04/24/2024 - Student Work

Addressing Wildfire Risks in our National Forests: USFS’s Proposed Amendment to National Forest Land Management Plans

by Spencer Weiser, JD 2026


On December 20, 2023, the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (Forest Service) announced plans to amend all 128 national forest land management plans (LMPs) to “conserve and steward existing and recruit future old-growth forest.”[1] If finalized as proposed, the amended LMPs would effectively prohibit logging old-growth trees in national forests for solely economic reasons, among other management activities.[2] The amendments would also require each forest unit or units[3] to create an “Adaptive Strategy for Old-Growth Forest Conservation” within two years to supplement existing plans and create “consistency in old-growth management”.[4] The amendment also seeks to establish a “clear role” for Indigenous Knowledge and Tribal leadership in stewarding old-growth forests, including enabling co-stewardship of forest resources with Tribes and Alaska Native corporations, and establishing a National Old-Growth Monitoring Network to track trends and distributions of old-growth forests.[5]

Comments on the Forest Service’s proposal were due February 2, 2024.[6] The Forest Service plans to issue a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) of the proposed amendment by May 2024, followed by a 90-day public comment period, with the final EIS anticipated in January 2025.[7]

In this paper, I describe the Biden administration’s strategy to address wildfire and related health risks, explain how the Forest Service uses LMPs to manage national forests, and break down the agency’s proposed changes to those LMPs. I also highlight how the proposed amendment seeks to support self-determination for Tribal Nations and briefly explain how these efforts intersect with a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule to account for wildfire-related emissions under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

Wildfire and Forest Management under the Biden Administration

In January 2022, the Forest Service released the Wildfire Crisis Strategy Report that stated the risk of extreme wildfires is at a “crisis proportion.”[8] The Forest Service identified a need for more fuel treatment (thinning trees, prescribed burns, and pruning), but also a need for “healthier, more resilient forests” to reduce the risk of wildfires in the western US.[9]

In April 2022, the Biden administration issued Executive Order 14072[10], which laid out a national strategy to ensure “sustainable forest and land management” by responding to “wildfires” and “disturbances and chronic stress arising from climate impacts.”[11] EO 14072 also directed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior to develop an inventory of old-growth forests and the preceding growth stage, “mature forests”, on National Forest System lands and BLM lands respectively, and to “address threats to” those forests.[12]

In response, the Forest Service conducted an inventory of old-growth and mature forests on land managed by both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).[13] Old-growth forests were differentiated from mature forests based on factors including trees’ age, size, species type, and significant ecosystem functions.[14] In the inventory, the Forest Service explained that old-growth forests are “distinguished by their ecosystem services and social, cultural, and economic values” including “place-based meanings tied to cultural identity and heritage.”[15] The Forest Service concluded that 17% of the land they manage could be classified as old-growth and 47% as mature forest.[16]

Following the inventory, and as required under EO 14072, the Forest Service issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) seeking feedback, including Tribal consultation, on how the Forest Service should adapt current policies and management of forest lands to support climate resilience and ecological integrity.[17] The agency received over 92,000 comments in response to the ANPRM, which informed the proposed amendment.

These actions and the proposed amendment also support a recent interagency effort to address and mitigate wildfire risks. In November 2023, the USDA, Department of the Interior (DOI), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to protect the public from the health impacts of wildfires and implement land management practices to reduce the risk of large wildfires.[18] These efforts include identifying opportunities under the Clean Air Act to “accommodate greater use of prescribed fire”, and discussing forthcoming Clean Air Act rules to exclude air monitoring data influenced by wildfire and prescribed fire emissions.[19] I discuss one of these rules—EPA’s recently finalized rule for particulate matter (PM) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)—and its considerations of wildfire-related impacts, in the section below on Other Federal Wildlife Regulatory Activities.

