Proposed Rule Would Let Forest Service ‘Go Local’

The Obama Administration last week proposed a new rule that would give local national forest directors more control over their natural resources. The proposed rule overturns a decades-old policy that leaves forest management decisions to officials in Washington.

The planning rule would allow forest managers additional control over the development of Forest Service land management plans. The proposed change is made with an eye to increasing forest and watershed restoration and resilience, habitat protection, sustainable recreation, and management for multiple uses of the National Forest System, including timber.

“The proposed rule will provide the tools to the Forest Service to make our forests more resilient to many threats, including pests, catastrophic fire and climate change. Healthy forests and economically strong rural communities form a solid foundation as we work to win the future for the next generation,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The new rule also embraces the concept of “adaptive management,” allowing forest managers to test management prescriptions and fine-tune them as needed. The rule would also increase requirements for public comment on new and future forest management plans.

“Increased public comment and a more decentralized decision-making process will more than likely be a good thing for National Forests and the people who use them,” said Brent Boydston, Vice President of Public Policy for Colorado Farm Bureau.

Opposition Mounts

But Environmentalists say the 94-page proposal would water down strongly written wildlife protections adopted nearly 30 years ago by the Reagan administration.

“They give too much discretion to individual forest supervisors” without specific directions, said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. “We don’t know that they’re going to protect species or not. There is no question that this is a rollback to required protection to wildlife habitat.”

At the Pew Environment Group, Jane Danowitz, director of U.S. public lands, expressed dissatisfaction. “Here we are talking about wanting to make sure some of the safeguards of the Reagan administration stay in place,” Danowitz said. “Clearly, in terms of wildlife protection, it is disappointing that they have been weakened under this proposal.”

But Forest Service officials say that local forest ecologists have a better understanding of the needs of individual tracts of National Forest land.

Currently, Forest ecologists have a better understanding of what constitutes forest health, and how to restore damaged or diminished forests. Commercial timber production, a booming industry in the 1980s, has declined due to changing market dynamics and environmental safeguards; at the same time, the forest restoration industry has grown. And forest managers are grappling with new threats, including unprecedented beetle outbreaks and unnaturally hot and large wildfires. As a result many of the changes put forth in the new planning rule reflect a new understanding of forest ecology and public values.

Boydston agrees.

“This rule finally recognizes and attempts to fix one of the key problems of centralized forest planning, that what might be good for Alaskan forests, might not be good for forests in Colorado,” he said.

Hurdles to Clear

The proposed planning rule is the third such time the Forest Service has tried to update planning regulations. A Clinton administration revision in 2000 was deemed too complex to implement, and federal courts invalidated the Bush administration’s 2005 and 2008 revisions. Environmentalists challenged Bush’s plans, and rulings from California Federal Courts in 2007 and 2009 rejected them largely on procedural grounds.

No doubt the current rule will face legal challenges if it is implemented. The environmental community seems at a consensus that the proposed rule gives too much control to local forest managers. The Center for Biological Diversity has said that without several changes to the rule, they would file a lawsuit against the Forest Service.

The rule may also be changed following the 90 day public comment period which is currently open. The Forest Service plans to hold a public listening session on the new rule on March 10 in Washington, D.C., and is planning other public information sessions around the country, officials said. Colorado will play host to a meeting at the Federal Center in Lakewood on March 21st from 1-4pm and in Delta, at the GMUG Forest Supervisors Office from 4-6pm.

(Images: alex_ford, markclong)

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