Opportunity (and Context) Lost: 2012 NFMA Planning Rule
The long-awaited NFMA “proposed planning rule” is out. It looks pretty much like the Draft rule to me. I have longed to see the Forest Service embrace adaptive management for public lands, or adaptive governance, as I argued here last year in Fixing the Rule: An Adaptive Governance Roadmap. But much like in the Draft, the preferred planning rule (Alternative A, pdf) in the Final Rule workup is a far cry from adaptive management.
Although draped in ecosystems rhetoric, when looked at from the real-world perspective of interrelated natural and social systems the 2012 Rule leaves much to be desired as adaptive management or adaptive governance. Here are four key points: First, the three levels of decision making—national strategic, forest administrative unit, project or activity—belie underlying realities of power and decision-making in the Forest Service. In short it stretches the imagination that important Forest Service decisions regarding ecosystems are to be made at the “forest administrative unit”, except for maybe the Tongass, The National Forests of Texas, and so on.
Second, desired (future) conditions are ineffectually dealt with at the forest or project scale, and often cry-out for contexts that don’t fit well under the category “national strategic.” Admittedly, the Forest Service has left itself an “out” re: broader scale assessments, but it is doubtful that many such efforts will yield substantive results.
Third, “standards” are better structured/set in contexts far from forest-level planning. I’ll be watching, but I can’t right now think of any meaningful standards that ought to be made in the development or revision of a forest plan.
Fourth, Why is the Forest Service hell-bent on replacing the federally accepted “appeals” process with an “objections process”? Does the Forest Service really believe that this is a change for the better?
My beef is not with many ecological/social concepts embedded in the 2012 rule: sustainability, species diversity, ecological integrity, etc. I have championed these for many years. But I have argued for years that they are better structured in an adaptive governance frame, rather than the rigid straitjacket of this rule. Is it time for Congressional oversight hearings on RPA/NFMA? Has this particular law outlived its usefulness? After all, the law was put in place in an era when production planning was still in vogue, before The Decline and Fall of Rational Planning. The law did not envision an era of collaborative stewardship of public lands.
Let’s look at each of the four identified problems in more detail:
Three levels of decision-making
In the old days when forest were viewed in large part through the eyes of production planners, it made sense to empower forest unit managers with setting up goals and objectives for individual national forests (as individual production factories). Projects and activities flowed from this goal setting: timber sales and other output production goals, for example. National or strategic goal and policy setting sat at the top and was informed by lower-level decision-making, although political pressures were arguably the main driving force for production goals like “getting the cut out.” This reasoning made its way into the RPA/NFMA and set the stage for the 1982 NFMA rule that still governs (despite repeated attempts to update it) the administration of the national forest system. But the days of viewing forests as production factories has ended.
Absent appropriate context, how is a forest supervisor to declare “desired conditions?” In my view, these appropriately derive from broader-scale assessments and policy considerations. Within such, a forest supervisor might make a periodic call as to forest or sub-forest niche(s). But to expect such without appropriate context-setting is asking the impossible. And it escapes me how this rule will promote effective context-setting.
Someone will have to show me just where forest level standards make any sense at all. I have argued before that they do not, and that standards are rightfully set and revised situationally as needed, not according to some time-clock for forest plan revision.
Objections Process to replace Appeals Process
I have never understood the need for this. It is at best a minor variation on a theme that could have as easily been made to work under the more-familiar appeals process. At worst, it proves a means to dodge public deliberation responsibility—to deny collaborators an opportunity to seek redress for surprise changes in proposed action as it becomes “federal action.” The only redress then becomes court challenge. It seems to me that in an attempt to streamline the process, the forest service only made things worse.
Since the Forest Service has chosen not to take the adaptive management/governance path, why not revisit the RPA/NFMA law with an eye toward collaborative stewardship? I new or revised law might help the agency see how interrelated ecological and social systems require the interrelated efforts—at context-dependent scales—of both forest service line, staff, and research as well as collaborators from other agencies as well as interest groups and others who hold a stake in outcomes.
If the Forest Service had embraced adaptive governance in this rule, we would see broad-scale assessments well up at appropriate scale and scope, accompanied by broad-scale policy, plans, or programs meant to address problems identified in the assessments. Monitoring regimes would accompany both. All would be structured at scope and scale appropriate to resolve issues and problems identified. Maybe we’ll see such anyway, somehow welling up for so-called forest plan implementation and other policy. Or maybe we’ll see endless, mindless, context-blind rituals at the forest scale: pretend assessment, pretend planning, pretend monitoring—forever missing opportunities for adaptive management, for adaptive governance.