National forest rules face controversial overhaul
What would be the first major overhaul since the Reagan administration of rules for planning the nation's 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands is entering the homestretch -- comments are now in, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is promising a final rule by the end of the year.
Yet considerable disagreement persists over how thoroughly the U.S. Forest Service should be planning to protect viable wildlife populations and watersheds that, originating deep in federal forests, provide half the water supply to residents of the West.
The Forest Service in its proposed new rules aims at an "adaptive land management" strategy that will allow managers of the nation's 155 national forests to adjust for impacts such as climate change and the need to use forests as resources for not only timber but recreation, water supply, wildlife habitat, mining, wilderness and as building blocks of entire ecosystems. The rules focus not just on timber harvest, but forest restoration.
"It's a positive framework that will allow the Forest Service to more effectively restore our natural resources, support the economy and adapt to changing conditions," Harris Sherman, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, said in announcing the proposed new rule in February.
Hundreds of conservationists, scientists and federal lawmakers have called the proposed new rules a big improvement but say it's crucial that the Forest Service go several steps further in spelling out protections for watersheds and wildlife to ensure that the national forest system remains a bulwark to guarantee healthy wildlife populations and clean water.
"We have always maintained that our federal lands, our public lands, should be the front lines of healthy landscapes. They should be the front line of species conservation," Jamie Rappaport Clark, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, now with the Defenders of Wildlife, told reporters in a briefing organized by the Pew Environment Group. "But the rule is actually far weaker than the almost 30-year-old rule it would replace."
Timber industry representatives, on the other hand, along with several local officials and a group of former Forest Service employees, say the proposed new rules amount to micromanaging from Washington, D.C., instead of giving forest managers across the country the room they need to effectively manage forests in their own communities.
Wildlife protection should be left up to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and instead the Forest Service should focus as it always has on maintaining healthy wildlife habitat, the National Assn. of Forest Service retirees said in its comments on the rules.
"Please install some safeguards in the rule to allow the forest managers to complete their tasks without being held up or eliminated by frivolous lawsuits by a small number of environmental groups," urged one timber company official, Ryan Hadley of Sierra Pacific Industries. "Please consider the use of local on-the ground knowledge. A broad-brush approach will not work for individual areas," he added.
Lawsuits have held up most previous attempts to update the forest planning rules, and as a result the original rules drafted in 1982 are still the main principles guiding national forest planning -- even though nearly everyone admits that much has changed in what is known about the science of forest conservation and how federal lands can best be managed.
Getting the new rules adopted is crucial in order to provide nimble and scientifically up-to-date planning, federal officials say. At least 68 of the national forest system's 127 land management plans are due for revision, most of them adopted before 1993 -- a lifetime ago in terms of conservation and timber harvest science.
In a down-to-the-wire push to try to strengthen the new rules before they take final effect, conservationists are hoping to build in guarantees to require decision-making to "conform" to the best available science, rather than merely "take into account" the best (and sometimes conflicting) advice of scientists.
The advice came in a letter from the nation's 13 biggest environmental organizations, another letter from 67 congressmen -- Democrats and a few Republicans -- and a letter from 405 scientists, who warned that it is a mistake to place too much decision-making authority in the hands of local forest managers without clear national standards.
"While some tangible benefits may derive from planning at the local level, history shows that lack of national standards has resulted in significant losses to natural resource values important to the nation," the scientists' letter cautioned.
At the conservationists' briefing, Clark was joined by another ex-Clinton administration official, Jim Furnish, who was formerly deputy Forest Service chief. "I would say my reflection on a career spent with the Forest Service is resource extraction, primarily logging, drove practice for far too long," said Furnish, who said the new rules need to put a clear, mandatory emphasis on resource protection and restoration.
"Commercial production needs no advocacy from the Forest Service. The public expects the Forest Service to advocate for environmental resources entrusted to their care," he said. "Trust is reinforced with firm commitments, yet in this regulation, the Forest Service has opted for discretion."
One crucial perceived shortcoming identified by conservationists is the rules' failure to establish mandatory minimum buffers of at least 100 feet around streams and waterways. Without them, they say, logging, mining and other activities can clog streams, foul water and kill fish.
James Karr. professor emeritus of biology and fisheries at the University of Washington, who co-signed the scientists' letter, said the rules need clear standards for protecting and restoring watersheds, not just "lip service."
The new rules appear to roll back the existing 1982 provisions for wildlife, he added, which require the Forest Service to maintain viable and well-distributed populations of native species. The proposed new rules do require viable populations of species, but scientists said they weaken the definition of distribution and limits the target in some cases to "species of concern."
"It could result in significant constrictions to a species' range and even yield local extirpations," the scientists warned.
-- Kim Murphy
Photo: A fir tree is felled in Oregon's Umpqua National Forest, one of 155 national forests and 20 grasslands in the national forest system subject to new planning rules set for adoption by the end of this year. Credit: Don Ryan, Associated Press