The Politics of Accountability in National Forest Planning

Published date01 March 2005
Date01 March 2005
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17BhXUhiHW1WcL/input ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / March 2005
Ohio University
On December 6, 2002, the Forest Service published a proposed planning regulation that pro-
vides a framework for community-based collaborative planning for sustainability, alters the
spatial and temporal scales of public involvement, and replaces postdecisional appeals of
forest plans with a predecisional objection process. This article examines the potential ef-
fects of community-based collaborative planning on national environmental stakeholders
and explores what it means to be accountable to a national constituency. The author argues
that the focus on the community of place in collaborative planning, compounded by the loss
of appeals, undermines the democratic accountability of the forest planning processes.
Keywords: democratic accountability; forest service; collaborative planning; land man-
agement planning; community-based planning; environmentalists; appeals;
grassroots ecosystem management
On December 6, 2002, the Forest Service published proposed rules that
alter the spatial and temporal scales of public involvement (Floyd, 1999)
in forest planning. The proposed rules for National Forest System Land
and Resource Management Planning lay out a framework for community-
based collaborative planning for sustainability (Office of the Federal Reg-
ister, 2002). To facilitate collaborative planning, the proposed rules re-
place postdecisional appeals of land and resource management plans with
a predecisional objection process.1
Viewing appeals as an instrument of democratic accountability, this
article explores the ramifications of the Forest Service’s collaborative
planning policy. The analysis focuses on the potential effects of
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful and
detailed comments helped to strengthen this article.
ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY, Vol. 37 No. 1, March 2005 57-88
DOI: 10.1177/0095399704272401
© 2005 Sage Publications

community-based collaborative planning on national environmental
stakeholders and explores what it means to be accountable to a national
constituency. I argue that the nature and politics of community-based col-
laborative planning, compounded by the elimination of postdecisional
appeals, undermines the democratic accountability of the forest planning
Forest Service officials, some members of Congress, and certain inter-
est groups have been concerned about the effects of appeals on the agency
and on land management for many years.3 Appeals processing is viewed
as a costly, confrontational, procedurally onerous, and time-consuming
endeavor that diverts resources from on-the-ground management
(Baldwin, 1997; Office of the Federal Register, 2000). It is argued that the
legalistic nature of the appeals process contributes to “analysis paralysis,”
causing agency officials to try to “bulletproof” environmental documenta-
tion (U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, 2002). And recently,
it has been alleged that appeals are preventing the implementation of vital
fuel load reduction projects in dangerously fire-prone forests (The For-
estry Source, 2002). Across the years, there also have been allegations
made by both agency officials and external political actors that the appeals
process has been abused (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1988).4
The report prepared by the Committee of Scientists5 (U.S. Department
of Agriculture, 1999) and the planning regulation promulgated during the
Clinton administration (Office of the Federal Register, 2000) offer three
additional problems associated with appeals specific to the Forest Ser-
vice’s current emphasis on community-based collaborative planning for
sustainability. First, it is argued that because the appeals process requires
the reviewing officer to maintain independence and distance from the
deciding officers, the process isolates decision makers from one another
when internal discussion would be helpful (U.S. Department of Agricul-
ture, 1999). Second, it is argued that the appeals process inhibits multi-
agency collaboration. Given that the new rule’s emphasis on sustainability
requires planning on an ecosystem basis, it is expected that the Forest Ser-
vice will work with a variety of federal agencies. According to the Com-
mittee of Scientists, “Currently, the Forest Service regulations (36 CFR

Part 215 and Part 217) create barriers to collaboration with other federal
agencies” (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999, p. 137). Moreover,
the fact that appeals processes are not consistent across federal agencies
with regard to timing and approach is problematic for ecosystem-based
Third, and most central to this analysis, it is argued that the traditional
appeals process undermines the agency’s efforts to involve stakeholders
in early collaboration and problem solving. It is thought that the existence
of an appeals process gives many stakeholders little incentive to partici-
pate in the early stages of planning (before decisions are made). The For-
est Service also asserts that the threat of appeals impedes local-level col-
laboration in that interested participants may be reluctant to invest in
collaborative processes if they fear that their efforts will be frustrated by
appeals (U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, 2002).6 And it is
argued that the structure of the appeals process encourages the develop-
ment of adversarial relationships, which inhibit substantive problem solv-
ing (Office of the Federal Register, 2000).7
Modeled after the Bureau of Land Management’s protest process
(Office of the Federal Register, 2002), the proposed planning regulation
provides a framework for community-based collaborative planning. The
objective of the rule is to encourage stakeholders to participate throughout
the planning process, before final decisions are made. The Forest Service
anticipates that early and continuous involvement in the planning process
will lead to greater trust in the agency, more widely accepted decisions,
less need for appeals, and, in the long run, less litigation.
Although the Forest Service hopes that collaborative planning will
enable agency officials to address controversial issues early in the process,
the agency recognizes that it is not possible or desirable to eliminate con-
flict from the equation. However, to avoid the problems associated with
appeals, the proposed planning regulation replaces the traditional appeals
process with a “predecisional objection process” (36 CFR part 219.19). If
differences cannot be resolved in the early stages of planning, individuals
can file an objection. Objections must contain “a concise statement
explaining how the environmental disclosure documents, if any, and pro-
posed plan, amendment, or revision are inconsistent with law, regulation,
Executive order, or policy and any recommendations for change” (Office
of the Federal Register, 2002, p. 72804). The reviewing officer’s written
response to an objection represents the final decision of the Department of
Agriculture (Office of the Federal Register, 2002).8

Radin and Romzek (1996) assert, “few issues are as fundamental in the
American political system as that of accountability” (p. 60). Yet Weber
(1999) has argued, “With few exceptions, the question of democratic
accountability . . . has been lost in the enthusiasm for these new collabora-
tive governing efforts” (p. 452) Thus, to understand the potential implica-
tions of eliminating appeals, we need to examine appeals, collaborative
forest planning, and objections in the broader landscape of democratic
Although Romzek and Dubnick (1987) have described accountability
as “a fundamental but underdeveloped concept in American public
administration,” there are numerous definitions of accountability in the
public administration literature (p. 228). Romzek and Dubnick (1998,
p. 6) define accountability as “a relationship in which an individual or
agency is held to answer for performance that involves some delegation of
authority to act” (p. 6). Weber (2003) describes accountability as “a sys-
tem, or set of mechanisms, designed to make sure promises are kept,
duties are performed, and compliance is forthcoming” (p. 11). Dubnick
(1998) offers a multifaceted view of accountability that incorporates lia-
bility, answerability, responsibility, responsiveness, obligation, obedi-
ence, fidelity, and amenability.9
Bardach and Lesser (1996) contribute to our understanding of account-
ability by differentiating between accountability to whom and account-
ability for what. As they explain, “It is also misleading to think only about
the accountability to aspect of an accountability system, as when some
agent is accountable to his principal. What the agent is accountable for is
also part of the system of accountability” (p. 200). Behn (2001) adds
another layer of complexity by adding, “accountable how?” (p. 62). In
other words, what are the appropriate mechanisms to achieve democratic
The U.S. General Accounting Office (1995) observed, “Accountabil-

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