If you follow Outdoor Alliance on social media you may have noticed we’ve been talking about the Southern Sierra quite a bit lately. This is because the three National Forests in this area – the Inyo, Sierra, and Sequoia – are in the midst of revising their long-term management plans. The plan revision process is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the public to influence the future of these forests and we’ve been working to make sure the outdoor recreation community is involved. Almost 600 recreationists sent comments to the Forest Service, which is incredible. Outdoor Alliance has also weighed in with official comments.
Together, the Inyo, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forests cover nearly 4.6 million acres of public land in the Southern Sierra, including Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, the Kern River, the Needles climbing area, the Buttermilks, and some of the wildest, most dramatic sections of the world-famous Pacific Crest Trail. These three forests offer some of the best alpine climbing, bouldering, backcountry skiing, whitewater boating, mountain biking, trail running, and backpacking in the world, all within a short drive of the largest and fastest-growing population centers in the West.
The Forest Service is in the final stages of planning for how it will manage these areas for the next 20-30 years. At stake are things like recreation access, infrastructure development and maintenance, trails, scenic viewsheds, permitting for guides, outfitters and educational groups, wilderness designations, and the possibility of new scenarios for stewardship and forest partnerships. In addition, all of this is happening under a new regulation governing how forest plans are written. As “early-adopters” of the new planning rule, these forests will set the tone and framework for upcoming planning on other forests in California and across the country.
The comment period closed on Thursday but over the last couple of months Outdoor Alliance has met with Forest Service officials from the local to regional level, worked with partner organizations and our members to analyze how the draft plans would impact recreation opportunities and brainstorm ideas for improving the plans, and hosted workshops to help people get involved and write their own comments. In the end, our efforts centered on a few main points. Read our entire comment here.
Although the draft plans are a step in the right direction insofar as recognizing the value these forests have for recreation opportunities and promoting partnerships with local and national stakeholders to improve and steward recreation resources, we want to see the Forest Service make a bigger leap.
In our advocacy and comments on the draft plans we have asked that the Forest Service do more to integrate recreation management with other aspects of forest management. The new planning rule directs forests to move away from the traditional “silo” approach where different aspects of forest management happen in a vacuum and instead think more holistically. For example, while the draft plans classify each area of each forest into different “recreation opportunity spectrum” (ROS) settings that describe the desired level of development and motorized access from primitive to rural, the draft plans fail to connect the dots between these desired conditions and how the Forest Service is supposed to manage fire, or grazing, or any other use.
We asked that the final plans do more to explain what the different settings and characteristics for each ROS category are and include specific plan components that say how different uses should be managed to fit within the ROS setting for any particular area.
Likewise, while the draft plans contain some good “desired conditions” that set worthy goals for managing recreation sustainably, they don’t contain much in the way of specific steps each forest will take to achieve these goals. As part of our comments we recommended specific plan components we believe will help the Forest Service move from point A to point B.
Our biggest ask for the Forest Service is that they hit the pause button. The Forest Service didn’t finish reading and integrating the public’s comments from the last comment period before they published this draft and asked for additional comment. Right now the draft plans contain about 80% of the information they should and are missing key components such as a complete wild and scenic river inventory, or a winter-specific recreation opportunity spectrum. We, and many others, want the Forest Service to take the time to add these elements into a supplemental draft, and give the public a chance to review and comment on it, before charging ahead to the final plan. Although everybody is excited for the Forest Service to implement a new vision for the Southern Sierra, it’s well worth taking an extra few months to make sure the final plan is solid.