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National Forest Planning Rule Revision

Forest management can be contentious, creating passionate advocates with conflicting goals. With Meridian’s support, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a revised National Forest Planning Rule that set the stage for future forest management plan revisions.

U.S. Forest Service Management Plans are vital to communities that live near and depend upon national forests. The regulations within those plans are guided by the National Forest Planning Rule, which also determines the process for periodically revising every national forest’s management plan. Altogether, the plans impact recreation, environmental protection, wildlife management, economic opportunity, and more—matters which elicit passionate, often conflicting viewpoints.

As a result, forest management plan revisions can be full of contention. However, they pale in comparison to the challenge of revising the National Forest Planning Rule itself. Meridian took on that challenge in 2012, when we designed and managed the stakeholder engagement component of the revision process. We organized public forums across the country, carefully documenting over 3,000 comments from people who care deeply about how their forests are managed. We then worked closely with the Forest Service to sort, analyze, and condense the multitude of ideas and suggestions.

This was one of many attempts to revise the rule over 30 years. Whereas previous efforts had been stalled, abandoned, and legally challenged from public opposition, ours broke the pattern: our stakeholder engagement process led to a revised National Forest Planning Rule, adopted in 2012, that now serves as the basis for National Forest Plan revisions across the United States. In recognition of our work, Meridian was awarded the Udall Foundation’s 2012 Environmental Collaboration and Conflict Resolution Award.

Revising the Flathead National Forest Management Plan

Soon after the National Forest Planning Rule was revised, it was time to translate it into practice. Meridian faced intense local contention when we helped Montana’s Flathead National Forest revise its management plan in 2013 and 2014—the first management plan in the country to apply the revised rule. Through our skillful mediation, we brought community members together to address long-standing conflicts that had divided the region for decades.

To gain public buy-in, the revised forest plan needed to confront deep-rooted disagreement. The issue largely resolved around use and access. One community strongly advocated for more wilderness protection; snowmobilers looked for expanded access for motorized vehicles; industry stakeholders sought increased extractive opportunities. We designed and managed an intensive two-year process that ensured these perspectives were heard, successfully channeling them into concrete solutions.

This outcome relied upon Meridian’s genuinely participatory, deliberative engagement process. Our skilled mediation team had deep knowledge about forest management issues. We conducted in-depth stakeholder interviews to inform our public engagement strategy; facilitated contentious public workshops in a way that opened doors to solutions-oriented discussions; and partnered with Forest Service officials to provide accessible, fact-based materials to the public. Our work directly informed the details of Flathead’s new Management Plan, but also proved the efficacy of the revised National Forest Planning Rule. It has since served as a model for efficient, inclusive stakeholder engagement in other revision processes across the United States.