By: Jess Riddle, Executive Director
After a hiatus of more than a year, rounds of public meetings in April announced major changes to the Foothills Landscape Project.
Spread across half the width of Georgia, the Foothills Landscape Project could result in intensive logging of mature forests, include herbicide application on a scale never before seen, and mar favorite recreation areas. Or, the Foothills Landscape Project could result in improved chances for rare species, the remediation of past poor management, and the enhancement of recreation opportunities. The dramatic range of possibilities comes from the project’s huge extent—the project covers an area the size of Zion National Park—and ambition to manage everything from ecosystems to infrastructure. Since its debut in 2016, Foothills has been presented as a “collaborative” project.
The recent meetings focused on laying the foundation for a Foothills “working group,” a stakeholder group that would guide the implementation of Foothills. At the first meeting, participants—a roughly even mix of government staff and representatives of various nonprofits—were broken into groups of three or four and asked: What is important to your organization about the Foothills Project? What is possible with the Foothills collaboration? What are the obstacles to successful collaboration?
One of the strongest themes at the first set of meetings was the desire to make the Foothills collaboration more inclusive. There was broad recognition that the project will impact many groups that have not historically participated in Forest Service projects.
The next meeting featured presentations by participants from a long-running collaborative on a national forest in Colorado and a researcher who has studied several national forest collaboratives. They shared what has worked in Colorado, challenges faced in making that collaborative work, and patterns in what collaboratives generally need to succeed.
In the course of these meetings and discussions, the Forest Service laid out a new plan for how Foothills will move forward that includes restructuring the collaborative and the decision making process. The Forest Service clearly said they will issue a revised environmental assessment for the project, which will come with a new public comment period. They are hoping to release the new environmental assessment in June. It will be programmatic; it will lay out management treatment options and analyze potential impacts of those management techniques that would be common to all sites, but would not authorize on-the-ground operations. Streamlined individual environmental assessments would then be issued to cover decisions about what specific sites to treat and to analyze the impacts to those specific sites.
This new approach matches what ForestWatch and our partners have been recommending to fix legal, public participation, and ultimately environmental problems with the original project design. The new approach abandons previous plans to describe the kinds of places the Forest Service would log, burn, reroute trails, etc., without identifying the actual locations until after legally binding public input opportunities were closed. The new nested approach still offers the Forest Service efficiency gains by greatly reducing repeated analysis. It also offers effectiveness gains by prioritizing treatments across a broader landscape and increasing coordination among timber, fire, road, and recreation divisions.
Exactly how the working group will function is still uncertain. The Forest Service will host five two-hour meetings to develop a proposal for the working group’s purpose and structure. One goal for the proposal is to address the questions and concerns that surfaced in the April meetings. The meetings will start in June or July, and the proposal will be subject to ratification by both the working group and the Forest Service.
Overall, the Forest Service’s approach has changed for the better. The changes in the decision-making process are significant improvements. We still need to see this new approach put in writing, and there are still obstacles that must be overcome for the project to have a positive outcome. Stakeholders will have to actually want to collaborate. They will have to see the advantages of working with other stakeholders rather than just digging in their heels and demanding everything be done their way. To keep discussions focused on common ground and away from pointless debates, the project will need focused goals. Practical constraints imposed on the project by regulations, staffing, and budget will also have to be made clear.
Those challenges notwithstanding, there is now a path forward. We will just have to stay involved to make sure it leads to a good outcome.