Rural lawmakers fear planning rule will crimp timber harvests, spur lawsuits: ENN story

FORESTS: Rural lawmakers fear planning rule will crimp timber harvests, spur lawsuits (05/05/2011)

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

The Forest Service’s proposed planning rule could open the door to special-interest lawsuits and does little to ensure timber harvests will increase across the nation’s millions of acres of national forests, House lawmakers from rural districts warned today.

Both Republicans and Democrats said they are concerned the agency’s planning rule — a sweeping proposal announced in February to manage more than 198 million acres of national forests and grasslands contains problematic requirements to maintain viable wildlife populations and is too vague about the role of timber production (E&ENews PM, Feb. 2).

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee’s Conservation, Energy and Forestry subpanel, said the Forest Service runs the risk of “mission creep” by implementing requirements in the new rule to catalog invertebrate species and incorporating climate change language that is likely to invite legal challenges.

Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader added that the agency appears to be morphing into a hybrid of the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, thrusting species viability above the needs of rural economies that depend on multiple-use of forests.

“The original mission of the Forest Service has been lost,” he said at a hearing on the rule. “The law requires species diversity, not viability.”

The lawmakers’ comments underscore the tricky balancing act the Forest Service faces in crafting a rule that will satisfy the numerous groups that use the forests, including timber companies, miners, hikers, ranchers, water users and wildlife.

The agency’s draft proposal — which promises to speed planning efforts, incorporate best available science, engage the public and ensure forests’ resilience to climate change, pests and other threats — has also come under attack from some environmental groups that argue the rule fails to set specific guidelines for ensuring species viability and gives too much discretion to local forest managers to decide which resources are preserved (Greenwire, Feb. 11).

Harris Sherman, the Forest Service’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said today the proposal was developed from the “bottom up” based on roughly 40 public meetings and 26,000 comments. It is supported by top scientists within the agency and is expected to last several decades.

“What we’re attempting to do here is establish a new rule that is effective,” he told the House panel. It is modern, it is efficient, and it will serve the public well.”

Sherman emphasized that the draft rule — which is open to public comment until May 16 — is designed to restore the health and resilience of national forests suffering from decades of mismanagement that has led to increased diseases and invasive species, more frequent and intense wildfires, and degrading water quality.

Trimming the planning process from eight years to between one and three years, he said, should help catch more threats, including pests such as the mountain pine beetle, which has ravaged 40 million acres across the West.
Concerns about litigation

But lawmakers pressed Sherman to explain why the rule does not explicitly promote an increase in timber production at a time when rural economies are reeling from unemployment and lagging tax revenues.

“Why in the world should Wisconsin be importing timber from Canada rather than harvesting timber that is rotting in our national forests?” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.).

Sherman said timber, as a multiple use, is expressly recognized in the draft plan, and added that the Obama administration predicted a slight increase in timber production in its new budget. “We will continue to see an upward effort to produce timber on our national forests,” he said.

Other lawmakers questioned whether the inclusion of climate change language and new requirements for agency managers to catalog invertebrates such as insects will overburden an already cash-strapped agency and offer new opportunities for special-interest lawsuits.

“Some have embraced the ideology that preventing human access to these lands is the best way to keep these forests healthy,” said Thompson, whose district includes the Allegheny National Forest. “With that in mind, I am concerned that this proposed planning rule is complex and will face the same sort of litigation that has hamstrung previous attempts to formulate a rule.”

Thompson added that timber harvests provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic productivity, in addition to thinning overgrown forests and allowing optimal absorption of greenhouse gases.

“Indeed, the rule makes reference to climate change,” he said. “If this is an important issue, I can think of nothing more effective than taking care of our forests and harvesting a sustainable amount of trees.”

Sherman acknowledged that litigation has hampered past management efforts, but said the agency extensively studied past litigation and judicial decisions and believes the new rule will keep the agency out of the courts.

He was also pressed to explain how forest managers would implement the science-based guidelines prescribed in the draft rule considering the budget limitations facing the agency.

“This is not a call for original research or Ph.D. theses on various issues at all. It is a call to go to reliable, available information,” he said. “There may well be competing science on a given issue, and it is up to our local responsible [forest manager] to review this issue and explain how they handle these materials.”

But John Shannon, vice president of the National Association of State Foresters, said that while it is laudable that the agency is giving deference to local forest employees who know the lands best, the proposal’s best available science standard could introduce legal challenges and increase the workload for responsible officials.

“We need to give some deference to the professional opinions of those local forest employees,” he said. But “disputes over competing science have significant potential to further delay the planning process.”

This was summarized in this blog post “Forest Service plan draws fire from rural members of Congress from both parties” here on the Rural Blog.

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