Thank you to David Bebee for passing along this news report by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News. The Tongass Futures Roundtable has been discussed here on this blog a number of times in regards to the management of the Tongass, America’s largest National Forest.
The Tongass Futures Roundtable is shutting down. The organization tried to resolve Southeast Alaska forest-issue conflicts. It formed about seven years ago.
Organizers hoped to bring together all parties involved in the forest to craft compromises on land-use issues, such as logging and habitat protection.
“The roundtable brought people together who had never had to sit across from each other at a table. The normal environment was a courtroom,” says Bruce Botelho, the group’s facilitator and moderator.
The former attorney general and Juneau mayor says roundtable members decided to end their work during a meeting earlier this month.
“One of the benefits for us to dissolve right now is to create the opportunity for people to come together and perhaps learn from our experience, but also build on it. And one would hope that any assembly of stakeholders would truly bring back the whole range of participants,” he says.
“We didn’t have enough movement in the direction we felt needed to occur,” says State Forester Chris Maisch, one of the original roundtable members.
“So the governor decided it would be best to put state energy and time and resources into a task force, which he established through an administration order,” he says.
Maisch chaired that task force, which released its final report a few months ago.
It recommended a number of actions meant to increase logging. One was expanding state forests. Another was revising state rules to help small timber operators.
Yet another called for the federal government to turn two million acres of the Tongass over to the state to be managed for harvest.
Maisch says the timber task force has since shut down.
Botelho says the roundtable eventually decided it couldn’t fully do its work without the groups that left. It will cease operations July 1st. But he says it achieved some of its goals.
“We devoted a great deal of time to examining the proposed mental health land exchange between the state and the trust and ended up endorsing a process, which is underway. And I think that, absent the support of the roundtable, would have been more difficult,” Botelho says.
He says some of the roundtable’s working groups will also continue meeting. One focuses on Alaska Native issues, another on sustainable forests.
The Tongass Futures Roundtable had about 35 members and tried to reach decisions by consensus. State Forester Maisch says that just didn’t work.
“It was a well-intentioned effort. And a lot of people spent a lot of time in trying to make that process work. And unfortunately, it just wasn’t the right time and the right place. So it’s too bad that it didn’t come to a better conclusion,” he says.
Roundtable Coordinator Norm Cohen says money was not the reason the group decided to dissolve.
On LinkedIn, I joined the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and they posted this meeting announcement for the Association for Conflict Resolution Environment and Public Policy Section 2013 meeting in Washington, D.C.. The title is “Dialogue in an Era of Divisiveness” which sounds very germane to the goals of this blog. Here’s a link to the agenda.
If I were in DC, I would definitely attend. There are many Forest Service and other agency speakers and a variety of interesting topics. I bet that there are some lessons we could learn from these collaboration and conflict resolution experts. If any blog readers are attending, one or more posts on what you find out would be appreciated.
Note: “collaboration” seems to be used in this agenda without the negative undertones associated with it sometimes in the Forest Service context. It would be interesting to observe this at the meeting.
It seems like I’ve written this same sentence numerous times over the past few years, so I might as well just paste it here again:
“The Colt Summit timber sale – and subsequent appeal and lawsuit – on the Lolo National Forest in Montana has been the source of much previous debate on this site, even though this was the first timber sale lawsuit on the Lolo National Forest in over 6 years.”
In 2009 the Colt Summit timber sale was included as a Forest Service-generated project in the grant proposal the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative (SWCC) in Montana submitted to the Forest Service for funding under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program.
As I’ve pointed out previously, back in 2009 to 2010 the Lolo National Forest Supervisor was the co-chair of the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative, meaning that essentially the Lolo National Forest Supervisor was writing a grant proposal to the Forest Service as a Forest Service employee to fund the Forest Service. And yet this is called “collaboration?”
Even today, 33% of the voting members of the SWCC are current, paid Forest Service employees. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative group requires new members to sign a “Duty of Loyalty Oath” prior to full participation, which reads: “Each member of the collaborative has a duty of loyalty to the collaborative.”
