The planning rule blog has already elicited some comments with very specific advice for the agency.
One person wrote that the agency needs to include people with practical experience in the up-front planning, including forest historians; fire historians (“historical ecologists”); cultural anthropologists; ethnobotanists; foresters; forest managers; prescribed fire specialists; forest restorationists; and wildfire managers.
“Too many academics, grad students; GIS techs and inexperienced theorists (the “ologists”) have cheapened and devalued past planning efforts, in my opinion. Here is an opportunity to get back on track. I hope it’s not wasted,” Bob Zybach wrote in a Dec. 18 comment to the blog.
“As a retired Forest Service employee who was a member of Al Gore’s reinventing government effort, this move makes my heart sing. What we are looking at is sometimes called collaborative governance. The wold has changed and this is one giant step into the 21st century. We were 10 years early but I now feel vindicated,” wrote former USFS employee Norman M.Macdonald.
Filed under: Environment, Forest health, public lands, US Forest Service Tagged: | conservation, Environment, Forest health, Forest Service, National Forest planning rule, national forests, White River National Forest