NRC South Report - March 2011
March started with the 49th Annual Tierra del Sol Desert Safari featuring the opening of an obstacle course at Ocotillo Wells SVRA. The Tierra del Sol 4 Wheel Drive Club contributed hundreds of manhours in planning and building the very challenging obstacle course in partnership with Ocotillo Wells SVRA staff. Designed by Rich Klien, WE Rocks, the obstacle course features replications of many of the popular obstacles found from Moab to the Rubicon.
More SVRA related news, I was at the Emergency California OHMVR Commission meeting in Sacramento on Monday, March 14 along with over 100 attendees representing a broad spectrum of the OHV community. Two new OHMVR Commissioners were seated and introduced. Both have a strong OHV recreation background.
The primary topic on the agenda was the OHMVR Trust Fund and the effort by CA Legislatures to divert $31 million from the fund. The following is a simplified description of the issue. There are two components to the OHV Trust Fund - Operations an Reserves.
First, consider the "reserves" as a savings deposit account. The Operations segment has two subcomponents - Grants and Operations. There is a proposal in the Governor's Budget to "borrow" $21 million from the Reserve Account.
There is another proposal that will take $10 million from Operation (split $5 mil each from Operations and Grants). It is unclear whether this is a "take" or a "loan". Overall, the OHV Trust Fund could loose $31 million for the next Budget Cycle which begins July 1.
At the end, the Commission did pass two motions:
1. The Commission will send a letter to the Legislative leaders stating that the 'Trust Fund" should remain in tact (do not take the funding).
2. The Commission will send a letter to the State Attorney General asking for a clarification of the legality of taking funds from the user supported OHV Trust Fund to augment the General Fund shortfall.
The grant funding for the current cycle is safe as it was appropriated during the last year budget session. Any disruption to the grant funding will occur with beginning with the CA Fiscal Year beginning July 1, 2011. The pending cut would affect grant applications from the next funding cycle (spring 2012).
For California, this is an ugly budget cycle with many oxen being gored...
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service provided welcome news to the SoCal desert areas relating to the Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard which has been a species of concern in Imperial Sand Dunes and Ocotillo Wells SVRA.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), has determined that the listing of the flat-tailed horned lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act), is not warranted, and therefore withdraw the November 29, 1993, proposed rule to list it under the Act. They made this determination in this withdrawal because threats to the species as identified in the 1993 proposed rule are not as significant as earlier believed, and available data do not indicate that the threats to the species and its habitat, as analyzed under the five listing factors described in section 4(a)(1) of the Act, are likely to endanger the species in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
On Monday, March 21, U.S. Forest Service hosted an informational public forum on the proposed planning rule. While comments were not accepted on the Planning Rule, the pubic was able to ask question to gain a better understanding of the Forest SErvice proposal.
There has been a lot of reference to the Forest Service Planning Rule and for the benefit of the members members, I would like to provide some background to underscore the significance of the Planning Rule.
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 is the primary statute governing the administration of national forests and requires the Secretary of Agriculture to assess forest lands, develop a management program based on multiple-use, sustained-yield principles, and implement a resource management plan for each unit of the National Forest System.
In short, that "assessment" is known by a series of names: Land and Resource Management Plan, Land Management Plan, or Forest Plan.
In 1982, Forest Service published a "rule" that provided guidelines for each Forest to follow as they developed their Forest plan.
An analogy is: With NFMA, Congress told Forest Service to "build a house that served the needs of the Forest". The Forest Service Headquarters took that instruction and provided a "construction plans and building codes" to each National Forest unit in the form of a "planning rule". With the planning rule, each Forest proceeded to "build a house that served the needs of the Forest".
Over the years, the planning rule has been shown to be cumbersome which has lead to Forest Plans that are large and very complex; taking extended periods of time to develop with a resulting high cost. And, due to the complexity, easy to litigate.
In 2000, the Clinton administration issued a revised Planning Rule, It was challenged in court. The Bush administration issued 2 planning rule changes; both challenged in court.
The current Proposed Planning Rule appears to be a blend of a third Bush admin effort that has been tweaked by the Obama administration.
As noted in the National Resource Defense Council e-mail, the environmental community is not receptive to the changes being proposed.
In particular, they note, "Among the greatest concerns are that the new Planning Rule gives USFS managers discretion to make management decisions without benchmarks or standards".
This is based on a major change in the planning rule, The 1982 planning rule provided "construction plans and building codes". The current proposed planning rule removes the "constructions plans" and allows the local Forest Supervisor the discretion to develop a Forest Plan tailored to the local issues.
The Forest Service is organized in a classic "command and control" hierarchy of management. In other words, they have a rigid chain of command that allows for little flexibility at the local level with issues being sent up the chain of command for a decision. A time consuming and highly inefficient process. While it worked in simpler times, it is unworkable in today's climate.
So, the proposed planning rule is an attempt by the Forest Service to overcome the tag of "100 years of serving the land unmarred by progress".
The proposed planning rule involves the management concept of "adaptive management" and is based on a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. In theory, this philosophy allows for changes in response to emerging conditions without having to start at the beginning.
As a result, new Forest Plans developed would be smaller and less complex as they would be "construction plans" for building the house that serves the needs of the Forest. The specific construction details and plan modifications would be done as necessary to meet changing conditions through "site specific planning". The local Forest Supervisor would have flexibility to adapt the planning as necessary.
I spent about 10 years of my career with the US Navy within an adaptive management and collaborative action framework when the Navy began an shift in management philosophy. I understand the concepts and pitfalls with the process as my 10 year tenure was working with a team that was trying to implement the management changes.
With this approach, there are opportunities and there are pitfalls..
