A Planning Rule for the Future

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Society of Environmental Journalists, Annual Meeting
Miami, FL
— October 22, 2011

I am here to talk about a new planning rule for the national forests and grasslands. It’s not just the Forest Service that needs this new rule—it’s anyone interested in the health of the National Forest System. It will lead to better, more efficient, more up-to-date protection for the national forests and grasslands so that Americans can continue to use and enjoy them.

Need for a New Planning Rule

A revision has long been overdue. The 1982 rule was tailored to its time, but times have changed. We are planning based on provisions that are older than many of our employees. Our planning provisions were devised before ecosystem management, before all the big fires we’ve seen, before all the mortality we are seeing from insects and disease, before we became fully aware of how our climate is changing.

In 1982, we were still managing heavily for timber. The peak year for timber production from the national forests came 5 years later, in 1987, when we harvested 12.7 billion board feet. Today, we harvest a fraction of that—around 2 billion board feet per year—mostly as the byproduct of projects for other purposes, such as fuels and forest health treatments.

Today, we are about restoring healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems for clean water, habitat for wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and all the other benefits Americans get from them. Today, we are in a whole new management environment. We need forest plans that address our new management environment, and we need a new rule to guide them.

The national forests and grasslands have 127 forest plans. Of these, 68 are past due for revision; many have needed revision for over 20 years. Accordingly, we’ve been trying to update the 1982 rule for the last 15 to 20 years. We’ve tried four different times, and each time we’ve been stopped because the process was so contentious.

Collaborative Process

But we gained a lot of experience, and in 2009 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asked us to try again—to use everything we have learned to come up with a new rule that addresses today’s land management environment—not the one we had a generation or two ago.

So we tried something new. We asked for help from a broad range of stakeholders. We started with a science forum, and we had tribal consultations. We held roundtables across the country. These meetings were attended by over 3,000 people representing every conceivable point of view. Then we put that public input together with our own science and management expertise to develop a proposed rule.

Following release of the proposed rule, we hosted more forums, attended by more than 1,300 people at 74 locations across the country. We used webcasting and video teleconferencing to broaden our outreach, and we got nearly 300,000 public comments in response. Based on those comments, we are modifying the proposed rule, and we expect to release it this winter.


The upshot has been a better process, leading to a better rule. Our collaborative approach has been more transparent, more democratic, and more sustainable, and we intend to build on it. The proposed rule would promote public participation in developing forest plans, working across boundaries and engaging other agencies as well as state, local, and tribal governments.

Under the proposed rule, we would also gain efficiencies. Think of all those starts and stops over the past 15 to 20 years; think what that has meant for the efficiency of our forest planning process. The proposed rule would provide the clarity and stability that our units urgently need to regain momentum and efficiently complete their forest plan revisions.

Uncertainty has compounded cumbersome planning processes. Under the 1982 rule, it can take 5 to 7 years to revise a forest plan—sometimes longer. One forest plan revision took 10 years and cost $13 million. Under the proposed new rule, forest plans could be revised much faster—in 3 to 4 years. It would let us spend more resources on getting restoration work done on the ground.

By facilitating restoration, the proposed rule would help create jobs. Timber production and grazing would continue, providing tens of thousands of jobs and economic opportunities for rural communities. But most of our annual contribution to GDP now comes from outdoor recreation. In 2009, spending by visitors within 50 miles of a national forest or grassland accounted for about $13 billion, supporting about 224,000 jobs. By facilitating the restoration of healthy landscapes, the proposed rule would help draw visitors and support the related jobs and economic growth. The bottom line is healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems, and we are keeping a laser focus on that goal as we develop a new rule.

Federal Advisory Committee

What has made this rulemaking process so unique is its collaborative nature, and we intend to continue engaging stakeholders after the final rule is published. Today, I am announcing our intent to form a federal advisory committee to provide advice on implementing the new rule.

To be clear, this won’t be an oversight committee. Instead, it will help us put the new rule into practice. We are particularly interested in seeking advice on directives, in addition to the public comment period we’ll offer when we publish our interim directives. We will also seek advice on effective broad-scale monitoring and collaboration.

In the coming months, we will publish a request for nominations of committee members in the Federal Register. The solicitation will be open and public. In fact, we want all committee activities to be open, transparent, and easily accessible to the public. We will seek committee members who represent a full range of interests. We want participation from Tribes, recreational interests, industry and user groups, environmental organizations, conservation organizations, and the scientific community, just to name a few.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: We need to move beyond 15 to 20 years of rule writing and rewriting while the challenges we face only get worse. We need forest plans in place that address current conditions and that promote collaboration. More important than the rule itself, even more important than the individual forest plans, are the collaborative processes that have made this rulemaking effort so unique. Those processes are the foundation for our relationships—for our partnerships. They are key to our collaborative capacity to manage the National Forest System to deliver all the benefits that Americans want and need, both now and for generations to come.