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Vilsack releases EIS for national forest rule

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today released the final environmental impact statement for the National Forest System Land Management Planning rule, the basic document governing federally owned forests.

Vilsack said in a telephone news conference that the environmental impact statement will be published in Federal Register on Feb. 3, and that he will issue the final planning rule within 30 days after that. He and other USDA officials emphasized they had taken into consideration 300,000 comments received on the proposed rule and the draft environmental impact statement that were issued last February.

The courts had rejected a rule issued by the Bush administration, leaving a rule written in 1982 in effect.

Decisions regarding the forests will be based on science, Vilsack said, and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the rule will require decision-makers to explain the science behind the decisions.

Forests contribute to the national economy through the timber industry, conservation and recreation, Vilsack said, noting that the size of the timber cut, an issue of much contention between the forest products industry and environmentalists, would not be addressed until the final rule is issued.

USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources Harris Sherman said the timber industry had been consulted in the comment process, and that the final rule will include expected levels of production, what the maximum levels would be, and also identify lands that are unsuitable for production.

The Federal Forest Resource Coalition, a recently formed group of forestry companies, has been lobbying the Obama administration to increase the size of the timber cut.

“We believe the forest planning process must produce forest plans which are achievable, implementable, and encourage active management and sustained yield of forest products as required by the National Forest Management Act and other statutes,” said coalition president Howard Hedstrom.

“Any planning rule which imposes new, difficult to meet, and legally unnecessary requirements inherently moves in the wrong direction,” Hedstrom said. “We have raised specific concerns about these rules as they have been developed, particularly expanded and, in our view, unimplementable requirements for species viability. We will review the final rules and then weigh our options on how to proceed.”