After a century, a look at the future of the Forest Service
The Centennial of the Forest Service in 2005 is an opportunity to look back to the past, and how the agency and the lands under its charge have developed and evolved over a century. This series has looked at the history of the service, yet, it is perhaps more important to use the opportunity of this anniversary and this last part in the series, to look to the future.
Throughout the year, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit will be commemorating the history of the service and the lands of the National Forest System in many ways. At the very same time, the Forest Service at Lake Tahoe is engaged in shaping the future of this unique unit of our national forest system. As a part of the multi-agency Pathway 2007 planning effort, the Forest Service is determining the strategies and directions that will define a successful future for the resources, uses and national forest values of the Tahoe basin. We have joined with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and California’s Lahontan Regional water Quality Control Board in this long range planning effort. Another key entity has been involved – the public. In visioning sessions held last January in five different locations, members of the public joined with the planning team members to share issues, concerns and visions for what the Lake Tahoe Basin could or should be like in the decades to come.
The results from these sessions have been integrated into the work of the planners from the four Pathway agencies, and more public input and interaction will take place. The forest plan for the LTBMU is being revised for the first time since 1988, and will guide the decisions made by the Forest Service in the basin for at least two decades. The public’s vision for the future will help shape the revised plan. The whole process is complex and painstakingly detailed, but the underlying values we hold in the resources and uses of our hometown national forest are simple and straightforward. People deeply care about Tahoe – the lake and the forests, as a whole environment. The differences people have are far outweighed by the common ground. Among those who participated in visioning sessions, a common realization was that all the issues that surround future planning, from water quality to recreation to transportation and more, are completely interconnected. If a successful vision for Tahoe is realized, it will largely result from the public understanding and acting upon their knowledge of this interconnectedness.
The Forest Service at Tahoe has always been focused on the future to the greatest extent. When we restore a creek, or a forest stand, we benefit the future more than the present. Many of our resource projects in restoration will see full beneficial results, long after nature resumes her work – long after we are gone. When we restore or enhance wildlife habitat, we give the future of a species a boost. When we manage recreation, we do so with an eye to balancing the use to sustain both resources and opportunities for the future. But the future is hard to predict, especially when it’s the future of people interacting with forest resources. Two decades ago, did anyone accurately predict the trends of recreation that are commonplace today? What will the trends be twenty years from now? Will we even recognize them as “recreation?”
I remember when I first started in public lands work in the early 1980s, BMX- Bicycle Moto-Cross, was something 11 year old boys did on dirt tracks in the suburbs. Nobody I knew then predicted that mountain biking would one day become a world-wide recreation phenomenon that would reshape trail networks and recreation management across the whole of the National Forest System. Planning for the future often depends more on asking the right kinds of questions, rather than trying to make predictions.
How then, will the Forest Service revise its plan for the Tahoe basin? The first step will be to review our 1988 plan, and determine the need for change. From this self-evaluation, a visioning process will incorporate the public visioning results with the agency vision to develop a set of “desired future conditions.” These define what success in 2027 would look like – the results of effective management of resources and uses. These conditions must be realistic and feasible; they must fully meet the federal and state laws; and must meet the overall intent of public desires for the future. All of the Pathway agencies, in their plan work, must meet these three basic conditions.
Rather than describe projects and processes, the revised Forest Service Plan will describe programs and desired results. Getting to the results will require adaptive management. This means applying the latest science and continually monitoring conditions. Adaptive management allows for small adjustments, of course, as needed to reach the desired conditions. It also helps adapt to the rapidly changing social conditions we see today.
The future of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is not unconnected to the future of the National Forest System. The basin is not apart from, nor is it immune to the issues facing the other national forests. Nationally and locally, four major threats face the future:
— Catastrophic wildfire resulting from over density and unnatural fuels build-ups threatens communities, resources, habitats and water quality.
— Invasive species threaten the biological integrity and diversity of the entire Sierra Nevada, including Tahoe.
— The rapid loss of open space around and between our national forests is increasingly turning these public lands into islands, disconnected from one another and the biological network they rely upon.
— The explosive rate of change in recreation trends challenges the ability of the Forest Service to keep pace with effective management. Additionally, in an era of tightening budgets and program constraints, many critical recreation management needs are going unmet, unmanaged and unenforced.
These issues pose the most significant long-term threats to the future of our national forests. Despite the fact that logging on national forestland is a fraction of what is was 20 years ago, and the number of miles of forest roads are decreasing every year throughout the system, the public generally sees logging and road building as the greatest dangers. Meanwhile the four greatest threats continue to erode the future integrity of the forests.
Planning to meet the challenges of the future may depend, even more, on asking the right questions. For the public and for the Pathway 2007 planning effort, it will mean increasing our ability to understand the reasons behind regulations and decisions, and a greater appreciation of the interconnectedness between our resources, our uses, our values and ourselves.
Gifford Pinchot’s words from 1905 echo to us today: “The question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”
– Writer Rex Norman is the public affairs officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service.
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