Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement

DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Forest Service

Region 5 and Region 6; California, Oregon, and Washington; Forest Plan Amendment for Planning and Management of Northwest Forests within the Range of the Northern Spotted Owl

AGENCY: Forest Service, Agriculture (USDA).  

ACTION: Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

SUMMARY: The Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest Regions of the USDA, Forest Service are proposing to amend the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP). The amendment would apply to those Forest Service units, or parts thereof, with land management plans amended in 1994 by the NWFP or with land management plans developed later to include provisions of the NWFP.  Units in the Pacific Northwest Region (Region 6) include: Deschutes National Forest, Fremont-Winema National Forest, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Mt. Hood National Forest, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Olympic National Forest, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Siuslaw National Forest, Umpqua National Forest, and Willamette National Forest. Units in the Pacific Southwest Region (Region 5) include: Klamath National Forest and Butte Valley National Grassland, Lassen National Forest, Mendocino National Forest, Modoc National Forest, Six Rivers National Forest, and Shasta-Trinity National Forest. This notice initiates a scoping period on a preliminary proposed action and advises the public that the Forest Service is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to evaluate the effects of amending the Northwest Forest Plan. The agency will refine the proposed action considering comments received from the public and recommendations from the Northwest Forest Plan Area Federal Advisory Committee.

DATES: Comments concerning the scope of the analysis are most valuable to the Forest Service if received by February 2, 2024. The draft EIS is expected in June 2024 and will be accompanied by a 90-day comment period. The final EIS is expected to be available for review in October 2024. These dates are subject to changes in the project schedule. The dates and times of webinars that will be scheduled to share more information on the Northwest Forest plan and potential proposed actions can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r6/landmanagement/planning/?cid=fsbdev2_026990.

ADDRESSES: Individuals and entities are encouraged to submit comments via webform at 

https://cara.fs2c.usda.gov/Public//CommentInput?Project=64745. Hardcopy letters must be submitted to the following address: Regional Forester, U.S. Forest Service, 1220 SW 3rd Ave., Portland, OR 97204. For those submitting hand-delivered comments, please call 971-260-7808 to make arrangements.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Dennis Dougherty, Planning Portfolio Supervisor, via email at sm.fs.nwfp_faca@usda.gov or at 541-519-0154. Individuals who use telecommunication devices for the deaf and hard of hearing (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339, 24 hours a day, every day of the year, including holidays. 

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background: On April 3, 1994, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior approved what is commonly referred to as the NWFP, an amendment to land management plans for National Forests, and resource management plans for lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), within the range of the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) (NSO) in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California (NWFP area). The NWFP provided management direction that was intended to conserve late successional and old growth forest ecosystems and associated species, including the NSO, marbled murrelet, and threatened and endangered at-risk anadromous fish, while providing a sustainable supply of timber and non-timber products to support and stabilize local and regional economies. 

In recent years, large, uncharacteristic wildfires have resulted in losses of mature and old growth forests eliminating gains achieved in the first 25 years of implementation of the NWFP. Research indicates that large wildfires, with impacts to mature and old growth forests and associated NSO habitat, will increase in frequency and extent in both the wetter and drier portions of forests within the NWFP area. Further, there is broad recognition that tribal involvement in the development of the 1994 NWFP was overlooked and that engaging tribes in addressing the challenges faced in the NWFP area is critical to success. 

Purpose. The purpose of the proposed action is to amend the NWFP to establish new or modify existing plan components for 17 affected national forests to better enable the agency to meet the original intent of the NWFP to conserve mature and old-growth ecosystems and habitat for the NSO and other species, protect riparian areas and waters, and provide a sustainable supply of timber and non-timber forest products. 

Need to Change. In preparing an amendment to the NWFP, the responsible official shall base an amendment on a preliminary identification of the need to change the plan (36 CFR 219.13(a)(1)). 

The preliminary need to change focuses on: improving fire resistance and resilience across the NWFP planning area; strengthening the capacity of NWFP ecosystems to adapt to the ongoing effects of climate change; improving conservation and recruitment of mature and old-growth forest conditions; ensuring adequate habitat for species dependent upon mature and old growth ecosystems and supporting regional biodiversity; incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into planning, project design, and implementation to achieve forest management goals and meet the agency’s general trust responsibilities; and providing a predictable supply of timber and non-timber products and other economic opportunities to support the long-term sustainability of communities located proximate to National Forest System lands and economically connected to forest resources.

