Time to speak up on rules governing how our forests are managed

The Obama administration and the Forest Service last week hosted what they call a national roundtable. It was an effort to summarize and explain in detail the various components of the draft forest planning rule, which was published last month. When final, this rule will guide the Forest Service on how to manage 193 million acres of America’s national forests. The roundtable, held in Washington D.C., was the beginning of a series of public forums that will take place throughout the country.

The components covered a range from climate change to timber production and from recreation to water resource management. However, much of the day’s emphasis was on the role of collaboration. The draft rule requires collaboration to take place when individual forest plans are developed. This in theory means that the Forest Service will reach out to a wide variety of people interested in contributing to plans for managing forests. These stakeholders include scientists, conservationists, local land owners, foresters and other concerned citizens.

While this sounds like a very inclusive process, a couple of concerns come to mind:

First the planning rule does not provide guidelines to ensure good collaboration, leaving all discretion to the forest manager. The excuse against collaboration guidelines is that no collaborative will be the same across the landscapes. However, I would argue that you can follow some basic rules on collaboration by adopting similar guidelines to the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which would ensure some consistency across all the collaborative efforts and ensure all the right stakeholders are invited to the tables. This will in turn provide the appropriate check on the agency as it developed new forest plans.

The second concern is that the emphasis on collaboration that could minimize, and thus weaken, the role of science in decision-making. The administration appears to view collaboration as having equal footing with science. While collaboration is a complementary component of the forest planning process, the agency must require that the best available science is the foundation. A New York Times editorial also raised some questions the Forest Service needs to answer about science and protecting wildlife.

These are the concerns about collaboration, and there are others. In last week’s roundtable, the administration and agency staff spoke a lot about the intent of the rule, stressing the importance of water, wildlife and sustainable recreations and addressing new challenges like climate change. We wholeheartedly agree. The problem we find is that the language of the draft rule doesn’t match the intent. However, the agency is able to make some changes that could have very meaningful impact to sound forest management.

Now that the draft of the forest planning rule is out, it’s up to everyone who cares about our national forests to make our voices heard. We can start by attending the roundtables taking place across the country. More importantly, we can visit the Forest Service’s forest planning rule site and make official comments about what we would like the agency to do as it revises the draft. We should start by calling for more clarity on collaboration and by demanding science take a front seat in the process.

Photo credit: SCA crew courtesy of John McCarthy.