With an Interior West flavor..
New national forest rule to focus on restoration of damaged ecosystems
Posted: 03/09/2012 01:00:00 AM MST
By Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
Obama administration officials are emphasizing restoration of degraded ecosystems as they roll out a final new rule for managing the nation’s 193 million acres of forests and grasslands.
Thirty years in the making, the rule to be officially issued this month will direct regional foresters to use science and more monitoring to improve conditions, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in an interview Thursday.
“If we don’t restore our forests and grasslands, we’re going to continue to see more loss of the benefits,” Tidwell said. “More loss of the clean water that is produced on healthy forests. More loss of wildlife habitat. More soil erosion.”
The congressionally required rule sets a framework for regional plans that govern all activities on national forests — from tree-cutting to oil-and-gas drilling to hiking on trails.
It replaces a 1982 rule that was meant to protect forests but failed to prevent widespread damage from intensifying wildfires, insect epidemics, climate change and human population growth.
That Reagan-era rule “focused on restricting activities,” Tidwell said.
Now, regional foresters’ focus on wildlife “management indicator species” as a basis for assessing forest health is to be replaced with a focus on broad habitat needs for a diversity of species.
“If there is scientific evidence that a species is at risk of starting to lose population, to the point where we maybe would have to list it as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered,’ then we would take additional steps” to ensure survival, he said. “It all has to be based on scientific evidence.”
Conservationists commenting on drafts of the rule have said it leaves too much discretion to individual forest managers. The final version, Tidwell said, “strikes a very good balance between providing national consistency … and allowing that local discretion.”
National Wildlife Federation attorney Michael Saul said success likely will depend on Congress making sure forest studies and monitoring can be done.
“If the Forest Service has sufficient staff and resources to implement the final rule as intended, then I think, on balance, it will result in more science-based and better management of watersheds and wildlife habitat,” Saul said.
The forest management planning process itself consumes Forest Service staff. Legal challenges and politics repeatedly have frustrated prior efforts to revise the 1982 plan. Federal courts since 2000 have rejected multiple attempted revisions, including a Bush administration rule in 2009.
Meanwhile, the regional plans governing 68 of 127 forests and grasslands have not been updated as required.
The final rule is expected to spur updating of those plans through a speedier process of assessment, revision and monitoring.
Colorado contains 13.8 million acres of national forest, much of it fragmented by roads. Traditional uses such as timber-harvesting have declined. New uses such as motorized off-road vehicle recreation are on the rise. Forest plans still must balance multiple uses.
Restrictions on activities need not increase, Tidwell said. For example, more trees, not less, may be cut to deal with the ravaging of millions of acres of western forests by bark beetles.
And even with population growth driving more recreationists into the woods seeking solace, “there are lots of things we can do to address the impacts,” he said, especially if forest users are sensitive to the environment and stay on trails. “We can do things to harden trails so that they can handle more use.”