Proposed Action.  To strengthen the NWFP to meet its objectives, the Forest Service seeks to amend the 1994 action to:

  • Improve fire resistance and resilience by clarifying direction for employing prescribed fire, managed fire use associated with natural ignitions, cultural burning, and active management. Improved fire resilience will meet the needs of the Endangered Species Act, support the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, and strengthen relationships between the agency and Tribal Nations and Indigenous peoples.
  • Strengthen the capacity of NWFP ecosystems to adapt to the ongoing effects of climate change and to mitigate impacts of climate change. Deliberate focus on climate impacts is needed to help managers address key vulnerabilities of drought-related stress, increasing impacts of disease, insects and exotic species, negative impacts to forest cover, and watershed management strategies that improve conservation of fish habitat and stream flows.
  • Improve sustainability of mature and old growth ecosystems by providing plan direction to maintain and expand mature and old growth forest conditions and reduce loss risk across all land use allocations. 
  • Add plan direction incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into planning and plan implementation, including future project design, to identify and support tribal goals, achieve forest management goals and meet the agency’s trust responsibilities.
  • Support the long-term sustainability of communities located near National Forest System lands and those that are culturally and economically connected to forest resources. Clarity is needed regarding opportunities for timber and non-timber products, including from restoration activities.

Expected impacts are strong tribal inclusion, improved fire resilience, especially in mature and old growth forests, with associated improvements to habitat and biodiversity and supply of timber and non-timber products and economic opportunity from National Forest System Lands. Preliminary Alternatives.  A no-action alternative, which represents no change to existing management direction, will be analyzed in addition to the proposed action and will serve as the baseline for the comparison among action alternatives. Comments we receive in response to this notice of intent may identify additional alternatives. 

Responsible Official. The Responsible Officials for this amendment are the Regional Foresters of the Pacific Northwest Region and the Pacific Southwest Region.

Nature of the Decision to Be Made. The Responsible Officials will decide whether to approve one or more proposals to amend the NWFP to establish new or to modify existing plan components. Given the purpose and need of the amendment, the Responsible Officials will review alternatives and public comments, consider the environmental consequences, and document the finding in an environmental impact statement. The Responsible Officials will decide whether to select the proposed action, another alternative, or a combination of alternatives and base their decision on the preliminary need to change the plan.

Substantive Provisions. When proposing a Forest Plan amendment, the 2012 Planning Rule at 36 CFR 219.13(b)(2) requires the responsible official to provide notice of which substantive requirements of 36 CFR 219.8-219.11 are likely to be directly related to the amendment. Whether a Planning Rule provision is directly related to an amendment is determined by any one of the following: The purpose for the amendment, a beneficial effect of the amendment, a substantive adverse effect of the amendment, or a lessening of plan protections by the amendment (36 CFR 219.13(b)(5).  Based on those criteria, the substantive provisions that are likely to be directly related to the proposed amendments are: (1) 36 CFR 219.8(a)(1), ecosystem integrity; (2) 36 CFR 219.8(b), Social and economic sustainability; (3) 36 CFR 219.9(a), ecosystem plan components; (4) 36 CRF 219.10 (a)(5), Habitat conditions, subject to the requirements of § 219.9, for wildlife, fish, and plants commonly enjoyed and used by the public; for hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering, observing, subsistence, and other activities (in collaboration with federally recognized Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, other Federal agencies, and State and local governments); (5) 36 CFR 219.10 (a)(8), System drivers, including dominant ecological processes, disturbance regimes, and stressors, such as natural succession, wildland fire, invasive species, and climate change; and the ability of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the plan area to adapt to change (§ 219.8); (6) 36 CFR 219.10 (b)(1)(iii), Management of areas of tribal importance; and (7) 36 CFR 219.11(c), Timber harvest for purposes other than timber production.

Scoping Comments and the Objection Process  

This notice of intent initiates the scoping process. Comments submitted in response to this notice will be considered and will guide the development of the proposed amendment and draft environmental impact statement which will be accompanied by a 90-day comment period. In this scoping period, the Agency is requesting comments on potential alternatives and impacts, and identification of any relevant information, studies, or analyses concerning impacts that may affect the quality of the environment. It is important that reviewers provide their comments at such times and in such manner that they are useful to the agency’s preparation of the environmental impact statement. Therefore, comments should be provided prior to the close of the comment period and should clearly articulate the reviewer’s concerns and contentions. The agency is planning several webinars to share information about the Northwest Forest Plan and potential proposed actions. See DATES section above for a link to dates and times.

The proposed action is subject to the objection process identified in 36 CFR 219, Subpart B (219.50-219.62).  Commenting during the opportunity to comment provided by the Responsible Official as prescribed by the applicable regulations will establish eligibility to object once the final environmental impact statement and draft record of decision have been published. Only individuals or entities who submit substantive written comments during the designated comment periods will be eligible to participate in the objection process (36 CFR 219.53(a)). Substantive written comments should be within the scope of the proposed action, have a direct relationship to the proposed action, and include supporting reasons for the Responsible Official to consider. Comments submitted anonymously will be accepted and considered; however, they cannot be used to establish eligibility for the objection process. Comments received in response to this solicitation, including names (and addresses, if included) of those who comment, will be part of the public record for this proposed action.

This preliminary proposed action and other related documents are available for comment on the project website https://cara.fs2c.usda.gov/Public//CommentInput?Project=64745, and additional information regarding this proposal can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r6/landmanagement/planning/?cid=fsbdev2_026990.

Dated:

Troy Heithecker, 

Associate Deputy Chief, National Forest System.