Archive | May, 2013

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

As long time followers know, Defenders has been working hard to shape National Forest conservation policy for decades, including non-stop campaigning for the last several years to make sure new forest planning regulations conserve and recover forest dependent wildlife.  To ensure that these new rules translate into real on-the-ground protections for wildlife and forest ecosystems, Defenders kicked off our Forests for Wildlife Initiative.  The goal of the initiative is to transform how the Forest Service manages forests for wildlife, and to protect and restore national forest landscapes through on-the-ground conservation projects and actions.

The Forests for Wildlife Initiative takes us from the policymaking world of Washington D.C., to the majestic landscapes of Alaska and California.  Last year, I was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to a Federal Advisory Committee charged with overseeing implementation of the new planning rule.  One of the committee’s first tasks was to work with the Forest Service to craft policy “directives” that will guide how the new regulation is interpreted and applied to individual national forests.  Our comments on the draft directives can be found here.  The complex forest policy world is like an onion trapped in a spider’s web.  Numerous statutes govern the management of National Forests, including the National Forest Management Act, as well as associated federal rules and regulations.  Keep peeling and one finally gets down to the highly technical internal agency policies that tell forest managers how to navigate and implement all of the various rules and regulations.  The directives tell managers “how” to do the “what”— the requirements that are spelled out in the regulations.  Good planning directives provide strong, clear direction to managers on how to identify, conserve and monitor species of conservation concern; account for ecosystem services; or manage in the face of climate change.  Poor directives can lead to inconsistent conservation decisions that could lessen protections and raise risks for forests and wildlife.

The current draft directives need some work to provide forest managers a clear path to effectively conserving forest integrity and wildlife.  The advisory committee will be working with the Forest Service all summer to make recommendations on how to improve them.  Stay tuned for more updates and campaign reports from the Forests for Wildlife Initiative.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

For much of the past two years, Defenders has been actively engaged in the Forest Service’s development of a new rule to guide planning within the National Forest System. We submitted extensive comments on last year’s proposed rule, but that was hardly the end of our involvement.  The Forest Service is now in the process of drafting “directives” to guide the implementation of the 2012 planning rule. As with the rule itself, we have quite a few suggestions for making it stronger, better and more clear (our full comments on the directives can be found here). This week’s blog installment focuses on incorporation of climate change.

The Forest Service has been a leader in understanding, researching, and developing policy mechanisms to deal with the impacts of climate change.  The planning rule itself broke new ground in directing forests to take into account the effects of climate change on ecosystem integrity and to incorporate climate change resilience into forest planning. We had expected, therefore, that the Directives would build on that track record and provide forest managers with clear direction on how to integrate assessment and response to climate change impacts into all phases of forest planning.  Unfortunately, the Directives don’t do much more than repeat some of the language from the planning rule itself.

Virtually absent from the directives is any clear description of the particular exposure factors associated with climate change, such as higher mean temperatures, hotter high temperatures, reduction in frost-free days, changing proportions of precipitation falling as rain vs. snow,  occurrences of extreme precipitation events, alterations in snowpack, and lengthier periods of drought (to name a few). Many species and habitats will be sensitive to one or more of these specific types of exposures, but there is no guidance on how select, evaluate or rank these. Climate-related stressors will also interact with other stressors (for instance, warmer winters may facilitate spread of invasive or noxious species that are held in check by winter die-off). Societal responses to climate change will also likely compound stresses to species and ecosystems (some examples include increased water withdrawals from stream systems in response to drought and heat, and habitat modification to reduce fire risk at the wildland-urban interface). Nowhere do the directives recommend how to find, evaluate, and use this information in forest planning.

The directives also fail to give forest managers a path for selecting appropriate responses. This is a pretty glaring omission, given that the Forest Service has already published extensive resources on various adaptation response options: resistance, resilience, response, and re-alignment. We had hoped that the directives would provide managers with a means to choose among these responses and select plan components to achieve those aims, but it does not do so.

Even worse, the directives at times seem to give managers an easy way out of doing the hard thinking about responding to climate change. For instance, the “Ecosystem Integrity” section of the assessment language says, “Where information is available, the responsible official should consider the influence of climate change. . .” (emphasis added). Later, the directives use climate change as an example of “factors outside of the agency’s control.” We are concerned that conditional language like this is tantamount to allowing planners an excuse to avoid the sometimes difficult task of finding and evaluating climate change information that may be applicable to the situation at hand. We see a high potential for this kind of omission to occur, given that the directives have provided so little guidance on where to find climate change information and how to incorporate it into assessment.