Background on Land Management Plans

The Forest Service uses Land Management Plans to “guide management activities to balance resource use and support ecosystems” on each unit of land, including national forest, prairie, and grassland.[20] The National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA) gives the Forest Service the authority to develop and revise LMPs for the National Forest System.[23] NFMA requires the Forest Service to consider “physical, biological, economic, and other sciences” in its LMP process and mandates compliance with the Multiple-Use-Sustained-Yield Act (MUSY) of 1960.[24] Critically, NFMA also allows the Forest Service to identify lands “not suited for timber production.”[25]

Under NFMA, USDA has promulgated rules to “set out the process for the development and revision of the [LMPs].”[26] The current requirements for LMPs are prescribed in a 2012 planning rule which was amended in 2016.[27] Under this planning rule, USDA has broad discretion to amend LMPs “at any time” [28] provided those plans satisfy specific procedural requirements,[29] including the identification of a specific “need” to change the existing LMP(s),[30] and providing “opportunities for participation and notification,”[31] including public engagement “early and throughout the planning process.”[32]

The Forest Service’s Proposed Amendment

On December 20, 2023, the Forest Service announced plans to amend all 128 National Forest System land management plans to “include consistent direction to . . . foster the long-term resilience of old-growth forest conditions.”[33] The proposed amendment is designed to provide “consistent direction” for the protection of old-growth forest across the National Forest System, while allowing local conditions and knowledge, including Indigenous Knowledge, to guide the specific provisions of each LMP.

For each existing LMP, the proposed amendment would add new management standards for old-growth forest conditions, a new management approach, and a new guideline to “increase amounts and improve distributions and climate resilience of future old-growth forest conditions.”[34] The proposed amendment would not supplant approaches that more aggressively protect old-growth forests.[35] Thus the amendment seeks to standardize baseline protections while still allowing flexibility at the unit level.

The proposed amendment is also informed by the thousands of public comments received in repsonse to the Climate Resilience ANPRM described in the section above on Wildfire and Forest Management under the Biden Administration.[36] In the proposed amendment, USDA identified several potential areas of agreement among commenters: the value of preserving old-growth forest conditions; concerns related to dynamic “climate amplified stressors” such as drought, wildfires, insects, and disease; the need for a nationally coordinated strategy to conserve and recruit old-growth forest in Forest Service policy, including wildfire strategies; the need for monitoring to “inform adaptive management”; models for proactive stewardship and management based on best practices in recent Tribal co-stewardship agreements and other programs; and the need for place-based plans that use the best available scientific information, including Indigenous Knowledge.[37]

The proposed amendment builds on these areas of potential agreement in several ways. First, the proposed amendment would provide a new guideline for all forest units to “increase amounts and improve distributions and climate resilience of future old-growth forest conditions,”[38] and would apply to areas that are not currently old-growth, but “that have been identified . . . as a priority for the future . . . development of those conditions.”[39]

The proposed amendment would also add four new standards for vegetation management within old-growth forest.[40] Under these standards, vegetation management activities cannot “degrade or impair the . . . long-term persistence of old-growth forest conditions” and cannot “be for the primary purpose of growing, tending, harvesting or regeneration of trees for economic reasons.”[41] This standard thus would effectively prohibit cutting old-growth trees primarily for economic purposes. An “ecologically appropriate harvest [would be] permitted,” but only if that harvest does not affect the “long-term persistence” of old-growth conditions or is “for the purpose of proactive stewardship.”[42] These “proactive stewardship” activities include mitigating wildfire risk, protecting public health and safety, complying with other laws or regulations, or harvesting “for culturally significant uses.”[43]

These new standards, if finalized, would mark a significant change in how the Forest Service manages old-growth forests. 45 percent of old-growth land within the National Forest System is not currently protected from logging.[44] Under the proposed amendment, those lands would be subject to protections that prohibit logging for purely economic purposes, with limited exceptions as described above.

