The Obama administration finalized a rule Thursday governing the management of 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, establishing a new blueprint to guide everything from logging to recreation and renewable energy development.
The guidelines – which will take effect in early March and apply to all 155 national forests, 20 grasslands and one prairie – represent the first meaningful overhaul of forest rules in 30 years. The George W. Bush administration had issued a management-planning rule for national forests in 2008, but a federal court struck it down the next year on the grounds that it did not provide adequate protection for plants and wildlife.
In announcing the new procedures, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they were crafted to enhance the nation’s water supplies while maintaining woodlands for wildlife, recreation and timber operations. The lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s drinking water, according to the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the Agriculture Department.
“Restoration is the philosophy, with a focus on forest health and our water,” Vilsack told reporters in a conference call, adding that the rules require that planning decisions be “driven by sound science.”
The debate over how best to manage forests – especially in regions such as the Pacific Northwest – has pitted timber companies against environmentalists and some scientists for decades. On Thursday, administration officials emphasized that they had sought input from an array of constituencies to develop a plan that could minimize these public disputes.
“We expect to see much less litigation with this process,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
The rule will serve as the guiding document for individual forest plans, which spell out exactly how these lands can be used. While these plans are updated periodically, Vilsack noted that half are more than 15 years old.
Michael Goergen, executive vice president and chief executive of the Society of American Foresters, said that given the scientific advances in the past three decades, “we need to put that knowledge to work and outdated rules aren’t going to help us. The new rules should be given a chance to work.”
Several environmentalists and scientists praised the guidelines, which were revised to include additional scientific safeguards after the department received 300,000 comments. But they cautioned that the rules gave local supervisors considerable discretion in their implementation.
“The vision is laudable, and this is no small shift in how the national forests will be managed, from one of commodity extraction into a vision of protection, restoration and water preservation,” said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist for the Oregon-based Geos Institute.
Society for Conservation Biology policy director John Fitzgerald said the rule had “several weaknesses,” including the fact that it would “assume and not require the responsible official to show that the plan includes all practicable steps to conserve the full biological diversity” within a given forest.
Agriculture officials noted that the guidelines still compel managers to document how the “best-available scientific information” has guided decisions ranging from what areas should be logged to how officials are monitoring wildlife.
“We have 155 forests. They are not all alike,” Vilsack said. “That requires some flexibility and some acknowledgment of that uniqueness.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the concerns that he and other lawmakers expressed about the planning rule’s impact on jobs “apparently fell on deaf ears.”
“These new Obama regulations introduce excessive layers of bureaucracy that will cost jobs, hinder proper forest management, increase litigation and add burdensome costs for Americans,” Hastings said.
Officials at the American Forest & Paper Association, which represents pulp, paper, packaging and wood products companies along with forest landowners, said they were “still reviewing” the blueprint. But the group had concerns “regarding the costly procedural requirements in the proposed rule,” said vice president and general counsel Jan Poling.
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