New forest management framework is discussed at ‘For the Forest’ symposium

by , Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The U.S. Forest Service has partially unveiled a new plan that would give the public more voice when it comes to the government agency managing federal land.

The plan was discussed at the For the Forest symposium held Friday at the Aspen Institute. Harris Sherman, the Department of Agriculture’s under secretary, and Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, didn’t provide full details but said it’s a much-needed overhaul on a plan that hasn’t been updated for nearly three decades.

The plan, which was announced Feb. 10, would replace the current one, established in 1982. It would allow for adaptive planning in the face of climate change and other stressors, according to officials.

By constantly assessing federal lands with current information, management can be done more frequently and efficiently, said Sherman. One goal is for the revision process to take three years instead of the current five years, he added.

“It really incorporates 21st century planning concepts,” he said. “We think we’ll be saving money and time.”

The plan also focuses on increasing requirements for public involvement and providing more protections for water resources and stressed plant and animal species.

Fitzwilliams approved of the plan’s goal of efficiency and community collaboration, citing the slow response to the 6,000 acres of dead forest that have occurred suddenly in the White River National Forest as an example of a failure in the current system.

“This [new plan] is going to set us up for changes that we are experiencing right here,” he said.

Other speakers featured at the symposium were Jim Worall and Linda Joyce of the U.S. Forest Service, and Werner Kurz of the Canadian Forest Service.

Experts took turns giving 15-minute presentations on the state of Western forests. The speakers then had a brief question and answer session with Renee Montagne from National Public Radio as moderator.

Although topics presented ranged from the sudden decline of 1.1 million Aspen trees in national forests to their role in carbon sequestration, an overiding theme of doom and gloom permeated throughout the day. Presenters talked about the declining health of forests as a result of disease, climate change and human influence.

“There wasn’t much good news in anything that any of you have said,” said Montagne addressing the first group of speakers. “What can be done?”

“That is really one of the toughest questions because I don’t think anyone knows,” said Worall.

Most, if not all of the speakers broached the topic of climate change apolitically — not arguing its existence, but approaching it from a scientific perspective of cause and effect.

“I probably don’t have to convince anyone in the room that climate change is happening already,” commented Philip J. van Mantgem of the U.S. Geological Survey in his presentation on increasing tree mortality rates.

Although more problems were raised than solutions, the idea of doing nothing about suffering forests was rejected by both the speakers and the audience when an individual raised the topic during a question and answer session.

“Letting Mother Nature work itself out is a possibility,” said Kurz. “But we’re probably not the ones who will pay the highest price. I have a hard time letting it ride out with a straight face.”