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Forest System rule wins praise, legal threats; hearing set

A National Forest System final planning rule likely to be the subject of a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing Tuesday has won widespread praise from environmental groups, but also provoked the threat of lawsuits from one forestry industry group and one environmental group.

The House Agriculture Conservation, Energy and Forestry Subcommittee has set a hearing on Forest Service land management issues on Tuesday.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack
The new rule, announced Friday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack after a process of hearings and behind-the-scenes negotiations that began in 2009, sets policies on the 193-million acre National Forest System and has implications for rural economic development as well as protection of forests, water and wildlife on national forest lands.

It replaces a 1982 rule currently in use because various court decisions have nullified subsequent rulemaking.

The rule provides a new framework to be used for all individual management plans for 155 national forests and grasslands across the country, and USDA noted that more than half of the 155 Forest Service units are operating with plans that are more than 15 years old. The rule must meet the requirements of the National Forest Management Act of 1976.

Timber companies have complained that various administrations have restricted timber cutting while environmentalists and hunting and fishing groups have said habitat protections do not go far enough.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources Harris Sherman signed the rule Friday. An environmental impact statement on the rule was published Feb. 3, and industry and environmental leaders said they did not expect the final rule to be much different from that.

“This new rule provides the framework we need to restore and manage our forests and watersheds while getting work done on the ground and providing jobs,” said Vilsack. “The collaboration that drove this rulemaking effort exemplifies the America's Great Outdoors initiative to foster conservation that is designed by and accomplished in partnership with the American people.”
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell

Tom Tidwell
“We are ready to start a new era of planning that takes less time, costs less money, and provides stronger protections for our lands and water,” added Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

"The new forest planning rule is good news for our National Forest watersheds, local economies and outdoor recreational opportunities," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

"I'm pleased that the rule provides for more public engagement and lower costs for developing strong, collaborative and science-based land management plans.," Bingaman said. "After many years and many attempts to reform the National Forest planning process, I believe this is a balanced and realistic approach for moving forward."

"This is the most collaborative Forest Service rulemaking I've ever seen," said former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "The Forest Service worked for over two years with the American public to develop a planning rule that will protect our natural resources, promote sustainable recreation and safeguard our precious drinking water, all while allowing for timber harvest and encouraging restoration."

Although USDA has already announced that the rule includes an increase in the quantity of timber that can be cut on federal forest lands, the Federal Forest Resources Coalition, which represents companies that cut timber on federal lands, said in a statement Friday, “Unfortunately one of the options we must consider is litigation.”

The coalition said that the rule “adopts some of the more problematic approaches to forest management that have plagued the national forests of the Pacific Northwest and California. As forest plans come up for revision, this cautionary, species by species approach would be spread nationwide.”

The coalition added that “among other problems, the rule:
  • Ignores the appropriate role and balance of multiple-uses as required by law, and will make it harder for the agency to manage the national forests sustainably.
  • Requires the “use of best available scientific information” rather than agency expertise and available, relevant science will make decision making less responsive, more time consuming and vulnerable to litigation.
  • Requires the Forest Service to manage for species, rather than to manage for sustainable forests as required by law;
  • Introduces arbitrary specific widths for riparian buffers, ignoring the need for local approaches to protect water quality;
  • Is unduly cumbersome and focuses too much on process and procedure."

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a hunting and fishing group, praised the rule.

“America’s 193 million acres of national forest lands are vitally important for fish and wildlife and public hunting and fishing opportunities,” said Joel Webster, director of the TRCP Center for Western Lands. “With America’s population surpassing 310 million, the significance of these lands to our outdoor traditions continues to grow – as do challenges in their management. The adaptive management approach of the new planning rule will help the agency address these challenges.”

“Based on input from members of the public, including sportsmen,” Webster continued, “the Forest Service made specific improvements to the final rule, such as a commitment to use the best available science in making management decisions, an increased commitment to watershed conservation, added attention to commonly enjoyed fish and wildlife species and an improved approach to timber management.”

Trout Unlimited, a TRCP partner group, also supports the new rule.

“National forests form the headwaters of many of our nation’s major river basins, provide habitat for trout and salmon and recreational opportunities for anglers, and provide clean water for communities and irrigators,” said Steve Moyer, vice president for government affairs at Trout Unlimited.

“The new forest planning rule outlines an ambitious vision for our forests and watersheds,” Moyer said. “Trout Unlimited and our partners in the hunting and angling community are committed to working with the Forest Service to ensure the rule’s success — and to upholding a crucial component of our nation’s outdoor legacy.”

Laura McCarthy, a senior policy adviser at The Nature Conservancy, said, "The Forest Service should be complimented for producing a much needed final forest planning rule. It is time to roll up our sleeves and work with the agency to update these plans."

Michael Goergen, executive vice president and CEO of the Society of American Foresters, noted that previous attempts to update the 1982 rule have been litigated, usually by both environmental and development groups. "The quality of the environment cannot possibly be enhanced by using outdated rules," Goergen said. "The new rules should be given a chance to work."

The Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies said, "We are pleased that the Forest Service can now begin to implement this modernized final planning rule. Through working closely and cooperatively with the respective state fish and wildlife agency, implementation of the rule will ensure sustainability of fish and wildlife resources consistent with the plan area habitat."

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said "The Obama administration has made a very strong commitment to wildlife and land conservation with the release of its final forest-planning rule. The forest policy charts a new course to conserve and restore the health and integrity of these lands and waters, and now the hard work for implementing the rule begins today."

Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst at The Wilderness Society said, "The Forest Service has produced a visionary national forest planning rule based on principles of sound science."

"The new standards represent a victory for communities and families in the Western region of the country, half of whom depend on national forests for clean and safe drinking water," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

"The finalized standards also include criteria to restore and protect the watersheds and waterways that supply about one-fifth of our nation's water — a move that's good for our families, our health and our economy," Brune said. "Fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing and other outdoor recreational activities generate more than $700 billion for the economy each year and support thousands of jobs."
Taylor McKinnon

Taylor McKinnon
But the Center for Biological Diversity said it was not satisfied and may also sue to stop the rule, according to a report in the Summit County, Colo., Citizens Voice.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the center, said his organization is scrutinizing the rule for compliance with the National Forest Management Act and will also take a close look at the biological opinion accompanying the rule to see if meets federal standards for protecting plants and wildlife, Citizens Voice reported.

McKinnon said the new rule includes mandatory conservation requirements for species of concern, while the old rule included broader standards aimed at maintaining viable populations of all native species and gives local Forest Service officials too much leeway in deciding whether individual plans offer adequate protection, according to the report.