Building a Better Forest Service

In a victory for clean water, healthy forests, and thriving wildlife, the Obama Administration finalized a new planning rule for the country’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands in 2012 that favors science over politics.  The “planning rule” sounds banal, but in fact it provides the backbone for on-the-ground management decisions impacting how each national forest will balance the needs of the ecosystem with human activities such as logging, grazing, and even recreation. 

In recognition of WELC’s tireless commitment over the past decade defending the role of science in managing our national forests and grasslands, Sec. Tom Vilsack (USDA) selected me from more than 200 applicants to serve on the 21-member Federal Advisory Committee. The committee is charged with helping the Forest Service implement the new planning rule. We have met five times so far, most recently this past week in Salt Lake City.

The Committee membership is very diverse, including representatives from elected county, state, and tribal government; timber, mineral, and grazing industries; motorized and non-motorized recreation interests; conservation community; private landowners; and youth organizations.  The Committee’s makeup truly represents the types of different stakeholders interested in national forest management, which reflects a difficult balancing act amongst social, economic, and ecological concerns.

The work has been quite challenging. We have been spending our time developing guidance for land managers and stakeholders on matters such as when to engage the public and how, what lands should be included in a wilderness inventory, and how adaptive management should work. We also provided recommendations on tough and controversial issues such as climate change, timber production, wildlife conservation, and wilderness designation. At the Salt Lake City meeting, we finalized our consensus recommendations, which we will present to Forest Service and Department of Agriculture leadership in October at the Cradle of Forestry in North Carolina. 

Despite our differences, the Committee has made great progress in our advice to the Forest Service.  In my view, our work together epitomizes collaboration: we are working together in an open and inclusive process to address problems that alone, we would not be able to solve.  The Committee members like and respect each other, even if we don’t always agree on a particular point.  I have been able to bring WELC’s legal, political, and collaborative expertise to the table, and I have heard from many Committee and Forest Service participants that this expertise has been indispensable in moving the dialogue forward.

The Committee’s current assignment is drawing to a close, but I am very excited about the next chapter: I expect that we will be working with “early adopters,” national forests that are already beginning to develop forest plans under the new Planning Rule, to help guide them through this new planning regime. We are also likely to develop several tools for the public, including a “Planning 101” handbook that would outline the planning process and how to engage in a how-to format. Other options for the committee’s involvement are also on the table.

There is a lot of work ahead, but this is an exciting time in land management planning: revisions provide the public with the best opportunity to direct forest management well into the future, and to advocate for our “vision” of the public lands. I’m glad to be able to represent WELC - and you - at the table!

[Meanwhile, WELC is in court fighting an industry lawsuit that argues the Forest Service overstepped its authority by requiring the new forest plans to provide "ecological sustainability" and use best available science in management decision, among other claims. Stay Tuned.]

Blog Profile

Susan Jane

Susan Jane Brown joins WELC after two years as Natural Resources Council for Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) in Washington, DC. Prior to that, Susan Jane spent three years as a staff attorney with the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, Lewis and Clark Law School’s environmental law clinic. Susan Jane graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1997 and graduated from Lewis and Clark Law School in 2000. Susan Jane works out of our Northwest Office, 503-914-1323.

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This blog explores inside information from WELC's smart, dedicated attorneys, scientists and policy experts who have committed their lives to defending the American West. Our experts take their unique knowledge, mix it with long hours of reflection in the saddle of a bicycle, hiking a long & winding trail, paddling a river, or skiing the mountains and share with you their insights and perspectives. We hope you enjoy the results!