Forest Planning Ambush
By Gloria Flora

This appeared as a guest column in Defenders, the conservation magazine of Defenders of Wildlife, Fall 2002.

It's becoming all too familiar. Former industry employees and lobbyists, now government appointees, identify the latest thorn in their side. We have witnessed them undermine the ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, the very popular Roadless Initiative, and the reintroduction of grizzly bear in Idaho. The targets are well-crafted concepts for improving public land management, ones that have been through rigorous scientific review and full public participation. Eschewing science, years of planning and thousands, even millions of Americans who helped craft the solution, the policies are being dismantled. And more are in their crosshairs, like the ban on oil and gas leasing on the magnificent Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, home of the largest elk herd in America.

Now we see the Bush Administration poised to quietly modify the rules for implementing the National Forest Management Act of 1974 (NFMA). As a Forest Service manager, I worked with that law for over 22 years. It's one of the finest. It speaks of balance between all resources, long-term species viability and intelligent planning. Commonly referred to as the NFMA planning regs, these legal parameters guided the first round of Forest Plans and (despite having to use a timber optimization model disguised as a balanced resource allocation tool), the initial Forest Plans were a good start.

Over the years, the Forest Service learned a lot about the significance of biodiversity and native species, and the interrelationships of the biological, physical and human dimensions of landscapes. They shifted from a resource-by-resource way of managing to ecosystem management in 1992. It became obvious in gearing up for the revision of old Forest Plans that the planning regs needed updating to be consistent with more comprehensive, integrated management.

After years of crafting regulations and political wranglings, then-Chief Dombeck came up with an excellent idea -- have a committee of renowned scientists independently review forest planning processes, visiting with thousands of Forest Service employees and members of the public. The Committee of Scientists produced an outstanding document, detailing how forest planning could be successful in sustaining forests and the plant, animal and human communities that depend on them. The keys were sustainability and public collaboration.

Regulations to implement the findings in that report were just about to be published when the new administration came to town. And then they went to town, on every progressive concept, regulation, process and policy, signed or not, that reminded them of Bill Clinton. Despite claims of representing inclusiveness, non-partisanship and local control, they demonstrated that public input and open debate have no role in their rules. Senator Leahy recently commented that this is the most secretive, closed and unresponsive administration of any he's worked with.

Most of us believe it's a good idea to live compatibly with our environment in a manner that allows future generations to share the same benefits. Living sustainably is a responsible thing to do; it allows all communities and habitats to thrive. History teaches us that many cultures that lived thousands of years in the same region. Look around at our national forests. Do you think we can enjoy them for another thousand years by continuing what we're doing? Now is the time for clear, concise direction based on science, not short term profit and convenience.

Combining a soft approach to sustainability with the proposed Bush 'Healthy Forest' policy, and the emasculation of the Roadless Initiative, it is clear that public involvement and environmental laws are viewed by this administration as caltrops on the road to success. Along with their view that seeking beauty, meaning and solitude in our backcountry is pointless without a road, we have a dangerous precedent building. And these new regulations will guide national forest management for the next 10-15 years, not just for the duration of this administration.

Although clearly articulated in the old planning regs, the new proposal avoids discussion of viable populations of native species and leaves the extent and quality of habitat protection to local decision-makers' opinion -- not science. Species viability becomes optional. Yet biodiversity and the presence of native species acting as barometers of habitat integrity provides one of the best 'products' we can get from public land management.

The flavor of these regulations is analogous to the administration's Clean Skies proposal. The message to major polluters is 'see what you can do as long as it doesn't slow production and none of this is mandatory if it affect your profits.' This is not the way to sustainably manage clean air or public lands.

The first Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, consistently stated that national forests should be managed for the 'greatest good for the greatest number over the long run.' Unfortunately Bush's proposed planning policies suggest a new paradigm, 'the greatest convenience for the greatest number of my supporters now.'

Gloria Flora, a former national forest supervisor in Montana and Nevada is now the director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, a non-profit focused on the sustainability of public lands and all living communities that depend on them. She participated in the first think-tank on how to integrate ecosystem management concepts into a new model for forest planning in 1993 and in an internal review of the proposed planning regs based on the Committee of Scientists? Report in 1999.