CA$WDC and Blue Ribbon Coalition have been involved with litigation concerning the four southern California National Forests that was recently settled. That settlement called for the Forest to establish a “stakeholders group” to establish criteria and priorities for decommissioning routes within Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRA).
The first meeting of the SoCal Collaborative Group was held on March 23, 2011 at the USFS Ontario Interagency Support Cache facilities in Ontario, CA. The process is expected to be complete by August 3, 2011.
The draft collaborative protocols were reviewed and discussed with a couple of changes proposed. Agreements and disagreements on routes will be recorded. And, the group will work with the definition of "decommission" as noted in CFR 212.5.6.b.12. Final vote for approval of the collaborative protocols is set for the next meeting.
Considerable time was spent reviewing the Geographic Information System (GIS) data for each of the four SoCal forests. One significant point of interest was the number of routes annotated as "perimeter mapping error". This is a result of IRA boundaries being defined prior to having accurate mapping data. In other words, when current GIS technology was used to map routes, there were many places where IRA boundaries included routes that were intended to be an IRA perimeter boundary.
The next largest category of routes are Unclassified/Undetermined. This appears to be where most of the future discussion will reside. PDF maps of the Forests will be created and posted to a FS web site.
From my perspective, I believe the biggest discussion with by on routes within the Los Padres and San Bernardino NFs. A number of GIS data layers were identified that will help identify potential issues with routes. A number of the Unclassified/Undetermined routes may have a necessary purpose.
There was a proposal by the environmental representatives to extend the review to include wilderness areas. I noted a look of relief on the faces of some Forest personnel when I objected as that would be expanding the scope of the settlement agreement and charter for the collaborative group.
I also pushed to the Forest to do a route review based on the archeology/cultural heritage data layer as a first cut to identify any routes that would have a special circumstance leading to leading to closure due to arch site impact. I don't want to waste time on a route addressing potential resource issues if the decision will be trumped by arch issues.
There is an interesting observation with respect to the State involvement. I get the feeling that Resources Department and CalFire are looking at the issue from a public safety perspective and the Attorney General office is looking at it from a different (and potential conflicting) perspective. Quite a bit of discussion revolved around "wildland urban interface" and fire issues. The State rep from Resources Department expressed some concern that fire access routes be maintained and accurate maps be provided. And, it was stated that the AGs office was more concerned about not being in on the discussions early in the planning process.
Of note, the IRA designation stems from the 1964 Wilderness Act where the Forest Service was required to inventory lands for potential wilderness and wilderness characteristics. That lead to the RARE I inventory of lands with potential wilderness characteristics. At that point, then California Governor Jerry Brown filed suit to force the Forest to include more lands in the inventory. That resulted in the RARE II inventory. And, then Attorney General Jerry Brown (now Governor Brown) filed suit to bring about more state interaction with the management of IRAs.
Maybe it is a coincidence that the concepts of adaptive management, collaborative planning, and coordination with state/local government are coming into play about the same time the proposed planning rule is out for comment.
On March 26 was the Desert Advisory Council meeting with two high interest items on the agenda:
1. Special Recreation Permits
2. Johnson Valley.
The meeting room was packed with people interested in the Special Recreation Permits. There were about 80 attendees just for that agenda item.
The DAC recognized 30 speakers on the SRP agenda item. I did get a chance to voice CA4WDC concerns about the SRP process. It was interesting in that normally, 3 minutes is allocated for public comment. Due to the number of speakers requesting time, a 2 minute limit was imposed on each speaker.
After I spoke (I did go over by about 15 seconds), the DAC Chairman commented with an apology noting that he understood I had significant historical knowledge and extensive understanding of the SRP process and that I did a good job of outlining issues within the speaker time constraint. He wished he could provide a full 3 minute per speaker but was limited due to time constraints.
As it stands, the DAC will be establishing a Sub-Committee to address SRP issues. The Sub-Committee will bring issues forward to the DAC and subsequently to the Desert District Manager by way of an advisory recommendation. The Sub-Committee is expected to be a long term committee. The DAC is soliciting applications and is expected to have the positions filled with the next 45 days. Sub-Committee selection will be reviewed and selected by the DAC.
With respect to Johnson Valley, there are a number of issues that are surfacing that I expect to be of concern. I did submit comments during the scoping period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on behalf of CA4WDC. I will be reviewing those comments and the DEIS to ensure they have been addressed.
With the presentation by the Marines, there are a couple of major issues of concern I have dealing with "joint use". The Marines are proposing a "joint use" area which will have "permitted access". The terms of the permitted access are vague in that to obtain a permit, the applicant will be required to attend a one and half hour training session; most likely via an internet connection. The Marines dodged the question of how long the permit was valid and other implementation issues.
Also of concern is how Executive Order 11644 applies. That EO requires all land management agencies to develop designated route systems. I am not questioning the fact that they CAN develop an access control plan (designated route system), I have reservations as to how they intend to develop and implement a plan that is within the bounds of the EO.
To put it in perspective, the Marine Captain Nicholas Mannweiler, public affairs officer for the Marine base, opened his presentation with a statement that the Marines did not "play well" with the other services as the Marines were the only service that incorporated air and ground support under one umbrella. Read: Wave the FLAG -- we are special....
When I had the chance to comment, I challenged the Marine Captain that perhaps it is time the Marines learn to "play well with others" and truly investigate joint use of other military reservations that are largely unused.
Also, I noted that the biggest polluter of the desert is the US Government under the name of the military. They continue to "pollute" the desert with unexploded ordinance and refuse to clean up their mess. I encouraged them to go back to the sand boxes they have contaminated and play there.
I will be submitting comments in the Draft EIS on behalf of CA4WDC; just as I submitted comments on the scoping on behalf of CA4WDC.