Forest Plans In Limbo

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National Forests in the Rim Country face dramatic changes and festering challenges -- but managers' attempts to plan for those changes remain lost in a frustrating bureaucratic limbo.

Managers for the sprawling Tonto and Apache Sitgreaves forests say they badly need to update the forest plans they adopted in the 1980s -- but can't even start the task, thanks to a convoluted chain of events.

"We're using the plan we wrote in 1985," said Tonto National Forest Planner Felipe Cano. "And we're in the dark" about what rules to follow in preparing a new plan.

"The plan really needs updating, but we're kind of in limbo right now," said Deryl Jevons, the interim supervisor of the 2-million-acre Apache Sitgreaves National Forest.

Specifically, the Bush Administration in 2004 said forests that updated their plans could drop many previously required hearings and not prepare environmental impact statements. The new rules were supposed to cut the cost and time it took to prepare a plan.

Instead, environmental groups promptly sued, and in 2007 a federal appeals court declared the new rules illegal. Then two weeks ago, the administration announced it would not appeal the ruling -- but would soon issue yet another set of guidelines.

Arizona Sierra Club Conservation Outreach Director Sandy Bahr welcomed that decision. "We just wanted them to follow the law," she said, noting that the Sierra Club was one of the groups sued to overturn the last set of rules. "I wouldn't want to predict what they'll do next -- but if you look at what they've done so far, you'd expect them to come out with another bad rule."

And that could mean more lawsuits.

And more limbo.

And more problems for local forest managers struggling to adapt a 20-year-old plan to sweeping change in the forest.

"We're in a new world," said Jim Payne, spokesman for the 3-million-acre Tonto Forest. Since the Tonto adopted its plan in about 1982, grazing and timber harvesting have dwindled and the forest's 6 million annual visitors make it the nation's most-visited. "Back then, the primary mover was timber, now it's the need to maintain a healthy forest" to protect wildlife and prevent catastrophic wildfires, he said.

The two forests that cover a combined 5 million acres between Phoenix and the New Mexican border in the White Mountains typify the profound changes that have taken place across some 191 million acres of federal Forest Service lands in the 20 years.

The 2004 rule change had been promoted as a way to streamline the planning process, by making the forest plan a "visionary" that left most of environmental analysis to individual timber sales, grazing leases, road project and other actions. Advocates said it would cut in half the $6-8 million cost of coming up with a plan while also significantly reducing and the 5-7 year process. Instead, the dispute has already delayed the process for four years.

On the Apache Sitgreaves the once-dominant timber industry has nearly shut down, partly for lack of highly-profitable old growth trees and partly as a result of lawsuits and environmental concerns about wildlife and recreation use.

In the meantime, dangerous "dog hair thickets" of young, stressed second-growth trees that result from logging and fire suppression have made a once fire resistant ponderosa pine forest vulnerable to catastrophic fires, like the Rodeo fire that consumed hundreds of homes. The lack of an updated forest plan has complicated efforts to shift the planning focus from timber harvests to healthy forests.

Currently, the only significant timber cutting operation on the vast, forested sprawl of the Apache Sitgreaves is a 5,000-acre thinning project in the White Mountains, designed to move the forest back towards the pre-logging condition in which periodic, low-intensity fires created a forest with big trees, little underbrush, aspen groves, grassy swales and large meadows.

"Over the years, as we quit selling timber, funding for everything else dropped," said Davalon. "As a result, we don't even have the resources to undertake a large program anymore."

That poses a potential problem for communities surrounded by the overgrown, fire-prone forests like Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Star Valley and other Rim communities. The Forest Service now can't afford extensive forest thinning and the timber industry that could have handled such a massive project has nearly died off.

Other forests like the Coconino have experimented with small-scale timber harvesting plans that would provide timber companies with a reliable supply of trees less than 16 inches in diameter. That could encourage the development of a new timber industry based on cutting and selling products made from the smaller trees.

So now the forests must tackle sweeping forest-wide problems on a piecemeal basis, for lack of a well-researched overall plan to balance the needs of wildlife, residents, visitors and industries like logging and cattle grazing.

So after four years of legal dispute about rules to streamline planning, forest managers remain frustrated. Worse yet, a whole new round of possible lawsuits awaits the next set of rules.

"It was absolutely unnecessary to go through this," said the Sierra Club's Bahr. "But when the government won't follow its own laws, then litigation is the last resort."

She said she sympathized with the position of forest managers stuck with a politically based rule change countering the recommendations of the Forest Services' own scientists.

"If ignoring the public is streamlining, then yes, the new rules were streamlined. Look, the last thing we want is to be back in the courthouse. This was a terrible rule that didn't protect the resource. They need to follow the law and make decisions based on the best science possible," she said.

And while Bahr sympathized with the frustration of local managers, she added, "they may not have new plan, but at least they don't have a bad plan."

Forest managers are now waiting stoically for the next round in the epic bureaucratic bout -- yet another set of rules expected out next month.

"We're just waiting to see," said Apache Sitgreaves Supervisor Davalon, "and doing what planning we can. But in truth, we're just in a holding pattern."

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