Defenders has submitted comments to the Forest Service pointing out these and other flaws in the directives, which will make it difficult for forest planners to realize the planning rule’s potential benefits to biodiversity over time. Stay tuned to find out if they take our recommendations into account.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

The Forest Service recently adopted new planning rule that will guide the agency’s process for forest planning for the next decade or so. For the first time, the planning rule directs the staff to consider ecosystem services when deciding what management actions to implement on the public lands. Following the adoption of the new rule, the Service issued 500+ pages of detailed “directives” to guide implementation of the new planning rule.

What are ecosystem services?  According to a recent article authored by several researchers with the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest Research Station, In the context of public land management, ecosystem services are beneficial outcomes that derive from landscape conditions (e.g., forest structures, species compositions) and ecological processes as they are altered by both natural disturbance and management activities.

Though the draft directives mention ecosystem services multiple times, what effect this relatively new term will have on the planning process remains somewhat of a mystery. On the positive side, addressing ecosystem services may lead to the consideration of a much broader spectrum of values, including some tangible benefits like improved water and air quality, more and better fish and wildlife habitat, improvement in the condition of endangered species, and additional opportunities for nature-based recreation. The new emphasis may also lead to improved integration across programs, a reconsideration of management “targets” to include an assessment of ecological conditions and trends, and an improved understanding of context implied in the new “all lands approach” to management.  Ecosystem services assessments can also be a powerful tool for collaboration with stakeholders. Ideally, incorporating ecosystem services into forest planning will add value without overly complicating the assessment and decision process, raising the costs, or delaying implementation.

On the flip side, even a great idea can go astray if it is implemented in a manner that simply applies a new idea or term to an old way of doing business. The Forest Service staff will always be under political pressure from Congress and some interest groups to increase the output of commodities at the expense of protecting the ecological values on the land. Framed entirely as a utilitarian, anthropocentric concept, some interpret ecosystem services to include only benefits to human communities. Others extend the construct even further to emphasize only those values that can be quantified, and a cottage industry has emerged among economists offering tools and methods to assign monetary value to selected services. While it is sometimes very useful to calculate the monetary costs and benefits of different management options, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to apply dollar values to relatively intangible attributes like biodiversity.  Agencies can and do make decisions every day based on society’s evolving values and preferences, expressed in a variety of ways including the adoption of federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act. Meaningful engagement with the public during the decision process – including local, state, regional, and national interests – can lead to decisions that balance human needs for products like timber, forage and fuel against the need to sustain the lands and waters on public lands for future generations.

Given the attention that ecosystem services have received within academic and some government circles, there is also a risk that instead of adding value to the complex process of evaluating the potential benefits an ecosystem will provide over time, an entirely new process will be established.  If this new process focuses primarily on the benefits that ecosystems provide to people, without giving adequate consideration to the underlying ecological attributes and processes that create these services in the first place, then management to maximize certain ecosystem services ends up competing with, rather than enhancing values that are especially challenging to measure, like biodiversity. If ecosystem services offer a way of viewing the world in which the intrinsic values of nature are acknowledged along with utilitarian outputs, it could serve as a uniting rather than divisive force.  However, there will always be tradeoffs between services, human beneficiaries, and the needs of present vs. future generations.

There are a few important steps that the Forest Service can take to ensure that the ecosystem services requirement in the new directives has a positive influence on forest planning.

  1. Adopt the definition of ecosystem services quoted above in place of the narrower definition limited by utility to humans, thereby explicitly including biodiversity – either as a service, necessary support for services, or both.
  2. Integrate ecosystem service assessments with ecological assessments rather than creating a separate process.
  3. Ensure that the planning process is as interdisciplinary as possible, taking advantage of the expertise of natural and social scientists, practitioners, and stakeholders, working across traditional boundaries and engaging people with diverse perspectives.
  4. Working with other agencies and organizations, invest in the development of more consistent measures of ecological integrity and biodiversity across jurisdictions and at multiple scales to improve our collective capacity understand ecological conditions and trends.
  5. Integrate the ecosystem services assessments with the “all lands” approach by engaging private landowners and other agencies in the process, before attempting to quantify and/or monetize ecosystem services at the project or site scale.

The Forest Service has struggled with communicating its mission over the past few decades. Creatively applying an ecosystem services approach to explain the benefits of the public lands to Congress and the public has great potential. Although different forests will likely approach this challenge differently, the new approach may create a pathway to a more harmonious and effective relationship with the public.  Or it may continue the divisive and antagonistic relationship under a new banner until the next shiny object comes into view. There isn’t much time to get it right.

