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Obama administration unveils new plan for national forests

January 26, 2012 | 11:51 am

New guidelines to manage some 193 million acres of national forest lands will focus on protecting watersheds and wildlife and will require a tougher scientific standard in balancing the competing demands of industry and conservation groups, the Obama administration announced on Thursday.

The guidelines, known as a forest planning rule, were unveiled during a telephone news conference by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. The planning rule will replace the old framework, which has been the center of legal battles for years.

Both officials stressed that the new planning rule, which comes almost a year after the draft plan was released, is based on greater collaboration between the often conflicting interests of industry and environmental groups. The proposal is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Feb. 3 and could go into effect later this year.

Vilsack and Tidwell said they hope the new rule will face less litigation.

“I think it's a solid rule and done in a collaborative, open and transparent way,” Vilsack said. More than 300,000 comments on the draft proposal were received and evaluated, he said.

The secretary began his presentation by noting that the Obama administration is trying to balance competing interests in how groups want to use the nation’s 155 national forests and associated areas such as grasslands, which the Forest Service administers in more than 40 states.

There must be an emphasis on jobs, as the president outlined this week in his State of the Union message, but the need for timber industry jobs has to be balanced by the recreation use in the rule, officials said.

“The changes use the best available science, along with our expertise, to strengthen the requirement when it comes to recreation,” Tidwell said. “People wanted recreation to be a key part of multiple use.”

The existing rule goes back to 1982 and is long out of date, Vilsack said. Attempts to modernize the rule, however, have been bogged down in the courts as competing interests have fought. At least three revisions of the rules have been struck down since 2000. In 2009, a Bush administration plan was thrown out after environmentalists argued that it ended some previous protections.

The Obama administration did not appeal that ruling, choosing instead to develop a new forest planning rule.

Tidwell stressed that the rule announced Thursday will speed up the time in which individual forest plans can be developed.

The new plans can be done within three or four years rather the seven years typical under the old rule. That faster rate should save money, but will also allow local managers to react faster to conditions such as the need to thin forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.

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-- Michael Muskal

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