The proposed amendment would also require each plan or joint plan to include a new management approach “to direct the development of a place-based strategy.”[45] Key aspects of the new management approach include working with “local and indigenous communities,” “identify[ing] and prioritiz[ing] areas” based on “threats, stressors, and opportunities,” “establish[ing] target milestones,” and “develop[ing] . . . proactive climate-informed stewardship, conservation, and management approaches.”[46] The new management approach also focuses on “geographically relevant information about threats, stressors, and management opportunities” to locally tailor LMPs to fit the unique circumstances in each forest unit.[47]

Executive Order 14112 and Promoting Self-Determination for Tribal Nations

One week before the Forest Service published its proposed amendment, President Biden issued EO 14112, “Reforming Federal Funding and Support for Tribal Nations to Better Embrace our Trust Responsibilities and Promote the Next Era of Tribal Self-Determination”.[48] EO 14112 directs federal agencies to support Tribal self-determination and sovereignty,[49] including by “reducing administrative burdens and administering funding in a manner that provides Tribal Nations with the greatest possible autonomy to address the specific needs of their people.”[50] EO 14112 also requires agencies to “identify opportunities … to modify their respective regulations, internal and public-facing guidance . . . and policies to include responsiveness to and support for the needs of Tribal Nations” and “ensure that Federal programs … provide Tribal Nations with the flexibility to improve economic growth, address the specific needs of their communities, and realize their vision for their future.”[51]

While the Forest Service’s proposed amendment does not reference EO 14112, it advances many of the priorities and mandates under the EO. For example, the proposed management approach would direct units to “effectively braid place-based Indigenous Knowledge and Western science” into the proactive stewardship of old-growth forest.[52] The proposed amendment would also explicitly “enable co-stewardship, including for cultural burning, prescribed fire, and other activities … in consultation with Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations” and allow officials to make exceptions for harvests and other activities necessary for “culturally significant uses.”[53]

Other Federal Wildfire Regulatory Activities – EPA’s PM NAAQS Final Rule

As contemplated under the interagency MOU, EPA recently finalized regulations under the Clean Air Act that consider the contributions of wildfire and prescribed burns to air pollution. Wildfires degrade air quality; 44% of “primary emissions” of particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5) in the US are the result of wildfires, including prescribed burns.[54] Wildfires are “increas[ing] in size and severity” which will result in continued air quality impacts.[55] Unfortunately, an important tool in preventing damaging wildfires is an intentional fire, which still negatively impacts air quality.[56]

On March 6, 2024, EPA lowered the health-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM2.5[57] to reflect recent science demonstrating the damaging health impacts of PM2.5 exposure.[58] The rule also summarized EPA’s efforts to account for wildfire contributions to air pollution under its Exceptional Events Rule to ensure states aren’t unfairly penalized for air quality violations related to wildfires.[59]

Specifically, EPA indicated that the Exceptional Events Rule[60] will continue to be in effect, but that EPA will update related guidance “as needed . . . to facilitate more efficient processing of PM2.5-related exceptional events demonstrations.”[61] EPA also indicated that due to the “growing frequency and severity of wildfire events, and expected increases in … prescribed fire,” EPA will “explore opportunities to develop additional tools” to help “exceptional event demonstrations.”[62] These actions are in line with the recent MOU signed by EPA, DOI, USDA, and CDC to “accommodate greater use of prescribed fire” while enabling the exclusion of these events for air quality regulation purposes.[63]

EPA also responded to comments on the proposed PM NAAQS rule urging the agency to revise both the form and level of the primary PM10 (10 microns and smaller) standard to ease the burden of demonstrating exceptional events, including wildfires.[64] Specifically, commenters urged EPA to change the form (i.e., compliance threshold) of the PM10 standard for continuous monitors to the 99th percentile, averaged over three years. While EPA recognized that “it may be appropriate to exclude monitoring data influenced by ‘exceptional’ events” when making compliance designations, EPA cannot consider implementation costs when setting the NAAQS,[65] and changing the standard’s form without imposing a stricter threshold would result in more exceedances, and therefore reduced public health protections.[66] EPA also noted that it continues to develop tools and resources for air agencies to facilitate implementation, including EPA’s September 2016 guidance on exceptional event demonstrations for wildfires, and a subsequent guidance on exceptional event demonstrations for prescribed fires in August 2019.[67]

