In Search of Our Desired Forest
“What we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.” – Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, 2002
“Narrowly defined desired future ecosystem conditions, particularly if they are historical conditions poorly aligned with the unprecedented future, will seldom provide useful targets for management intervention.” – Stephenson, Millar, and Cole In Beyond Naturalness, 2010
What’s the true value of a Forest Plan? Over the history of Forest Service planning, the answer has changed. Now it’s changing again – plans in the future will not be measured by the accuracy of their detailed descriptions of fixed “desired conditions”, but how robust and flexible the plans will be when dealing with uncertainty.
Of course, maybe the true value of planning was never what we thought. It may have simply been about drawing a map of the areas where activities could occur, and creating a certain level of accountability with the public about how the activities would be conducted. But the idea persists today that the central purpose of plans is to describe detailed “pictures” of our desired conditions, and the specific structure, composition and function of the necessary ecosystem elements.
What a history we’ve had! NFMA plans were originally conceived as essentially one big timber sale. During the Senate floor debate in 1976, Hubert Humphrey said that no project level NEPA documents would be required after a plan was completed. All the parts of the plan were equally important. That changed in 1990, when former Chief Dale Robertson began to assert that standards and guidelines were more important than objectives. Throughout the 1990s, we shifted our focus from the uses of the forest to the condition of the forest itself. While changing the NFMA planning rule, the 1999 Committee of Scientists described the purpose of forest planning as “outward looking, built upon assessments; grounded in current scientific understanding; collaborative in nature; and focused on desired future conditions.” Planners were told to concentrate on “what we leave on the land.”
Meanwhile, planning was requiring huge investments of time, and plans were being written with a few pages of goals and objectives followed by 100 or more pages of forest-wide or management-area-specific standards and guidelines. Good standards were difficult to write, because they required inventories of current conditions that weren’t available, understanding of changing technology, and the need for difficult projections about the level and intensity of likely future activities in the face of changing management priorities and changing conditions on-the-ground. It was difficult to set standards for things like old growth or riparian areas when we didn’t even know how many acres were out there.
So the 2005 and 2008 planning rules were written to make plans more strategic and vision oriented, like county comprehensive master plans, and less dependent upon prescriptive standards. The preamble to the 2008 planning rule explained that “plans are more effective if they include more detailed descriptions of desired conditions, rather than long lists of prohibitive standards or guidelines developed in an attempt to anticipate and address every possible future project or activity and the potential effects such projects could cause.”
But a funny thing happened when we started writing plans under the 2008 rule. Instead of 100 pages of standards and guidelines, we now had 100 pages of desired conditions. Rather than broad, strategic goals, descriptions of desired conditions were becoming specific, detailed, highly-parameterized descriptions of vegetation conditions: percent species composition, numbers of trees per acre, desired ranges of basal area, numbers of snags, etc. The idea was that detailed desired conditions could ease the burden on project planners in developing the “purpose and need” for projects. At the same time, these desired conditions writeups were suggested as a tool for “accountability”.
Meanwhile, we probably lost the idea that forest plans should be readily understood by the lay reader who treasures a forest. For many people, a forest is a place. It’s not a list of attributes.
But here’s the fundamental question about planning: Do National Forests change because of Forest Plans or in spite of Forest Plans? Can we really control nature? Is intensive end-oriented management possible everywhere? In the Rocky Mountain west, we work in fire-dominated ecosystems with very long fire-return intervals. We have seen huge swaths of trees dying of insects or disease. The rates of change are enormous, and for some forests, current FIA data doesn’t represent the current conditions on the ground. We are heavily influenced by severe storm events – intense snowstorms, rain on snow events, patterns of drought, summer floods, even tornadoes. There is no equilibrium condition. Our Forest Plan modeling shows dynamic, ever-changing forests. We have become focused on the types and rates of forest disturbances. At the scales we’re dealing with, it may not be possible to map a single desired condition, or even a reasonably understood “range of conditions”.
The dynamics of climate change create uncertainties at the scales we are working at. Connie Millar has said that “although DC statements may be written broadly (“habitat for species x exists in adequate amounts to maintain current populations”), equally often they emphasize limited views of the future, or very narrow ranges of conditions (“4-6 snags per acre”). This suggests that the possibility of multiple ecosystem pathways, unexpected events, major interactions among elements, and threshold events are not really accepted by managers or the public. DC statements that recognize ranges of outcomes and not just singular states as acceptable are more realistic.”
Florida State Law professor Robin Kundis Craig has argued for new types of plans and regulations because “Stationarity is Dead“: “we are moving into an era where ecological change might not be predictable and when external factors, positive feedbacks, or nonlinear instabilities in a system will cause changes to propagate in a domino-like fashion that is potentially irreversible. As land, air, and water temperatures generally increase, patterns of precipitation alter in terms of both amount and timing, and species shift as best they can to cope, “restoration” and even “sustainability” have the potential to become close to meaningless concepts. We are moving along an at least somewhat unpredictable path to an as yet unpredictable final destination.”
The planning problem is not just about natural forces – it’s also about societal changes. We are seeing new uses of National Forests, and more and more projects are proposed by somebody other than the Forest Service. For instance, how can we anticipate in advance what standards and guidelines apply to laying a new type of fiber-optic cable across a forest?
As explained in the business and public administration literature, the purpose of a strategic plan is to identify core strengths, intended roles and contributions, and a “vision” which can be a rallying point or goal to be achieved. A plan should be robust and flexible, so it can adapt to changing conditions, changing knowledge, and changing politics, while being consistent with the organization’s core strengths and vision. A highly detailed plan will detract from the day to day sensing necessary to manage the unexpected. As Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe state in their book Managing the Unexpected:
“A heavy investment in plans restricts sensing to expectations built into the plans and restricts responding to actions built into the existing repertoire. The result is a system that is less able to sense discrepancies, less able to update understanding and learn, and less able to recombine actions into new ways to handle the unexpected.”
Park Service scientists Robert Bennetts and Bruce Bingham have pointed out the reasons that it is highly difficult, if not impossible, for managers to achieve desired conditions, because of lack of information, lack of management control, unavoidable circumstances, and trade-offs based on societal values. They talk about the “punitive paradox”: managers aren’t going to report impaired conditions if they are being judged on the difference between existing and desired conditions. They conclude that desired conditions could be a useful scientific research question, but they don’t work as a management tool.
So where does this leave us? Actually, some of the answers have already been mentioned on this blog. There are some exciting planning techniques being implemented in the field. We’ve got the tools – let’s see what we can do.