The Reinvented Forest Planning Process

The 1976 National Forest Management Act directed the Forest Service to prepare comprehensive land and resource plans for each national forest. The Forest Service, which wrote much of the act, told Congress that it expected that the plans would cost about $100 million and take about five years to prepare. Senator Hubert Humphrey, the chief sponsor of the law, told his colleagues that planning would resolve the controversies and disputes over the national forests.

In fact, the best estimates suggest that the plans probably cost more than $2 billion. Ten years after the law was passed, most of the plans were still not completed. Today, one forest has never published a final plan, and several others haven't finished revisions required in response to appeals.

The plans didn't resolve many disputes either, partly because the Forest Service deferred most of the hard questions to "project plans," meaning the plans for individual timber sales or other actions. The plans actually heightened many controversies because they gave interest groups a cause around which they could rally their supporters. Nearly every plan was appealed, some by multiple interest groups, and many of the appeals successfully forced major revisions.

To a large degree, the changes that took place within the Forest Service during the 1980s--changes discussed in the next chapter--happened in spite of the planning process rather than because of it. On many forests, plans that were supposedly done with the best available information were immediately declared obsolete by forest managers who found that they could not sell planned levels of timber and still protect other resources as plans required. In other cases, the plans did make significant changes, but these changes were delayed for years by interest groups objecting to the changes.

Despite all of these problems, the Forest Service has begun a new round of plans. Agency rules require that plans must be revised every 15 years at most, and time is running out on several forests. As has happened so many times in the past, Forest Service leaders promise that this round of planning will be different: relying on better data, better modeling tools, and an improved understanding of ecosystems.

One of the most important changes in the planning process is that individual forest plans will be tiered to plans for watersheds or ecosystems. Under the old process, forest plans were tiered to regional plans, but the regional boundaries followed political, not ecosystem, lines. A typical ecosystem under the new process is the Upper Columbia Basin ecosystem, which includes forests in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and most of Idaho--which means parts of three Forest Service regions.

Another change in the new planning process is a heavy reliance on geographic information systems, which planners promise will greatly ease the development of alternatives. Unfortunately, geographic information systems are so expensive--at least $1 billion for all the national forests--that the Forest Service has little money left over to collect data. This means that planners are entering obsolete data into their computers--data that they often knew was wrong during the last round of planning. As planners sometimes said then of their computers, "garbage in, gospel out."

Geographic information systems are merely databases; they can't make decisions. This means that planners still need a computer program like FORPLAN. FORPLAN is being used by many planners, but some are experimenting with a new program called Spectrum.

As the outlines of this process were coming together, Forest Service officials promised that this round of planning would cost far less than the last one. This doesn't seem too likely even if you don't count the cost of geographic information systems. California planners are having to make hundreds of FORPLAN runs just to prepare the ecosystem plan for the Sierra ecosystem. Hundreds more will be needed for the individual forest plans. The cost of actually running FORPLAN, which now runs on personal computers, is low, but the cost of analyzing the results will be tremendous.

To affirm these and other changes in the planning process, the Forest Service proposed new planning rules on April 13, 1995. These new rules pay appropriate lip service to sustainability and ecosystem analysis. But what they don't say is even more interesting.

The old planning rules, for example, required planners to insure the viability of all vertebrate species on a forest. The new rules emphasize habitat, not individual species, and only habitat for so-called sensitive species, not all vertebrates. Species could go extinct while the Forest Service only monitors the habitat for that or other species.

Another big change is in the definition of suitable timber lands. The National Forest Management Act requires the Forest Service to withdraw from timber production land that is not physically or economically suited for timber. The old rules had a weak definition of economic suitability that defined as suitable all the acres needed to meet predetermined timber targets at the lowest cost. Even this rule was violated by many forests whose timber bases included far more acres than they needed to meet their timber targets.

But the new rules completely eliminate any reference to economic suitability. Forest managers are allowed to take land out of timber production only if it is physically unsuitable or if it conflicts with other resources. This is actually similar to what many forests did, but the new rules don't even pay lip service to economic suitability.

Finally, the new rules leave out any mention of "benchmarks," a series of diagnotic FORPLAN runs required by the old rules. Many planners ran the benchmarks and then ignored them, but they were useful to plan reviewers who wanted to track down flaws in the computer models.

Return to listing of Reinventing the Forest Service excerpts.