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Finding ‘resiliency’ in national forests becomes a balancing act

Rio Grande National Forest.

Case studies show how policy, process—and politics—can influence public lands’ future

 

Every well-managed forest needs a plan.

If the forest is yours, crafting that plan and the goals it outlines might be simple. But when the forest is owned by everyone—for example, the more than 150 national forests across the country—creating a plan that satisfies the needs of all the stakeholders can be a bit more complicated.

There are federal guidelines for writing these forest management plans, but changes in federal administrations, budgets and performance metrics all shape how they come together. A new study by a researcher at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources offers insights into this process, highlighting the planning that can help—or, sometimes, hinder—national forests as they incorporate the idea of “resilient landscapes” into their management strategies.

Often, said study lead author Jesse Abrams, it’s a balancing act that incorporates reconciling fire resiliency and budgets with climate change and the needs of constituents. In general, he said, federal guidelines implemented in the last decade represent a fundamental shift in forest management policy.

“The old paradigm was that we have this piece of land, and we’re going to manage it in a particular way. But ‘resilient landscape’ means the ability to change or shift over time. That’s a different view from producing a predictable flow of outputs each year,” said Abrams, an assistant professor of natural resource policy.

More than two decades ago, federal forest and wildfire policies began to focus around a vision of restoring fire-resilient conditions to national forests. This meant, as national forests began to update their plans—something typically done every 10 to 20 years—fire resiliency is a necessary component.

But pinning down exactly what constitutes “resilience” can be tricky, as Abrams and his co-authors found. They analyzed the plans from Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina, the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona and the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado, looking at the opportunities and barriers each presented, as well as the broader social and political forces at play in each.

“When new National Forest Management Act rules emphasizing restoration and resilience came out, part of that was saying, ‘Let’s make these plans less prescriptive and more adaptive.’ They should be a vision, not a detailed list of every action that’s going to take place over the next 20 years on every acre of land,” said Abrams. “But not everyone’s comfortable with that. People have gotten used to securing certain commitments to their favored uses in forest plans.”

“So, there are a lot of forces pushing against this flexible approach to planning.”

While the three case studies were primarily selected because they coincided with the study period—court battles, changes in administrations, and learning to plan under new rules often delay final approval—Abrams said they offered lessons in how community buy-in and trust among stakeholders can help forest managers build a solid plan.

For example, managers at all three forests in the study spent years working with local stakeholders to build relationships. As each forest rolled out its updated plan, these relationships helped generate trust and understanding of the goals.

“The Kaibab had been building relationships for years. They had some really good science coming in because they had been working with Northern Arizona University, and they were able to be a little more experimental with things,” said Abrams. “Same with Francis Marion—they seemed to get decent support from the community. It wasn’t a really fraught process.”

The Rio Grande National Forest also invested substantial effort in conversations with local communities and regional interests. But the draft forest plan was ultimately rewritten by planners elsewhere in the Forest Service who were concerned it could be vulnerable to legal or political challenges.

These relationships can play a vital role in a plan’s approval process, Abrams said. In some cases, a plan could be held up for years while stakeholders wrestle for a rewrite.

“When you have that sense of trust and long-term, established, good relationships with external stakeholders such as industry, scientists and elected officials, it means they’re not going to try to challenge everything you do,” added Abrams. “So, policy-wise, this allows you to try new things and see what happens. That’s the essence of adaptive management.”

Overall, Abrams said, the forests they analyzed did have some success in crafting plans that allowed them to be more adaptable for resilient landscapes. On the Kaibab, for example, managers were able to bring in more rules concerning wildlife. Francis Marion planners created two zones for fire management, one with regular prescribed burns and another, located closer to residences, that tackles resiliency in other ways.

All that said, the three case studies show the difficulty in taking an abstract concept such as resilience and applying it in a concrete way. “You can put something in policy language, but translating that to action is complicated,” he said. “We found that the new policy language helps, but it’s one small piece of a much larger constellation of pieces that need to be in place.”

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