(There might be a few awkward transitions in this post, and here comes the first one.)
The reason I’m bringing up all this background information about the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative and the Colt Summit timber sale is because of the extraordinary lengths some members of that group – mainly the Montanan Wilderness Association and the Bozeman office of The Wilderness Society – went to when Friends of the Wild Swan and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed an appeal, and subsequent lawsuit, against the logging portions of the Colt Summit timber sale because they believed the Forest Service’s cumulative effects analysis for Canada lynx was inadequate.
Readers may recall that the Montana Wilderness Association was essentially lying to the public telling them that the lawsuit was threatening important watershed restoration work that was part of the project. Turns out, the plaintiffs never challenged any of that work and the Forest Service admitted that the restoration work was already under contract and moving forward. When we attempted to point out this fact on the social media sites of the Montana Wilderness Association, those fact-based, professional comments were simply censored and removed by Montana Wilderness Association employees and we were banned from ever commenting on the site again. Great example of open, inclusive, transparent “collaboration,” eh?
My belief is that much of the PR work from Montana Wilderness Association and a few of the other collaborators about the Colt Summit timber sale and the SWCC was essentially an extension of the million dollar plus PR campaign we’ve seen in Montana for the past 6 years to support Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
The expensive TV ads, full page newspaper ads, the radio spots, the dog-n-pony, one-sided “public” meetings, the canned talking-points inspired letters to the editor (which I suspect are generated by MWA employees who then call their members or simply get an unsuspecting 19 year old college students to sign and submit the LTE) and so forth. Make no mistake, and I’ve said this before, some of what we are witnessing in Montana under the guise of “collaboration” is nothing more than a political take-over of some of our national forests that has the potential to forever change America’s public lands legacy for the worse.
Which brings me back to the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. We’ve debated the merits of this program before on the blog and some of us have questioned the “accomplishments” that those supporting the CFLRP program seem to tout every year.
For example, when the CFLRP participants released the supposed list of program accomplishments just prior to Christmas last year, Sharon wrote, “A little birdie told me that some of the figures in the report below are not accurate” in regards to the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program report.
I made a comment that, “Obviously some people put a lot of effort into this fancy-looking report to pat themselves on the back for the supposed achievements of the CFLRP, but I’m calling BS on many of the achievement claims made by these CFLRP collaborators in this report. There is simply no way possible that all of the work listed in the report was achieved with a little CFLRP funding. Many of these CFLRP collaboratives are dramatically over-inflating accomplishments directly attributed to the CFLRP and are taking credit for work that the Forest Service would have done anyway, regardless of if CFLRP passed or if $10 million was allocated to these 10 projects around the country.”
In other words, I firmly believe that some members of some CFLRP’s around the country are double- and triple-counting to make their program seem more successful than it actually is. It’s almost as if they give the public the impression that the Forest Service has zero budget outside of what the CFLR program provides.
For example, if CFLRP funding accounts for 25% of the funding needed to complete X amount of logging on a certain forest should the CFLRP collaborators claim credit for the entire X amount of logging? Or would it be more honest for the CFLRP collaborators to claim credit for 25% of the logging? I certainly believe that the later is entirely more accurate, while the former is a complete exaggeration bordering on outright lying.
(Another awkward transition….)
So, this morning I was sent a copy of the latest meeting notes for the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative group from Friends of the Wild Swan, a group that’s keeping close tabs on some of the goings-on with the SWCC in their backyard.
What really caught my eye was this statement of fact in the notes:
“Nationally over the 20 CFLR projects there have been 49 decisions. Of those, 47% have been appealed or objected to and one litigated. Several of the appellants were part of local collaborative group.”
What’s that? You mean that while some of these CFLR collaborators are using some questionable accounting procedures to make it seem like their program is much more successful than it really is, these same CFLR collaborators aren’t letting the public know in their glossy, end-of-the-year accomplish report that 47% of all CFLR project decisions have been appealed? Including appeals by some of the same people/groups/interests that are part of these collaborative groups?