EPA included revisions to the agency’s Air Quality Index (AQI) to account for new studies on the health effects of wildfire smoke exposure.[68] EPA uses the AQI to report the daily degree of air pollution (including ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, PM, and sulfur dioxide) on a scale of 0 to 500 to help people gauge the health risks associated with exposure to air pollutants in their area in real time.[69] Based on these studies, EPA lowered the corresponding PM2.5 concentrations for the AQI’s “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” thresholds.[70] As a result, communities will be alerted about dangerous air quality events when PM2.5 concentrations hit these lower thresholds, including events caused by smoke from wildfires or prescribed fires.[71]

Next Steps

Public comments on the Forest Service’s proposed amendment closed on February 2, 2024.[72] The Forest Service plans to issue a draft EIS assessing the environmental impacts of adopting the proposed amendment by May 2024, followed by a 90-day comment period.[73] The draft EIS will assess a range of alternatives including a no-action alternative (i.e., no changes to the existing LMPs). The Forest Service plans to issue the final EIS in January 2025.[74]

We will continue to monitor the proposed amendment and related actions. For more information on EPA’s PM NAAQS rule, visit our Regulatory Tracker page.


[1] Land Management Plan Direction for Old-Growth Conditions Across the National Forest System, 88 Fed. Reg. 88042, 88042 (Dec. 20, 2023), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2023/12/20/2023-27875/land-management-plan-direction-for-old-growth-forest-conditions-across-the-national-forest-system.

[2] Id. at 88047.

[3] Under the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, as amended, the National Forest System consists of “units of federally owned forest, range, and related lands throughout the United States and its territories…” 16 U.S.C. § 1609(a). These units include national forest, national grassland, land utilization projects, research and experimental areas, national preserve, “purchase units” designated by USDA for Weeks Law acquisition, and other areas. Each NSF Land Unit has a four-digit National Forest Fiscal Identifier (NFFID) code, used for accounting purposes. Download National Datasets, USDA Forest Service (last visited April 23, 2024), https://data.fs.usda.gov/geodata/edw/datasets.php?xmlKeyword=National+Forest+System+Land+Units.

[4] Land Management Plan Direction, 88 Fed. Reg. at 88045.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 88042.

[7] Id.

[8] USDA Forest Service, FS-1187a, Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests, 13 (2022), https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fs_media/fs_document/Confronting-the-Wildfire-Crisis.pdf.

[9] Id. at 22.

[10] Exec. Order No. 14072, Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies, 87 Fed. Reg. 24851, 24851 (Apr. 22, 2022).

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 24852.

[13] USDA Forest Service, FS-1215a, Mature and Old-Growth Forests: Definition, Identification, and Initial Inventory on Lands Managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (2023), https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/mature-and-old-growth-forests-tech.pdf.

[14] The inventory further describes working definitions of old-growth and mature forests that were used in calculating the distribution of each forest type. Id. at 5.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 6. The Forest Service also found that 24% of BLM lands are old-growth, and 37% as mature forest. Id.

[17] Organization, Functions, and Procedures; Functions and Procedures; Forest Service Functions, 88 Fed. Reg. 24497, 24502 (Apr. 21, 2023) (codified as 36 C.F.R. 200), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2023/04/21/2023-08429/organization-functions-and-procedures-functions-and-procedures-forest-service-functions .

[18] Interagency MOU signed Nov. 8, 2023 on “Wildland Fire and Air Quality Coordination”, https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/usda-epa-doi-cdc-mou.pdf.

[19] Id. at 3.

[20] USDA Forest Service, Land Management Plans, https://www.Forest Service.usda.gov/about-agency/emc/lmp/land-management-plans (last visited Mar. 20, 2024).

[23] 16 U.S.C. § 1604(a), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCODE-2022-title16/pdf/USCODE-2022-title16-chap36-subchapI-sec1604.pdf

[24] 16 U.S.C. § 1604(b); 16 U.S.C. § 1604(e)(1). MUSY established that forests under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service be used for “outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes” under a framework of “multiple use and sustained yield.” Sustained yield is defined as “the achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of a high level annual or regular periodic output of the various renewable resources of the national forests without impairment of the productivity of the land.” 16 U.S.C. § 528.

