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The Ashley National Forest Begins Revision Of Its Plan

The Ashley National Forest is finally starting the process to revise their forest plan. The forest has set a 5 year timeline and has promised an open and collaborative process. While we have met with them and discussed this in detail, and are hopeful, it is imperative the process be condensed and hastened because if it takes the full 5 years the extant Ashley National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan will be 23 years old! While we understand the predicament the Ashley has faced with the planning effort and process, the plan is now well beyond the legal life and scope for forest plans and treads on credibility.

This raises a serious question which we have noted numerous times and has usually and largely been ignored - what to do with an existing forest plan, nearly two decades old, that the forest readily acknowledges "has outlived its usefulness and relevance." It seems only wise to drastically reduce the projects that tier from the forest plan that, in particular, alter the character or allocation of land until a revision is complete.

We are also deeply concerned with portions of the focus dealing with backcountry, which is discussed early in the forest plan revision strategy packet. The strategy paper notes, "The Ashley is uniquely positioned to provide opportunities for primitive non-Wilderness backcountry recreation." Another section notes that the forest has the opportunity to provide for "that unique niche between developed recreation and the Wilderness experience." It also suggests that this backcountry experience may include "OHV (off- highway vehicles) recreation use."

This really isn't portrayed as a theme, but a desired future condition. The context of this is clear - the forest planning process seems to have already determined that wilderness recommendations will be profoundly limited in order to meet an already established desired condition, if not an outright goal or standard! Furthermore, the context of backcountry has been relegated to a recreational theme, seemingly ignoring any other ecological values these landscapes obviously harbor and that vehicular use is part and parcel of this backcountry experience. From the outset, the planning process in this case sets in motion decisions long before analysis and public review. It actually restricts the analysis to conclude a priori that the Ashley needs to delimit wilderness and look at wild landscapes to provide recreation for non-wilderness backcountry and OHV users.

The focus ought to be how to preserve the wild and backcountry character on the Ashley National Forest while meeting recreational concerns and assuring the undeveloped character is not significantly disturbed and ecological values are met. This recognizes the wide range of recreational conflicts and provides guidance as to how to analyze resolutions and define a desired condition around all values of backcountry/ undeveloped landscapes.

OHV's do not belong in undeveloped/backcountry areas by definition. The uniqueness of that landscape, however it is referenced, is lost the moment OHVs engage these areas. There is no disputation left in this discussionthe evidence is clear. If the goals are to expand OHVs into these areas it should be clearly noted by the forest that the intent is to further denigrate these wild/undeveloped regions.

This also reveals the concerns we have raised with the forest planning team that it is imperative the Ashley harbor some sort of focus/theme statement about assuring biodiversity/ ecological processes are important on the forest and the driving goal behind the forest plan. Without this the plan simply falls into a set of themes which are not connected to one another or to any overarching concerns. Backcountry simply becomes a recreational issue and not a broader landscape issue wherein recreation occurs.

This remains the problem inherent in the discussion on vegetation management. While the forest planning team suggests commodity outputs (timber) will become consequences rather than objectives, the emphasis in the Forest Plan Revision Strategy paper clearly notes the context of vegetation will be treatments/ management. The language of consequence versus objective is simply blurred into the same thing. The goal will be to treat vegetation, meaning forests, to provide outputs in one fashion or another. This is business as usual. The theme should be to restore forest integrity, structure and ecological process, which likely includes a strong non-treatment context, and then determine why treatments are necessary to meet those ecological/ biodiversity processes.

Dick Carter

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