Forest Planning Process
Components of a Forest Plan
Under National Forest Management Act (NFMA) regulations and directives, each forest plan (or planning project) will consist of five components:
1. Describe desired conditions of the Forest,
2. Set measurable objectives to achieve those conditions,
3. Determine the general suitability of lands for various uses,
4. Designate special areas such as proposed wilderness, and
5. Provide guidelines governing the management practices and uses of the Forest.
Desired conditions are narrative descriptions of the social, economic, and ecological attributes of the plan area toward which management is directed. The time for achieving them is not set, and may be longer than the 10-15 year life of the plan itself. For example, the desired condition for a semi-primitive recreation management area might be a generally unmodified natural environment that allows visitors to experience solitude and closeness to nature. The area might also contribute to economic sustainability by appealing to other recreation interests who hire local outfitting guides.
Objectives are the projected outcomes that measure progress toward achieving the desired conditions within specific time frames. Objectives and other plan components should be based on realistic budget expectations. An example of a plan objective would be to reduce hazardous fuels on 5,000 acres per year for 5 years in the wildland/urban interface.
The directives also specify that the plan objectives should include the Timber Sale Program Quantity (TSPQ), which is the estimated volume of timber expected to be produced, given past and projected budgets and agency capacity. The TSPQ, like other objectives, is not a firm commitment, but expresses an aspiration to achieve desired economic and other conditions.
Suitability is the identification of areas as being generally appropriate for various uses that are compatible with desired conditions and objectives and. Such uses may include timber production, mineral development, livestock grazing, and recreation activities (FSH 1909.12, 61.1). For timberland suitability, the directives distinguish between lands that are suitable for timber "production" and lands that are more broadly suitable for timber "harvest" to achieve other objectives and desired conditions (FSM 1921.17c, FSH 61.7-62.3). Both types of suitable timberland are included in the calculation of TSPQ (see above).
Special areas are designated in recognition of their unique or special characteristics, such as botanical areas and significant caves (36 CFR 219.7(a)(2)(v)). The directives include extensive guidance in the evaluation of potential wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers. As discussed below, potential wilderness areas must be considered during the plan revision process (36 CFR 219.7(a)(7), FSM 1923.03).
On the other hand, evaluation of potential wild and scenic rivers is not necessarily required during plan revision if a river study was completed in a prior planning process. In that case, additional wild and scenic river evaluation is only required if "changed circumstances warrant additional review of eligibility or if the Responsible Official considers the river study (suitability) an issue." (FSM 1924.03).
Guidelines provide information and technical specifications for project-level decision-making to achieve desired conditions and objectives (36 CFR 219.7(a)(2)(iii)). The regulations and directives carefully differentiate legally binding "standards" from non-binding "guidelines" and make it abundantly clear that forest plans should no longer include any standards. The directives allow the Forest Service to "depart from guidelines when it is necessary to deal effectively with unusual situations." (FSM 1921.14). The directives go to great lengths to ensure that guidelines are worded in ways that do not suggest that they are requirements:
"Do not write guidelines in the imperative mode because imperative mode conveys mandatory compliance. Guidelines should not use the helping verbs 'do not,' 'may not,' 'may only,' 'must,' 'not allowed,' 'prohibit,' or 'shall.' These helping verbs convey a degree of compliance or restriction that is not appropriate for guidelines. The helping verb 'should' or 'ought' is recommended for guidelines to recognize that extenuating circumstances are likely to occur." (FSH 12.23b)