A land management plan for Sequoia National Forest is officially complete, Forest Supervisor Teresa Benson said on Friday. The plan has been in the works since 2012 and replaces a plan approved in 1988.
The Record of Decision for the plan was published in the Federal Register on Friday, and the plan will take effect 30 days after publication. The ROD for the new plan for Sierra National Forest — developed in concert with the Sequoia plan — was also published on Friday.
Sequoia National Forest covers 1.1 million acres of Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties and includes the 328,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument created by President Bill Clinton in 2000. However, the forest plan doesn't apply to the monument, which the agency manages with a plan approved in 2012.
A Forest Service land management plan is much like a general plan for a city or county, intended to be strategic — establishing not just the overall desired conditions of a national forest but also the general direction for achieving those conditions. The forest plan sets the stage for future actions and decisions and is prepared along with an environmental impact statement meeting the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The revised plans are strategic guidance documents that will be used to address the challenges of managing complex ecosystems for all forest users over the next 20 years, Benson said. Each plan was developed alongside government, tribal and public groups with an interest in these forests.
“These revised forest plans will guide the work we do with partners, Tribes and stakeholders for years to come,” she added. “With the plans as our foundation, we can work together to make our forests and communities more resilient.”
According to a news release issued Friday by the two national forests, the plans address wildfire risk, forest health, recreation and wildlife habitat.
“In support of the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, the plans promote working with partners to create fire-resilient ecosystems and communities through mechanical treatments, strategic use of fire, and cooperative initiatives across land ownerships,” the agency said. “Ongoing work to improve forest conditions under the revised plans could add approximately 450 more jobs and produce an annual labor income of about $210 million dollars across both forests within five counties of California.”
SQF last completed a forest plan in 1988, followed by the 1990 Mediated Settlement Agreement, intended to settle disagreements about that plan.
The establishment of the Giant Sequoia National Monument in April 2000 changed the course for land within that territory. But it took two tries and litigation before the current plan to manage that land was released in September 2012.
Earlier that year, the Forest Service instituted a new planning rule, and SQF teamed up with neighboring Sierra and Inyo National Forests to update their land management plans. In 2016 the three forests issued a joint draft environmental impact statement and intended to move forward to the next stages in the planning process.
But by 2019, it was clear the environment on the Sequoia and Sierra forests had changed considerably due to wildfire, beetle infestation and climate change. Inyo completed its forest plan in 2019, and the other two forests assessed the impact of drought and wildfire, resulting in draft plans released last summer.
“One of the most striking outcomes of these changing environmental conditions is tree mortality,” Benson said at the time. “Scientists estimate that there are now approximately 60.2 million dead trees in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests killed by drought, insects and diseases. Projections are that tree mortality will continue and potentially worsen over the coming decade.”
In the ROD released on Friday, Benson described three major topics addressed in the plan — fire management, ecological integrity and sustainable recreation and designated areas.
Benson called attention to a number of key elements of the plan:
• Recognition of Native American needs and viewpoints and emphasis on fostering robust relationships with federally and non-federally recognized Tribes and related groups.
• Encourages application of a variety of strategies and tools to increase the use of private, public, and Tribal partnerships and volunteers.
• Identification of four strategic fire management zones based on a fire risk analysis including a community wildfire protection zone (70,003 acres), general wildfire protection zone (60,492 acres), wildfire restoration zone (211,379 acres), and wildfire maintenance zone (469,170 acres). Emphasizes an increase in pace and scale of management and managing naturally ignited wildfires to meet resource objectives where safe to do so.
• Establishes plan content for the management of wildlife habitat that considers both the threat posed by large and severe wildfires, as well as the potential near-term risks to some species from forest management actions designed to increase resilience to future wildfires.
• Establishes a wildlife habitat management area (227,375 acres) and associated plan components to conserve old-forest-dependent species, including California spotted owl, fisher, marten, great gray owl, and northern goshawk, and includes clarified direction for managing post-disturbance landscapes in the wildlife habitat management area.
• Maintains riparian conservation areas and establishes conservation watersheds (381,257 acres) and associated plan components to protect and restore aquatic and riparian habitat, and conserve aquatic at-risk species.
• Identification of 88 segments on 48 rivers, streams, and creeks (363.8 miles), located in both the Sequoia National Forest plan area and the Giant Sequoia National Monument as eligible for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic Rivers System and plan components associated with their management.
• Recommendation of one area for the National Wilderness Preservation System: Monarch Wilderness Addition — South (4,734 acres) within the Giant Sequoia National Monument, contiguous with the existing designated Monarch Wilderness.
• Identification of three distinct recreation management areas that focus management where it's most needed and manages recreation based on an area’s distinct desired conditions, such as high concentration versus low density. These include destination recreation areas (25,380 acres), general recreation areas (207,7186 acres), and backcountry terrain recreation areas (270,654 acres).
• Identification of desired recreation opportunity spectrum classes. Existing travel management decisions, as reflected on the Sequoia National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map, specifically motorized trails within areas classified as semi-primitive non-motorized, may proceed unchanged per FSH 1909.12 Chapter 23.23l.
• Establishes a management area for the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (20,896 acres) that includes the area that's visible from the trail’s centerline, extending up to one-half mile from the centerline on each side of the trail. Includes plan components for the management area outside of designated wilderness, as well as inside of designated wilderness.
• As required by the National Forest Management Act, the suitability of lands for timber production was evaluated.
Benson noted it's important to note timber harvest as a management tool to achieve desired conditions isn't constrained by what areas were determined to be suitable for timber production.
The planning process started in 2012 and was rebooted in 2021, and the Forest Service held many public meetings prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February 2021, the agency mailed an update to more than 25,000 contacts outlining major plan revisions and a draft decision for pre-decisional administrative review was released in June 2022. The purpose of that review is to allow those who participated in a formal public comment to have their unresolved concerns reviewed prior to a final decision.
A series of newsletters were published from February through June 2022 and virtual public meetings were held in July 2022 prior to the end of the objection process.
The reviewing officer for the forest plan decisions, Deputy Regional Forester Jody Holzworth received 27 eligible objections, and a team of resource managers and specialists convened last December in Visalia. Written responses were provided for each and a number of related changes were made before issuance of the final plan.
END OF AN ERA
Completion of the new forest plan also means an official end to the 1990 Mediated Settlement Agreement reached administrative appeals over the 1988 forest plan. Parties to the agreement included the state of California, the Tule River Tribe, environmental, recreation and business organizations and timber interests.
The MSA provided guidance and interim management direction for SQF pending formal consideration of certain proposed plan amendments. While largely addressed in the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework and the 2012 Giant Sequoia National Monument Management Plan decisions, some remaining agreements in the Mediated Settlement Agreement were considered during preparation of the FEIS and forest plan, Benson said, to the extent those topics were still appropriately addressed in forest plan revision.
The MSA was also considered in the development of the management plan for the Monument.
With the adoption of a new forest plan, the MSA is terminated, the ROD notes.
More information is available online at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=3375&exp=overview.