Since this figure was presented by the Forest Service and placed into official notes of the SWCC, one has to assume that somewhere, somebody has an actual spreadsheet or report about the fact that 47% of all CFLR project decisions have been appealed/objected to. For certain, I’ll be in contact with the SWCC to see if they will provide more information about this, and I’d encourage other people around the country to write their CFLR collaborative and see what additional information can be uncovered.
The public deserves nothing but full openness and transparency when it comes to the management of America’s public lands, so hopefully some members of these CFLR collaboratives will cease the shell-game PR campaign and be more honest about the CFLR program.
UPDATE: Sandy Mack, the Forest Service’s Liaison Officer for the Southwestern Crown of the Continent CFLRP just sent me the following spreadsheet based on my information request. I haven’t had time to look it over, but wanted to make sure it was up here so anyone interested could take a look at it.
As an aside, does anyone else know of another CFLRP collaborative in the country that has it’s own Forest Service-appointed (and paid) Liaison Officer? Is that a common practice? Or could it just be further proof that what’s happening in Montana with the SWCC is way outside the norms of Forest Service “collaboration?”
The following introduction was written by Greg Petrich with the Alaska Chapter, North American Bear Foundation. After the intro is a guest column written by Don Cornelius and Jack Gustafson. Mr. Cornelius and Mr. Gustafson are former Area Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division; with a combined experience of over 32 years reviewing Tongass National Forest, and private Native corporation logging issues. – mk
Senate bill S.340 (currently pending in Senate Natural Resources Committee) would transfer premium cherry picked Tongass National Forest lands to the private for-profit Sealaska Native corporation – violating a previous settled contract with the US government to select final land claims inside non-controversial agreed upon boundaries. A product of political influence it has become one of the most controversial issues ever to hit Southeast Alaska.
Two of the regions most respected and well known habitat professionals: Don Cornelius, and Jack Gustafson examine this bill’s potential impact on a globally rare and threatened resource – the tiny fraction of the land that holds the massive “giant trees” of the Tongass. – Greg Petrich, Alaska Chapter, North American Bear Foundation.
Congress Considers S.340. An Alaska Big-Tree Old Growth Transfer to Private Corporation
By Don Cornelius and Jack Gustafson
Legislation sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would transfer approximately 70,000 acres of public land in scattered locations across Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska Corporation, primarily for extensive industrial scale clearcut logging other commercial development.
The bottom line on S.340 is:
A) It is completely unnecessary; and
B) It is a very poor environmental trade off of lands and resources, and not in the public interest.
C) It sets a precedent, and an inequity, in the transfer of lands outside the public review process, potentially opening new claims by Native corporations across the state.
The proposed legislation (S. 340) would enable the Sealaska Corporation, to reopen and rewrite basic terms of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) in order to make alternative land selections in the Tongass, including some of the region’s most valuable large-tree old growth. Under current law, the Sealaska Corporation has already made its final land selections but is now seeking legislation to renege on their original ‘requested’ deal to obtain more commercially valuable Tongass public lands.
Sealaska’s controversial proposal has attracted opposition from small towns scattered throughout the southeast Alaska panhandle region as well as a diverse assortment of sportsmen and conservation groups concerned about habitat impacts. Several of the publicly owned areas now being sought for logging by the Sealaska Corporation have exceptional ecological value identified as conservation priorities through a comprehensive Tongass-wide habitat assessment process by The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Alaska.
A letter jointly submitted about the bill from The Wildlife Society, The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wildlife Forever, Safari Club International and more than a dozen other sports groups describes the legislation as “fundamentally flawed” and asks that the bill not advance further. Trout Unlimited also opposes the legislation for not adequately protecting high-value salmon producing watersheds that would be transferred out of the national forest to be logged by Sealaska.
