Are Forest Service Land Management Plans themselves a final decision about the location of activities such as snowmobiling and hunting, or are they merely guidance for when decisions are really made at a project level or subsequent travel management decision?
That question has been central to controversies about new Forest Service planning rules that were developed in 2005 and 2008, and relevant to the team now writing a new planning rule. The 2005/2008 planning rules were based on the concept that plans are merely aspirational and not inherently enforceable, citing the 1998 Supreme Court Ohio Forestry decision on timber harvest projections in the Wayne Forest Plan. The Forest Service used the Supreme Court decision in its logic for the 2005 rule, explaining that plans do not need to be accompanied by an Environmental Impact Statement, because no specific decisions are being made and because environmental documentation will be completed as timber projects are proposed. It also led to the idea that the planning process itself could be simpler, because forest plans don’t make site-specific decisions.
A Sixth Circuit decision on Wednesday could lead to a different view of the nature of a Forest Plan. The decision on the Huron-Manistee Forest Plan ruled against the Forest Service in favor of Kurt Jay Meister, an attorney representing himself. The Court ruled that Forest Plans under the existing 1982 rule (under 2000 rule transition provisions) make meaningful recreation decisions. Citing inadequacies in the analysis of the noise impacts of snowmobiling and hunting on semi-primitive recreational experiences, the Forest Service has been given 90 days to correct the deficiencies of the Huron-Manistee Plan.
The Sixth Circuit Court noted the difference between recreational activities in a Forest Plan and timber activities mentioned in the earlier Supreme Court decision:
“But the (Supreme) Court observed that the Plan itself “does not give anyone a legal right to cut trees, nor does it abolish anyone’s legal authority to object to trees being cut.” To the contrary, additional agency action – namely, issuance of a site-specific permit – was required before anyone could engage in the logging that the Sierra Club said would harm its interests. Thus, the Court held, the plan had not yet “inflict[ed] significant practical harm upon the interests that the Sierra Club advance[d]. Hence the case was not ripe. Meister’s case is different. Unlike logging, the activities about which Meister complains – gun hunting and snowmobile use – do not require further action by the Service before they can occur. To the contrary, they have in fact occurred ever since the Plan’s issuance, with the resultant harms that Meister now alleges. Thus, the Plan itself has harmed him in concrete ways. His claims are ripe.”
Regarding travel management, the Circuit said that the 1982 regulations “imposed the bulk of its obligations at the (forest) planning stage; and one such obligation, as we read the regulation, is to determine whether certain clases of areas and trails ought to be altogether off-limits to off-road vehicle use. Meister says that one such class are trails that the Service itself admits are “in or near” semiprimitive nonmotorized areas. That claim is properly presented at the Plan level.”
Regarding hunting, the court rejected a Forest Service argument that it is solely controlled by the State. Instead, the court said that both the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and Forest Service directives allow the Forest Service to limit hunting when it is inconsistent with direction in forest plans such as the establishment of semi-primitive non-motorized areas.
This case underscores how the 1982 planning rule is continually being interpreted by the courts. In the development of the new planning rule, it will be important to clearly spell out what analysis will be expected in the forest planning process. Elsewhere on this blog, there have been discussions about the importance of addressing recreation in the planning process, and how recreation isn’t being taken seriously. However, the planning process needs to be simplified and must be more concise. The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) does not require the planning rule to direct zoning of recreational uses in a Forest Plan. If recreation is addressed in the new planning rule, hopefully the requirements will be clearly laid out and are achievable.