Forest Service planning process under scrutiny
A congressional panel headed by U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis is looking closely at the cumbersome nature of forest planning processes like the one nearing completion for the White River National Forest.
“It’s a hot topic of conversation,” said Josh Penry, staff director for the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.
That committee is chaired by McInnis, R-Grand Junction, whose district includes the 2.3-million-acre WRNF.
Forest planning is important, but there’s a sense “that it’s interminable at times,” said Penry.
He said McInnis and other members of Congress share this sentiment.
“There is the feeling that these processes needlessly drag on and the process becomes the focus instead of the outcome,” said Penry.
Plans in Alaska and the Black Hills of South Dakota took over a decade to update, he said.
McInnis spokesman Blain Rethmeier said the congressman would like to streamline things where possible.
“We need to fine-tune the bureaucracy, certainly, and we’re looking at doing that,” he said.
That desire is shared by Forest Service officials. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has repeatedly voiced concerns that the agency is hamstrung by “analysis paralysis.”
Penry doesn’t question the importance of forest plans themselves, calling them “critical to what the Forest Service does.”
“It’s a zoning document. You have to have them. But it’s taken on a life of its own in all too many instances,” he said. “There’s a very strong feeling that the process has become excessive.”
The fear is that the Forest Service pours too many human and financial resources into the documents. Land managers become process-oriented paper-pushers, Penry said.
“I would suspect that a lot of them would like to have their hands free from these constraints,” he said.
The WRNF plan is being released more than a year later than anticipated, in part because of the high volume of public comments submitted on the draft plan.
“I don’t think anyone on our forest envisioned it would take this long, and yet the process pretty much drove the time frame,” said Sue Froeschle, the WRNF public affairs officer.
WRNF planning officials have said they would like to make plan updating a more ongoing process, to reduce the amount of effort that goes into comprehensive rewrites.
“It requires us to stay on top of changing events,” said Froeschle. “We hope our monitoring program will help identify changes so we can amend the plan if need be.”
The existing law requires plan rewrites every 15 years.
Penry said some in Congress think the Forest Service is less inclined to amend an existing plan that’s more than 10 years old. Amendments are seen as too much work for a document that will be rewritten soon.
“This 15-year threshold … I think unintentionally serves to act as a disincentive to keep planning documents current,” he said.
He said he doesn’t know if that was the case with the WRNF.
One problem the Forest Service faces is that forest plans are all coming up for revision at about the same time.
Penry said there is talk about staggering the plans or lifting the 15-year requirement altogether to encourage keeping plans up to date on an ongoing basis.
“As a matter of good policy that’s absolutely the right way to go,” he said.
Oftentimes, the Forest Service isn’t meeting the 15-year requirement anyway, Penry noted. Last year, Congress granted the agency a one-year reprieve from lawsuits that seek to stop project-level decisions where plans are out of date.
It’s not uncommon for groups to try to stop forest actions based on that rationale, Penry said.
No such actions have been taken in the case of the WRNF, which is currently operating on a plan adopted in 1984.
The 1999 plan rewrite was originally budgeted to cost $2.5 million. At last estimate, WRNF officials said it could reach $4 million. Recently they requested an emergency $500,000 appropriation to cover continuing expenses.
The WRNF can’t say at this point where the plan revision’s price tag stands.
“We won’t know that number … until it’s completely done,” Froeschle said.
Penry said the average plan is now taking about five years and $1 million per year to update. He expects the WRNF plan to be “on the high end in terms of cost” because the agency responded to some much public input to complete the plan.
“I think it would be entirely appropriate when the plan is released to go back and find out exactly how much the plan did cost us,” Penry said.
Rethmeier said McInnis’ office is “keeping a watchful eye” on the cost and time the WRNF has spent on its plan update.
“Obviously, we don’t want to rush the process, but at the same time … we need to get something out there,” he said.
Froeschle said she had no reaction to the possibility of Congress changing the planning requirements.
“We have to follow the process that’s before us right now and if Congress makes some change … we’ll follow that process,” she said.
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