The Tongass National Forest contains a significant portion of the earth’s last remaining significantly-sized tracts of this forest type. Large-tree old growth stands have always been scarce as well as long-targeted by loggers since the first days of commercial logging. Today, they constitute a very small fraction of the overall landscape. Size class 6 and 7 combined represent 3.4% of the land area. Size class 7 alone, which include stands with up to 200,000 board feet per acre (think of trees 10-12+ feet in girth and worth a quarter million dollars per acre) today occur on just half a percent of the land base.
Past Tongass operations have been exceedingly hard on these unique and rare large-tree stands. These very special stands are far more than just visually impressive, evolved over a millennium, they constitute the richest and most valuable wildlife habitat on the Tongass.
The public lands that would be transferred to Sealaska under S. 340 include some of the region’s most biologically productive areas. The bill would enable the corporation to “high-grade” ― i.e., disproportionately target and clearcut extremely rare, big-tree old growth. Recent analysis of S. 340 shows that Sealaska is selecting large-tree old growth stands (combined volume class 6/7) at 10 times the rate they occur naturally in the Tongass (30% vs 3.4%).  Even the young-growth (previously logged) forest that Sealaska is also selecting targets the most productive lands.
The Sealaska legislation would high-grade increasingly rare, large-tree old growth and amplify this long-recognized problem. Congress explicitly identified the high-grading concern in 1990 as part of the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) and enacted an explicit ban on the practice.  An independent scientific peer review of Tongass forest management practices in 1997 further highlighted the interconnected problems of high-grading, forest fragmentation, and loss of habitat connectivity.  In its most recent testimony to Congress on S. 340 the Department of the Interior testified that if the Sealaska legislation is enacted as proposed the United States Fish and Wildlife Service may have to review its previous findings not to list the Queen Charlotte goshawk and the Alexander Archipelago wolf under the Endangered Species Act.
Because Sealaska has already made its final Settlement Act land selections under existing law and has officially filed those selections with the federal Bureau of Land Management, no further action is required by Congress for the corporation to receive its full entitlement.
S. 340 is currently pending in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). We would encourage you to contact the Full Committee and ask for no further action on this bill.
Mr. Cornelius and Mr. Gustafson are former Area Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division; with a combined experience of over 32 years reviewing Tongass National Forest, and private Native corporation logging issues.
 Kirchoff, S. 340 Tongass National Forest Comparison, February 2013 (Click Here ) http://www.fileden.com/files/2012/4/8/3289499/S340_TNF_Comparison_Feb2013.xlsx
 H.R. 987: Tongass Timber Reform Act, Section 301(c)(2)
 Powell, et al., “Joint Statement of Members of the Peer Review Committee Concerning the Inadequacy of Conservation Measures for Vertebrate Species in the Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan of Record,” (September 1997).
Here is Region Five’s “Ecological Restoration Implementation Plan”. It is definitely worth a browse, especially if you are a local within or near any of these National Forests. Each Forest spells out what it is doing and what it is planning.
(The picture is an old one, from fall of 2000. I had been here, salvaging bug-killed trees, in 1991. There was obviously additional mortality after that.)
From the Eldorado NF entry:
Maintain healthy and well-distributed populations of native species through sustaining habitats associated with those species
Use ecological strategies for post-fire restoration
Apply best science to make restoration decisions
Involve the public through collaborative partnerships that build trust among diverse interest groups
Create additional funding sources through partnerships
Incorporate the “Triple Bottom Line” into our restoration strategy: emphasizing social, economic and ecological objectives
Implement an “All lands approach” for restoring landscapes
Establish a sustainable level of recreational activities and restore landscapes affected by unmanaged recreation
Implement an effective conservation education and interpretation program that promotes understanding the value of healthy watersheds and ecosystem services they deliver and support for restoration actions.