You can find Defenders’ full comments on the proposed forest planning directives here.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Integrating Climate Change into agency NEPA decisions

Integrating Climate Change into agency NEPA decisions

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has recently been in the news as it relates to climate change, as reports surfaced that the administration is finalizing long-awaited NEPA climate change guidance (you can find the draft guidance here), outraging Senate Republicans who fear the guidance is an attempt to regulate greenhouse gases.

NEPA is exactly the right context for federal agencies to be analyzing how their proposed actions affect and are affected by climate change. Federal actions, both directly and indirectly, can and do lead to the release of greenhouse gases. In addition – and importantly, since this seems to be missing from most of the debate surrounding NEPA and climate change – federal actions and projects permitted by federal agencies can be greatly affected by climate change, and affect the surrounding environment in combination with climate change. These effects need to be understood to make sound decisions and investments of federal tax dollars.

Contrary to the fears of NEPA as a regulatory force, NEPA’s purpose is not to force and prevent a particular action or outcome. Rather, its purpose is to “insure that environmental information is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken” and “to help public officials make decisions that are based on understanding of environmental consequences, and take actions that protect, restore, and enhance the environment.” As a result of agencies taking a “hard look at the environmental consequences” of their proposed actions, they can develop appropriate alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce impacts on the environment. NEPA is a critical planning tool to improve agency decision making.

The Obama administration issued draft guidance to federal agencies in 2010 on “Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions” under NEPA. The draft guidance lacked clarity on accounting for emissions and for understanding climate change impacts on projects and the affected environment, and it excluded federal land management decisions from the guidance altogether – a glaring omission given how sensitive land management and related natural resources are to climate change impacts. It is the finalization of this guidance that is garnering recent attention.

To assist the administration in addressing these climate impacts in the implementation of NEPA, Defenders of Wildlife recently sent a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is the lead office in charge of NEPA. In our letter we recommend the final guidance address the following issues:

  • Purpose and Need: the purpose and need (See NEPA implementing regulations at 40 CFR §1502.13), which should be examined to determine if they are robust in a changing climate. For instance, a project designed to protect a coastal community from storm surge will not be responding to the right “need” if it only accounts for historic sea and surge levels.
  • Environmental assessments and Findings of No Significant Impacts: Determining “significance” is a critical component of NEPA analysis, and requires agencies to look at cumulative impacts. Guidance needs to be provided for understanding how to integrate climate change impacts into cumulative impacts analysis.
  • Analysis timeframe and geographic scope: The timeframe of analysis is relevant to how far into the future to analyze “reasonably foreseeable future actions” under Cumulative Impacts (§1508.7) and definition of “Significance,” which explicitly includes both long and short term effects (§1508.27). The analysis timeframe should be long enough to cover the period over which the project will potentially be affected by and interact with climate change effects. Similarly, the geographic scope of the analysis, as referred to under Affected Environment (§1502.45) and Context (§1508.27), should be large enough to account for potential range shifts in affected species and habitats, potential changes throughout an entire watershed, and similar landscape level effects that would affect the project and project impacts.
  • Alternatives: As part of the process of development of alternatives to the proposed action (§1502.14), the agency should consider whether climate change may impact the ability of each alternative to meet the purpose and need. This should include an assessment of the vulnerability of the various project alternatives to relevant climate change impacts. Where possible, agencies should incorporate into alternatives design elements that reduce the likelihood or severity of climate change impacts. Alternatives that fail to meet the purpose and need due to projected future climate change effects should be eliminated, and this should be noted in the discussion.
  • Affected Environment: As part of the EIS process, the agency discusses the Affected Environment (§1502.15), laying out which aspects of the natural environment (water, air, biodiversity, soils, aesthetics), built environment, human health, and sustainability of resources might be affected by the alternatives. As this section is the basis for comparisons of environmental consequences, it is critical that this section cover the full range of elements that could face effects, including cumulative effects from climate change. The agency should ensure that the environmental resources being considered includes the full suite of elements that could face effects from the project, and integrate climate change threats into the discussion of each element. Climate change is expected to worsen over time, and these changing effects on ecosystems should be incorporated into the Affected Environment and no action alternative sections of an EIS.
  • Environmental Consequences: At the heart of the analyses in an environmental impact statement is the Environmental Consequences section (§1502.16), which compares “The environmental effects of alternatives, including the proposed action” (§1502.16d) on various elements of the affected environment that were defined previously. Full incorporation of climate change into this analysis is warranted by the fact that the effects of climate change constitute a cumulative impact of “past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions” (§1508.7) that release greenhouse gases. We recommend that guidance should be provided that requires each EIS, in its analysis of the alternatives’ impacts on each aspect of the affected environment, include a discussion of the effects to that resource from climate change, and the extent to which the impacts of the alternative will be exacerbated by climate change impacts, and its interaction with other threats, stressors, and cumulative impacts.
  • Mitigation: Mitigation as defined by NEPA, includes actions to avoid impacts; minimize impacts; rectify impacts; reduce or eliminate impacts; and compensate for impacts (§1508.20). The draft guidance broadly states that both emissions reductions and adaptive responses are included here, but provides very little detail as to how to proceed:   “The agency should identity alternative actions that are both adapted to anticipated climate change impacts and mitigate the GHG emissions that cause climate change.” More guidance should be provided to agencies, particularly outlining steps agencies can take to reduce the combined effects of the proposed action and climate impacts on the affected environment.
  • Monitoring: An important aspect of successful mitigation is a monitoring strategy to ensure the effectiveness of mitigation measures (§1505.2c). We recommend that the guidance should be strengthened to stipulate that the monitoring plan should be implemented (not just considered), and should focus on indicators relevant to both the implementation of adaptation strategies and the effects of climate change and other threats. Monitoring is particularly critical where uncertainties regarding climate change impacts or interacting effects have been identified. This plan should articulate steps to ensure the effectiveness of mitigation strategies, and a means of identifying and addressing problems that are identified through monitoring.

