The U.S. Forest Service this week released the results of the first of three phases in developing a joint forest plan for the Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests.
Called a “forest plan assessment,” the document details current conditions and trends for various criteria including recreation, cultural and historical uses and natural resources such as soil and air. The Forest Service held open houses to gather comments and feedback, asking the public how they use the forest today and what is and isn't working well, said forest plan revision team leader Erin Swiader.
“It’s basically a snapshot, like a zoning document providing a 30,000-foot view of the forest,” she said. “With the assessment completed, that’ll form the basis for these community conversations we’ll be having with the public in the next six to 12 months.”
Swiader cautioned that the assessment is only the first step in a long process expected to take a total of four years.
Along with typical looks at timber or trails, more recent planning rules emphasize “ecosystem services,” or things of nonmonetary value such as clean water or air that people get from the forest, she added.
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires national forests and grasslands to develop a management plan, known as a forest plan. The act dictates plan revision when conditions significantly change on the ground. Regulations say that plans should be revised every 10 to 15 years, but both national forests are relying on forest plans from 1986.
Last year, the Helena and Lewis and Clark embarked on the culmination of long-term efforts to combine management on the two forests with a joint forest plan.
Within the assessment are habitat snapshots, the statuses for a multitude of species and water quality data. For example, the assessment says, “Fifty-five streams on the HLC NFs are on the State 303(d) list for impairment to water quality standards. These listings are most often for grazing, road, or mining impacts.”
The assessment does not include steps officials propose to mitigate or remediate environmental degradation.
With the assessment complete, the Forest Service now enters into the revision phase. This phase includes the development of an environmental impact statement identifying the expected results of the plan. The EIS will begin with a formal scoping process and public comment, and development of alternatives considering environmental effects.
Expected this summer is a “need for change” document, which will allow the public the first glimpse at areas the agency will emphasize in the new plan. Forest Service officials are working with researchers from the University of Montana on a public engagement strategy to explain the complexities of the planning process and solicit public comment, Swiader said.
“What we’re getting into now is the old plans and starting to develop those desired conditions and objectives,” she said. “We don’t have to start from scratch, so if things are working well for resources with flexible management of those resources, we don’t have to throw those out.”
Around the country, 13 other forests are ahead of the Helena and Lewis and Clark in their forest plan revisions allowing officials here to learn from other planning processes, she added.