Improve the function of streams and meadows
Restore resilience of the Forests to wildfire, insects and disease
Integrate program funding and priorities to create effective and efficient implementation of restoration activities
Reduce the spread of non-native invasive species
Without making any value judgements here, I find this collection of meeting summaries to be fascinating. Chad Hanson is a full member of the Dinkey Collaborative Group, working to create a better future for the Sierra National Forest. It will be very interesting to see how this process will evolve, with Hanson’s input solidly in view. The level of transparency seems acceptable to me. At the same time, The Sierra is using the new Planning Rule to update their Forest Plan.
Mr. Hanson noted that there was no option for opposing the proposal, and also stated his concern for his opposition going undocumented. Mr. Hanson expressed two main concerns with the proposal. He stated that the proposal assumed high intensity fire results in fisher habitat loss, and commented that the proposal states an inaccurate assumption that trees experience almost complete mortality when a fire burns. Mr. Hanson expressed that the mortality rate was not supported by current data. Mr. Dorian Fougères assured Mr. Hanson that his position would be documented.
There are other meeting notes available by searching for “Dinkey Collaborative Hanson”.
This is pretty interesting because Mr. Wynsma was able to obtain a great deal of information, (should that information be available more generally?) and also his observations as employee and collaborator. I’m starting a page on ideas for solving “the Problem” and will put his ideas, as well as the ideas found (buried?) in comments here, on that page. Here’s the link, and below is an excerpt.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Truth about Collaboration
Even though I don’t believe the current process for collaboration will solve these problems, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good things about the collaborative process or that the process can’t be improved upon to help solve the problems.
Here’s what I and other current and retired Forest Service acquaintances I contacted think are good things about the collaborative process:
Involving a diverse group of people (I hate the term “stakeholders”) during the project planning process is a good thing. I believe it helps the Forest Service design projects that better meet the desires of the public, even though it’s impossible to meet everybody’s personal opinions on how to best manage the public forests.
With collaboration comes group ownership in projects and support from start to finish.
Joint solutions and commitment means no backing out.
The collaborative program provides assistance with funding to accomplish needed treatments.
Collaboration can help lay people better understand the complexity of forest management.
Collaboration may build community relationships that encourage continuing positive working relationships between Forest Service people and the community.
Collaborative groups police themselves and force extremists on both sides of the spectrum to consider what they are really saying philosophically vs. practically on any given issue.
On the other hand, there are things about collaboration that are not so good, if not bad. Here’s what I and other current and retired Forest Service acquaintances I contacted think are bad things about the collaborative process:
The collaborative process is time consuming and more costly than the traditional process of public scoping and comment gathering for projects. The more people involved in a project, the harder it is to schedule meeting dates and field trips that will maximize the largest group involvement. The results of my inquiry clearly show that projects aren’t moving through the NEPA and appeals process any faster than normal and possibly even taking longer.
The time consuming nature of collaboration can be a major deterrent to people that are not paid to attend meetings during working hours, people who have limited free time or travel. Forest Service people can become weary of after hour meetings, paid or not paid.
Meetings can go on for months, if not years. This consumption of time makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to take part.
Poorly managed meetings generate negative emotions and can ruin the entire process.
For individuals or groups with an agenda to limit or eliminate forest management, collaboration can provide an opportunity to wear others down by dragging meetings on and on, then appeal and/or litigate after an extended collaboration process. Collaboration can also usurp the agency’s authority.
The Forest Service may or may not be aware of hidden agendas or games being played by some members in a collaborative group.
Forest Service specialists may feel like they get “cut-out” of project development.
Also considering project specialists: the more days they have to spend in meetings, the less time they have to conduct field work and write reports, which extend the timeline for implementing projects.
The ugly truth is that collaboration won’t reduce analysis paralysis, appeals and litigation. Collaboration also won’t increase the rate at which the Forest Service can reduce fuels and restore unhealthy forests until the appeals process and our current myriad of conflicting environmental laws are reformed.
So what are some possible ways to improve the collaborative process?
Here’s a few:
After all the time and effort put into project development by collaborative groups and the Forest Service, it simply isn’t fair to the collaborative or to the taxpayers of this country to allow an inexpensive process for individuals and groups, whether they were members of the group or not, to stop or delay project implementation through appeals and litigation.
