Tag Archive | "U.S. Forest Service"

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 LandsComments (0)

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

The Coronado National Forest supports the “sky island” ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

Companion bills in the House and Senate have been introduced that would strip areas of our public lands currently managed for their wilderness characteristics of their protected status.  If the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011” were to pass, 43 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas on Forest Service lands and Wilderness Study Areas throughout our public lands would no longer be protected, including portions of the sky islands in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  The bill would also forbid the land management agencies from providing new protections for these “released” areas in the future, effectively preventing them from being designated as permanently protected Wilderness by Congress and opening them up for development.

What’s worse is that the determination of whether a roadless or wilderness area should be stripped of its protections now and into the future would be based on old information without gathering any new data, and with no input from agency experts and scientists or the public.  This means that areas currently providing high quality habitat for wildlife and supporting healthy ecosystems would be exposed to potential development (including timber harvesting, oil and gas drilling, coal mining and more) without any consideration of those natural values.

Supporters of the bill argue that these areas are being managed as “de facto” Wilderness and that “capital W” Wilderness can only be designated by Congress.  While it’s true that only Congress can designate “capital W” Wilderness, they’re missing a lot of important facts in this argument:

First, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service both have multiple use mandates, which support activities like energy development BUT ALSO give these agencies authority to manage for wilderness characteristics and things like wildlife habitat and biodiversity.  This means that these agencies have plenty of authority for designating areas as roadless or wilderness study and managing them for these resources as a precursor to suggesting that Congress make a “capital W” Wilderness designation.

Second, this argument places the needs of industry ahead of the needs of the public who are, after all, the owners of our public lands.  They characterize these areas as being “locked up” from development instead of recognizing that these areas are open to the public for all kinds of valuable uses that are consistent with BLM and Forest Service missions, including recreation and supporting our national heritage of biodiversity and wildlife.  These uses also support our local economies through tourism, the recreation industry, and ecosystem services (like clean water).

Instead of focusing on developing smart policies that balance the many demands on our public lands, like efforts to direct development onto the already degraded areas on our public lands, this bill would open up the most spectacular pieces of our national heritage to development and could have devastating impacts on the wildlife that take refuge in these protected areas.

Posted in National Forests, Public LandsComments (0)

Forest rule receives national interest

Forest rule receives national interest

As the public comment period on the Forest Service proposed planning rule came to an end last week, newspapers around the country provided extensive coverage of the concerns brought forth by the public and weighed in on the proposed rule through editorials.  Some clips and highlights are provided below.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of conservationists, scientists and federal lawmakers have called the proposed new rules a big improvement but say it’s crucial that the Forest Service go several steps further in spelling out protections for watersheds and wildlife to ensure that the national forest system remains a bulwark to guarantee healthy wildlife populations and clean water.

“We have always maintained that our federal lands, our public lands, should be the front lines of healthy landscapes. They should be the front line of species conservation,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, now with the Defenders of Wildlife, told reporters in a briefing organized by the Pew Environment Group. “But the rule is actually far weaker than the almost 30-year-old rule it would replace.”

From The AP:

. . . Jamie Rappaport Clark, a Defenders of Wildlife executive and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director . . . said forest supervisors being given unprecedented discretion under the new rules need strong standards and guidelines to resist the political pressure they regularly face in making decisions on managing their lands.

Opinion piece from The Olympian:

The Forest Service is proposing a new set of management rules. The new proposal has some laudable features. It acknowledges the crucial importance of maintaining federal forests in good ecological condition. And it’s full of sound concepts and helpful guidance for managers.

Where the rubber meets the road, though, it falls naively short.

It fails to deliver the kind of strong direction that saved Washington’s forests the last time around. Instead, it leaves the tough choices to local decision makers. It counts on them to make the right call no matter how much pressure they’re under from commercial interests and politicians, how little time and budget they have to track down and learn the relevant facts and science.

That’s not the kind of uncertainty we need for these forests. We need to take harmful options off the table. We need strong rules that will keep local agency officials out of trouble. We need something we can rely on to restore and maintain thriving fish and wildlife populations, clear-running rivers, and old growth forests.

Editorial from The Santa Fe New Mexican:

Suddenly, science’s role is reduced; the managers of 155 national forests and grasslands still will need to nod in its direction — but may feel free to ignore scientific findings as they consider industrial impact on clean water, fish and wildlife habitat and endangered-species protection. Hint, hint: If a developer sells a bill of goods about his project’s economic impact, well maybe biologists’ and geologists’ concerns about environmental effects aren’t that important after all …

Editorial from The Missoulian:

The proposed rule contains a number of changes, many of them word substitutions whose importance may be difficult to discern without deeper research. What, for instance, are the ramifications of re-naming “indicator species” to “species of concern” when it comes to endangered species management? Or of placing greater emphasis on the impacts of climate change? Or of emphasizing the importance of science in decision-making??

Posted in National Forests, Public LandsComments (0)

Ecosystem Services Payments: Opportunities and Challenges

A new report written by Defenders of Wildlife in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station discusses the opportunities and challenges related to ecosystem service payments.  One of the most challenging issues in environmental policy today is how to create incentives for private landowners to participate in conservation efforts that protect biodiversity and prevent forest and farm lands from being lost to development. No single regulation, government incentive, tax program, or other tool operates at the scale that is necessary to accomplish this goal. To improve how we approach biodiversity conservation, market-based payments for ecosystem services could be used in conjunction with other policies to create better incentives.

Ecosystem services are the benefits human communities enjoy as a result of natural processes and biological diversity. Some of these services are already recognized and sold into established markets. Timber, food, fuel and fiber are all examples of services with recognized economic value. Yet there are other services produced from healthy, functioning landscapes that are not well recognized in current payment structures, providing little or no incentive for landowners to maintain them. These services include sequestering or storing carbon in trees and soil, providing fish and wildlife habitat, filtering water, and reducing damages from natural disasters. In addition, most programs pay landowners to protect or restore a specific service rather than the suite of services produced from well-functioning ecosystems. Various incentive programs need to be better integrated or new programs need to be developed that recognize the value of ecosystem protection.

Bundling and stacking payments for ecosystem services offers a promising option to improve landowner compensation while also delivering better ecological outcomes. Rather than being compelled to focus on one particular attribute or a discrete portion of regulated services as current programs and markets do, landowners should be able to benefit from the multiple services, both regulated and voluntary, their land is producing on a broader, landscape scale. To be both ecologically and economically effective, payments, at a minimum, need to address multiple values, function at the landscape scale, and minimize transactions costs.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for ConservationComments (0)


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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