Climate change is already impacting federal actions across the country and across agencies, not to mention wildlife and ecosystems. Integrating climate change analysis into federal agency NEPA analysis and decision making is one of the most important steps the federal government can take to account for its contribution to global warming, and importantly, to account for and mitigate the effects of climate change on agency actions and the environment. The administration needs to take the bold step of finalizing its guidance to agencies for accomplishing this. The sooner guidance is issued, the sooner the federal government can help the nation become better prepared to address climate impacts.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, NEPA, Public Lands0 Comments

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Twain’s Ghost Trout: An Extinct Giant Returns

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More than 150 years ago, Samuel L. Clemens raved over the flavor of bacon-fried trout he savored while camping along the transparent shorelines of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. He had arrived with the intention of staking a timber claim but instead returned less than two years later as reporter and columnist for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise. After becoming better known as author Mark Twain, those trout would later inspire lines he penned for his classic Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s culinary delight focused on the teaming Lahontan Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi). In addition to Lake Tahoe, Lahontan cutthroat were native to Pyramid, Walker, and Summit lakes. Lahontan cutthroat were a staple for the Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Washoe tribes. Once dried, the trout could be stored and eaten over cold winter months. Later these trout would feed hungry trappers, explorers, miners, and settlers in northern Nevada. During spawning runs up the Truckee River, commercial fishing could net 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of trout each year, shipped in rail cars as far away as Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and even Chicago.

In 1844 explorer Captain John C. Fremont referred to them as “salmon trout,” and for very good reason. Lahontan cutthroat were huge. The official record was 41 pounds, caught in 1925 by Paiute Johnny Skimmerhorn, but early settlers mentioned fish weighing in at more than 60 pounds. But tragedy struck: competing non-native trout were introduced, headwaters were overgrazed and dammed, lake waters became increasingly diverted and contaminated. Most varieties of Lahontan cutthroat trout were listed as endangered in 1970. The giant form of Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake, however, faded into extinction by the 1940s.

Or so everyone thought. In the early 1900s, an enterprising Utah man used buckets to salvage a few Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake and transport them all the way to a small, rugged stream along the Nevada-Utah border near Pilot Peak. There they remained hidden until the 1970s when biologist Bob Behnke re-discovered what he thought might be the missing strain of giant Lahontan cutthroat. Geneticists later confirmed their identity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service harvested eggs for hatchery rearing, incredibly just a few years before a catastrophic forest fire wiped out the entire creek and all remaining wild trout.

Today, and with man’s assistance, the Lahontan cutthroats have repopulated some of their ancestral home. Pyramid Lake now boasts a rockin’ sport fishery for Lahontan cutthroat that benefits the Paiute tribe. Hearty anglers pioneered fishing from ladders far out in the lake. By 2012, these ghost trout had reached 20-25 pounds, and both anglers and fishery biologists expect a 30 pound fish to be caught within just a few years. After twice dodging extinction, the Lahontan cutthroat is well on its way to recovery.

J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

Posted in California, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments


dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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