Congress should pass a new law that will exempt collaborative projects from the appeal or objection process. They should also include bonding requirements for any individual or group that file suits to stall or stop collaborative projects.
Congress should also reform or eliminate the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows litigants to recuperate court costs from the tax paying public.
The Forest Service should develop a new Categorical Exclusion to replace the Healthy Forests Restoration Act version (CE #10) that allowed for fuels reduction timber harvests less than 1,000 acres in size. The CE #10 was rescinded following a lawsuit filed by environmental groups because in my opinion this CE allowed for expedited implementation of fuels reduction projects.
To get a broader spectrum of public involvement, make more use of the internet to gather input from people who want to participate in collaboration but don’t have the time or money to show up for meetings and field trips. The Forest Service could maintain email mailing lists for projects that people want to be engaged in and could be kept up to date on the progression of projects without having to show up for meetings. For example, with the smart phone technology I could imagine a logger sitting in the woods during a lunch break or a hiker up on a mountain top being able to participate in a collaborative project.
Note from Sharon: I was somewhat involved in the development of CE#10, not sure that would help at the end of the day. I really like his last point in terms of the criticism I hear from both sides.
Recently, the discussion of collaboration and forest planning – at least on this blog – has focused on the processes at play with the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest forest plan revision. See here, here and here. The discussion and debate continues, as we can clearly see in these point/counter-point guest columns, which recently ran in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. The first one is from Lee Rozen, who wrote his piece on behalf of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News editorial board. The second piece is from Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director for Friends of the Clearwater.
We have this Friend, see, who’s stumped us
By Lee Rozen, for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News editorial board
Sometimes, you have to wonder whether the Friends of the Clearwater can see the national forest for the trees. Generally speaking, we agree with much of what the Friends, and groups like them, stand for. We are skeptical whenever industry or local government tells us to just trust them because they are acting in our best interest.
But when government in the form of the U.S. Forest Service comes forward and seeks the informed advice of a wide variety of groups – both industry and Friends included – we don’t see sinister conspiracies lurking behind the next stump. Challenges, perhaps, but not conspiracies.
The Forest Service is trying a “collaborative” process to develop a management plan for the newly combined administration of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. That’s instead of proposing a plan and offering it up for industry, governments, recreationists and environmentalists to take potshots at, and eventually go to court over.
It seems that’s what Friends of the Clearwater want them to do. The Friends seem to be afraid their principles will be co-opted if they sit down across the table from industry, government, hunters, motorcyclists and ski-mobilers and negotiate the best way to reach an acceptable compromise on the use of this forest. More practically, they argue that industry and government can pay to have their representatives at the discussions but groups of volunteers with day jobs can neither afford the time off nor the travel expenses. As a result, the Forest Service has offered to help the collaboration occur online.
A plan for running a national forest poses a complex problem because it is so unclear what national forests are and what they should be. It’s pretty clear what’s intended for national parks, wilderness areas and national recreational areas. But national forests are different. They are supposed to support a mix of goals, many of which can be contradictory – logging and recreation, for instance. The Friends of the Clearwater, and other interest groups, should be working to make the “collaborative process” work for all, rather trying to shoot it down in hopes of “total victory” in the courts.
US Forest Service must follow the law
By Gary Macfarlane
Lee Rozen’s criticism of Friends of the Clearwater (Our View, written for the editorial board, March 13) is off base, misinformed and reflects a lack of understanding concerning our public land laws and the public involvement process. Had he contacted us, he would have learned why we believe the Forest Service is not following the law. It appears the agency has stumbled into a quagmire, under the guise of collaboration, with its new forest planning process.
The process the Forest Service is currently following on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests plan revision circumvents existing law, creates a contradictory and confusing public involvement process and lacks accountability. For 40 years, the National Environmental Policy Act has governed public input and analysis of agency proposals. NEPA mandates that the first step of the public involvement process is to identify pertinent issues. However, this collaborative process is seeking to resolve issues before the genuine public involvement process even begins. How can the Forest Service resolve issues before they are properly identified?
