New Forest Service Citizens’ Guide Invites The Public To Engage In Forest Planning

In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service updated its land management planning requirements for the first time in 30 years, with a new “Forest Planning Rule.” It is a significant advance in citizen-based land management planning. A Federal Advisory Committee made up of citizens representing diverse interests was established to assist the Forest Service in implementing the new Forest Planning Rule. As it worked with the Forest Service, the Committee recognized that a citizens’ guide was needed to help the public effectively understand and get involved in the planning process.

Published recently by the Forest Service, the 86-page document is titled “A Citizens’ Guide to National Forest Planning.” Russ Ehnes, NOHVCC Executive Director, is on the Advisory Committee. We asked him to tell us about the process to create the new Citizens' Guide, and how advocates of motorized recreation can best use it when working with National Forests.

What is your role on the Federal Advisory Committee?
“I represent dispersed recreation and commercial interests, which include motorized recreation and outfitting. I’m one of 21 Committee members representing a broad range of interests, including timber, grazing, mineral rights, and the environmental community.”

How did the Committee decide there was a need for a Citizens' Guide?Cover of USFS Citizens' Guide
“The Committee has been together for 4 years. The first couple years were spent on recommendations to the Forest Service for the directives of the Forest Plan; the instruction book on how they would implement the Rule. It’s a complicated Rule.

“It became clear that if we who are immersed in the rule have difficulty wrapping our heads around it, then it will be really difficult for the public to understand it as well. That’s when we decided we needed an overview, so that the public understands the intent of the Rule, how it’s supposed to work, the different components of a plan, and how to get involved.”

The Citizens' Guide states its objective is engaging the public. Is that a new direction for the Forest Service?
“That’s really a sea change; a significant change in direction. The new Planning Rule is meant to give the public the opportunity to be engaged all through the process on a variety of topics, so that the Forest Service can develop better Plans. It’s also meant to be adaptive. Once the Plan is completed, it’s not meant to be static. It’s meant to be monitored and revised on an ongoing basis. Wrapping your head around those concepts is how this Citizens' Guide is helpful.”

The Citizens' Guide is 86 pages, with just 3 pages devoted to sustainable Recreation. What’s the main takeaway for the off-highway vehicle (OHV) industry?
“The main message is that, even though only a small portion on the book is devoted to recreation, people need to know how the Forest Plan Rule functions. And that all the components in the Guidebook, whether it’s wilderness or endangered species of conservation concern, will have an effect on where and when recreation occurs. Paying attention to just the recreation topic in this discussion would be a grave mistake. For other topics, where they may use species to monitor how things are going, for example, it’s critical to be engaged on those as well, which results in a Forest Plan that we can live with as recreationists.”

Are some OHV advocates already engaged at that level?
“The answer is mixed. There are a lot of people in the OHV community who are used to being engaged in the Travel Management Plans, but when they hear about Forest Plans, they’re not as concerned or engaged, because they don’t understand the impact that it will have on them when it comes to Travel Planning.”

So Forest Planning goes hand-in-hand with Travel Planning?
“Absolutely. Travel Plans are site-specific plans that tell you where and when you can ride and where you can’t. The Forest Plan needs to be looked at like a community’s zoning plan. It tells you where you can build a Walmart and where you can’t. So if your riding area is in a Walmart parking lot, you better be sure that where you’re riding area is zoned for that experience.”

Where does the NOHVCC Public Land Advocacy DVD come into play?
“The Land Advocacy DVD that NOHVCC developed and has been used for years, is geared toward Travel Planning. It’s very useful information for understanding the Forest Service structure, Travel Management processes, and building relationships with Forest supervisors and district managers. So the DVD is actually a great tool to look at before going into Forest Planning meetings, so you’re well informed and prepared to make the right comments.”

So they’re both important tools when advocating for motorized recreation?
“Yes. The Citizens' Guide is the primer. The one that will help you with the basic concept of what you’re stepping into. It’s important to know that, if Forest Planning isn’t going on in your area right now, it will be in the future. And that’s nationwide. So the Citizens' Guide is a great tool for everyone, and complements what we have developed for Travel Planning. Remember, Travel Planning and Forest Planning don’t happen in a vacuum. One often precedes the other, and the decisions made in one Plan will greatly impact the other.”

Which comes first? Travel Planning or Forest Planning?Chapter 14 first page of USFS Citizens' Guide
“There’s no right way or wrong way for the Forest Service to do it. In some places, they’re doing Forest Plans first, which basically say, for example, this area will be set aside for semi-primitive, non-motorized recreation. So then, when you get to the Travel Plan, if you weren’t involved in drawing the lines, they may have already excluded an area that was very important for you for motorized recreation.. In other areas, they’ve done the Travel Plan first, and come up with a system that functions, and then they plan around that system. There’s no guidance that says one way is better than the other.

“One of the key messages for advocates of OHV recreation to understand, is that Forest Planning affects you far more than you think it does. So you have to get engaged and stay engaged. Don’t sit around waiting for the Travel Plan. If you do, you could be excluded by virtue of your absence. Someone could draw a line around that favorite OHV riding area and say that’s a non-motorized area. After that, there’s not much you can do when it comes to the Travel Plan to keep that area open.”

Was being on the Advisory Committee a good experience?
“It’s been a great experience. In particular, being able to work on the Citizens' Guide. Because we all have the right to be engaged in the process, and we want everybody to be engaged in the process to help the Forest Service make the best decisions possible. Even though there were some areas of opposing views among those of us on the Committee it was important to all of us that the public be engaged and all our voices to be heard. That idea was unanimous among the Committee members. It wasn’t contentious at all.

“We all want the same thing: a level playing field.”

For more information on the U.S. Forest Service Planning Rule Revision, visit this website: http://www.fs.usda.gov/planningrule

The printable version of “A Citizens’ Guide to National Forest Planning,” Washington Office, 2016 is available for download or viewing on your screen. http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd520670.pdf

A second publication, also recently released, is designed to increase intergovernmental participation in land management plans. It is titled, “Understanding Your Opportunities for Participating in the Forest Service Planning Process: A Guide for State, Local, and Tribal Governments,” Washington Office 2016. http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd520672.pdf

Download the Citizens Guide to Forest Planning here: http://muirnet.net/Public/usfs/fseprd520670.pdf


John Stewart
Editor, OutdoorWire.com
Resources Consultant, California Four Wheel Drive Association
Board of Directors, BlueRibbon Coalition