Land, Water and People: Deciphering the draft forest plan
The Rio Grande National Forest released its draft land management plan and environmental impact statement at the end of September. The public has 90 days to review and comment on both these documents, which puts the end of the comment period at December 29. The draft plan and environmental impact statement can be found on the Rio Grande National Forest website at https://www.fs.usda.gov.riogrande. Just click on the Rio Grande National Forest Plan Revision link in the projects box on the right side of the home page.
To be completely honest, this is not light reading and there are a lot of pages dense with information and tables. But don’t let this intimidate you and prevent you from checking it out. With a little time spent up front exploring the draft plan landing page, you will get a feel for how it is laid out and where to find the parts you are most interested in.
One of the first things to understand is that the draft forest plan is just that, a draft. It is the proposed action for which the Forest is seeking public input. The draft environmental impact statement is the analysis of the effects of implementing the proposed plan. But, analyzing just one option doesn’t give a complete picture, so the environmental impact statement also analyzes alternatives to the draft plan to provide an understanding of the effects of other options.
There are a total of four alternatives analyzed in the draft environmental impact statement, including the proposed action, Alternative B. Alternative A is the 1996 Forest Plan, which the Forest currently operates under. Alternatives B, C, and D all incorporate public input.
The alternatives attempt to capture the diversity of input in order to provide a wide scope to analyze. This then allows the public to review and consider a range of possibilities from which to provide further input. Comments are most useful if they also answer the question why. Why do you want this? Why don’t you want that? Why or how is this information incomplete?
It is important to understand that when Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas decides on the final plan (still a couple steps away), it doesn’t have to be a specific alternative, instead he may pull parts from any or all alternatives.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper. Everything within the draft plan and analysis starts with three overarching goals. These provide the big picture guidance that all the other plan components link to. Desired conditions are a step down from the goals. These are the vision of what the Forest should look like in the future.
Next come the objectives, which guide the process to attain the desired condition. Each objective should be concise, measurable, and provide a target year by when it will be accomplished.
So far, so good, right? These plan components describe a vision and path forward. Next come standards, guidelines and management approaches. These three provide constraints and/or site-specific direction. Standards cannot be deviated from. Guidelines allow for departure as long as underlying purposes are met. Both standards and guidelines require the lengthy process of a forest plan amendment to change.
Management approaches, on the other hand, can be changed to adapt to changing conditions on the ground without a forest plan amendment. Instead, once a year, the Forest will hold a “State of the Forest” meeting to inform the public of progress with implementing the forest plan and any proposed changes to management approaches. The public will have an opportunity to provide input, and then, if it makes sense, management approaches may be changed administratively.
One other component that should be of interest to all who use the Forest is called land suitability. Land suitability identifies the uses or activities suitable on forest lands. Many people may not want to spend the time to drill down into the nitty gritty standards, guidelines and management approaches. But, at the very least, people should look at the management area maps on the website and read what uses are suitable in each of those areas. Then, let us know what you think!
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.