Under NEPA, all citizens can participate equally. However, the new collaborative forest plan revision process – which has no statutory authority – creates two unequal classes of citizens. The E-collaborative invention funnels citizen comments from the second class through the first class citizen collaborative group. Why should a special working group have more input and be allowed to determine whether or how other citizen comments are used?
Furthermore, NEPA requires an objective analysis of alternatives before decisions are made. Thus, the integrity of NEPA is compromised when the agency reaches a deal or understanding with the collaborative forest planning group before the NEPA process even begins. NEPA must be more than a pro forma exercise. Can you imagine having a collaborative group decide the outcome of an election before the election begins in order to avoid the contentiousness of elections?
Another stated reason behind the new forest planning process is to save time and money. How is having two competing public involvement processes for national forest planning more efficient? Indeed, the Forest Service recently admitted the collaborative process would take longer than anticipated. We feel that such redundancy wastes time and money and also creates conflict and confusion. In fact, a member of the forest planning collaborative for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests – Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League – recently termed the process as collective collaborative confusion at a presentation given in Eugene, Ore. Even proponents of collaboration find the new process fatally flawed.
Retired Forest Service fishery biologist and Moscow resident Al Espinosa stated in a comment letter on the new process, “The intent here is to avoid accountability by eliminating the appeal process and providing a phony pathway around the regulations and laws.”
He also noted the new planning process would circumvent the national interest. Removing accountability and de-legitimizing NEPA’s public involvement and decision-making process is not in the public interest. The Forest Service could have prevented scrutiny, confusion and distrust had the agency followed citizen suggestions made in an October meeting in how to lawfully proceed with the forest plan revision process.
If national forest management is to be determined by local collaborative groups, then existing laws like NEPA need to be repealed first. If the goal is to remove the ability of citizens to have judicial redress and to challenge agency decisions in court, then the Constitution must be amended. The new process for national forest planning clashes with the law. Friends of the Clearwater simply believes the Forest Service should be accountable to U.S. citizens and the law. We think the majority of Americans would agree with us.
I spent the last week or so in D.C. (see photo above), struggling with various “free” wi-fi’s that didn’t work. I had a carefully crafted post on collaboration and NEPA that I lost when, as I was typing away, the connection drifted away. Even while I was writing this post, WordPress logged me out. Anyway, just a reminder to others to write your posts in a word processor and copy them over if you want to avoid frustration.
Yesterday I saw this story by Marshall Swearingen, an intern at High Country News. On the whole, I thought it was a pretty good story but was missing a counter-argument to the “bad for NEPA” claim.
Below are a couple of excerpts.
“There are some of us in the environmental movement who are very skeptical of ‘collaboration,’” says Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, “because we see it as a way, basically, to circumvent existing environmental laws.”
The idea of collaborative process has had its skeptics ever since it got a foothold in the 1990s, as people looked for ways through the polarization of the timber wars. The basic idea was to get traditional foes like loggers and wilderness advocates into the same room to hammer out proposals that might spare the Forest Service some costly litigation. But critics complain that these local, collaborative groups shift power from urban conservation interests to a rural minority.
Now, “existing environmental laws” is fairly broad. How can a process “circumvent” ESA? Perhaps they are talking about NEPA… which is only one law.
But Macfarlane is concerned that the forest’s managers are moving too fast in a direction that undermines the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a view shared by the other groups that signed onto the letter to Vilsack. Under NEPA, the Forest Service analyzes and proposes various alternative actions, then fine-tunes them by considering public comment before making a decision. But in the collaborative process, Macfarlane fears, the proposal drafted by locals will be given inordinate weight, and people who don’t attend the meetings, but comment during the NEPA review — which the collaborative draft must still go through — won’t be heard
Did we just go from “environmental laws” to one procedural law? I find this confusing because in the development of the Forest Service NEPA regulations and the NFMA regulations, collaboratively developed alternatives were thought to be a good thing and were written in to the regulations. As readers are also aware any regulations need to be “cleared” by other agencies, which include the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Justice. CEQ folks are supposed to be the experts on NEPA. For our partisanized friends, it seems unlikely on its face that in a D administration, CEQ and DOJ would seek to undermine NEPA. Perhaps the FS led them astray, somehow? Based on my knowledge of Beltway power relationships, this seems exceedingly unlikely.