[25] 16 U.S.C. § 1604(k).

[26] 16 U.S.C. § 1604(g).

[27] 36 C.F.R. § 219.13. https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-36/chapter-II/part-219/subpart-A/section-219.13#p-219.13(b)(1)

[28] 36 C.F.R. § 219.13(a).

[29] Id. These requirements include issuing a “preliminary identification” of the need to change a plan, providing an opportunity for public participation, ensuring consistency with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and relevant policies, and including specific plan components. Id.; 36 C.F.R. § 219.7(e).

[30] 36 C.F.R. § 219.13(b)(1).

[31] 36 C.F.R. § 219.13(b)(2).

[32] 36 C.F.R. § 219.16.

[33] Land Management Plan Direction for Old-Growth Conditions Across the National Forest System, 88 Fed. Reg. 88042, 88042 (Dec. 20, 2023), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2023/12/20/2023-27875/land-management-plan-direction-for-old-growth-forest-conditions-across-the-national-forest-system.

[34] Id. at 88048.

[35] Id. at 88045.

[36] Organization, Functions, and Procedures, 88 Fed. Reg. at 24502.

[37] Land Management Plan Direction, 88 Fed. Reg. at 88044.

[38] Id. at 88048.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at 88047.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Anna Phillips, Biden moves to ban most old-growth logging in national forests, Washington Post (Dec. 19, 2023), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/12/19/old-growth-logging-forest-service/.

[45] Land Management Plan Direction, 88 Fed. Reg. at 88045.

[46] Id.

[47] Id. at 88047

[48] Exec. Order No. 14412, Reforming Federal Funding and Support for Tribal Nations To Better Embrace Our Trust Responsibilities and Promote the Next Era of Tribal Self-Determination, 88 Fed. Reg. 86021, (Dec. 6, 2023).

[49] Id. at 86022.

[50] Id.

[51] Id. at 86024–25.

[52] Land Management Plan Direction, 88 Fed. Reg. at 88047.

[53] Id.

[54] Wildland Fire, Air Quality, and Public Health Considerations Fact Sheet, 1 (2024), https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2024-02/pm-naaqs-wildland-fire-air-quality-fact-sheet-final.pdf. “Primary” emissions of PM2.5 are those emissions that are directly emitted as solid or liquid particles, while “secondary” PM2.5 is formed by chemical reactions in the atmosphere. What is PM?, EPA Region 1 (last visited Apr. 23, 2024), https://www3.epa.gov/region1/airquality/pm-what-is.html.

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] Reconsideration of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter, 89 Fed. Reg. 16202, 16202 (Mar. 6, 2024).

[58] Id. at 16203.

[59] Id. at 16367.

[60] The Exceptional Events Rule is a 2016 rule that allows for the “exclusion” of air quality data affected by wildfires and prescribed fires. Treatment of Data Influenced by Exceptional Events, 81 Fed. Reg. 68216, 68216 (2016).

[61] Reconsideration of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, 89 Fed. Reg at 16214.

[62] Id. at 16367

[63] Interagency MOU signed Nov. 8, 2023 on “Wildland Fire and Air Quality Coordination”, https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/usda-epa-doi-cdc-mou.pdf.

[64] Reconsideration of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, 89 Fed. Reg at 16298.

[65] Id.; Whitman v. Am. Trucking Assoc., 531 U.S. 457, 471 (2001).

[66] Reconsideration of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, 89 Fed. Reg at 16298.

[67] Id.

[68] Id. at 16301-02.

[69] Id. at 16301–02.

[70] Id. at 16303–06.

[71] EPA, Final Rule to Strengthen the National Air Quality Health Standard for Particulate Matter Fact Sheet, 4 (2024), https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2024-02/pm-naaqs-overview.pdf.

[72] Land Management Plan Direction, 88 Fed. Reg. at 88042.

[73] Id.

[74] Id. at 88045.