I think there is something there, but it’s not about NEPA. I have an associate (I’ll just call him TIG for “timber industry guy”) who feels the same as Macfarlane about “violating NEPA.” If you listen carefully, though, he is afraid that the collaborative will get overly invested in a dumb idea (say diameter limits, in his worldview) and the flush of joy at achieving agreement, plus the inertia of changing something collaborated upon, will overwhelm common sense, scientific reality, or careful analysis. Which, in the world of humans, is a reasonable fear. And it actually may be the same as Macfarlane’s fear.
But I think we need to go back to the way things used to work to really understand. In the past, the FS, helped by others, would develop a “more management” alternative and a “less management” alternative and attempt to get somewhere in the middle. Each coalition of interests would have discussions with the Forest Service. Maybe there would be phone calls from the Administration to the RF or the Supe providing positive vibes for moving in the direction of that Administration’s supporters. But the interpolation of all these points of view in the preferred, at the end of the day, was internal. The true deciders were the Forest, the Region, the Administration and (if litigated) the Courts. These remain the ultimate deciders.
It seems to me that the advantage of collaboratively developed preferred alternatives is that it is out there on the table as to how the alternative was developed, not behind closed doors. So if there’s a dumb idea somewhere in there, people will have an opportunity to comment and the ultimate decision will be made by the same old forces.
When I observe the Black Hills FACA Committee, the Forest Supe doesn’t always do what they recommend. But the Supe has to stand up and say what his arguments are for not doing so.
The bottom line is that there is no argument really that it “violates NEPA” to have a collaboratively developed proposal. People have had special places at the table, based on various characteristics, including political connections and the threat of litigation. They still have those very same places when the ultimate decision is made.
So it’s really up to the forest folks of the first few forests (how’s that for alliteration?) to show that collaborative ideas will be carefully reviewed and the critiques during the comment period will be taken seriously. In fact, I think it would be cool if there were both ends of the spectrum, (the old combatants) and the forest folk sat down and the forest folks explain to them why they landed where they landed, when they land there (and someone there taking note and posting them).
Now sometimes there can be tension within the forest and between the forest and upper levels in terms of the decision (including the political appointees). But the FS is an executive branch agency, and as the judge in the 10th Circuit roadless case appeal (about Wyoming not being a cooperating agency? I don’t remember the context) it’s not a violation of NEPA if someone decides to do something you disagree with. As the judge said “elections have consequences.” I have observed both kinds of Administrations letting their opinions be known during the forest planning process, and they always have rationales for what they do. You may disagree with them.. you may even think they are “illegal” but time and courts can tell about the latter (if you have the bucks to litigate).
Here’s an article I found but can’t get the rest without a subscription.. someone on our blog probably lives around there.. could you help and excerpt some of the rest of the article?
Friends of the Clearwater members continued to protest the collaborative process to develop a management plan for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests during a Forest Service community meeting Monday, arguing it undermines the National Environmental Policy Act where public involvement should begin.
The combined forests were selected under a 2012 planning rule as one of eight early adopters in the nation, and since then a collaborative group has been formed by the Forest Service to provide recommendations for a new plan with work groups meeting monthly.
I have written to them to see if we can get their side of the story.
UPDATE from Matthew: I contacted Friends of the Clearwater and asked them for their letter to Secretary Vilsack, which JZ had requested in the comment thread to this post. The letter is available here: http://ncfp.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/secretary-vilsack.pdf.