January 27, 2012, 10:07 am
How to Manage U.S. Forests, Version 3.1
By FELICITY BARRINGER
In the high-tech world, new versions of programs are released to fix new bugs. In the federal regulatory world, new versions of management blueprints are released to address legal problems. Each is generally judged by a simple metric: did the fixes work, or will they have to be redone?
By that standard, efforts to update a land management planning rule for the National Forest System have not exactly been a success.
The Bush Administration’s attempt to overhaul it were rejected by a federal judge who said it did not provide adequate safeguards for flora and fauna. When the Obama administration unveiled its first attempt at adjusting the rule 11 months ago, environmentalists criticized it as weak in terms of protecting water purity and biodiversity. So on Thursday, the administration released “a new version.
The rule, a broad blueprint to be followed by individual forest supervisors — many of whom are working with 15-year-old planning documents at the moment — is likely to become final within five weeks.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is in charge of the Forest Service, struck a conciliatory note in a conference call Thursday, saying that wide public participation will be crucial to the success of future forest management. He said that the revised rules focused on restoring the ecological health of forests and watersheds, particularly conserving and improving the quality of freshwater in the forests.
Noting that 20 percent of Americans drink water that comes from national forests, Mr. Vilsack said that management of the watersheds would be based on the “best available science.”
He and the chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, also emphasized a desire to ensure that the forests are open to all uses, including timber harvesting and recreation.. With the new rule and a greater emphasis on cooperative planning with various interest groups, Mr. Tidwell said, plans governing individual forest plants could be written twice as fast — in three or four years, as opposed to the current five, six or seven.
Forest policy is a difficult arena. It’s not just that the forests face natural challenges like invasive beetles or fierce wildfires, challenges exacerbated by climate change. Managing the forests can pit timber harvesters against environmentalists in clashes like the drawn-out one over the northern spotted owl two decades ago.
The point that Mr. Vilsack repeatedly made echoed a line from President Obama’s State of the Union address. He said he wanted a forest-based economy “built to last.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice offered guarded praise for the Forest Service’s intentions. “It’s a smart bunch of public-minded people” at work, said Niel Lawrence, a forest expert at the N.R.D.C., and they “are trying to produce a durable rule that will work.They get high marks for their vision of protection and restoration of federal forests.”
Then came the big “but.” The rule contains a small change in wording that he said would weaken a former requirement on keeping widely distributed populations of local plants and animals in a forest. “These rules are set up to allow the agency actively to squeeze wildlife out,” he said. “That’s a recipe for a wildlife zoo, not a healthy ecosystem.” He called the language “a loophole that threatens to undo all their good work.”
Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice took a similar tone: some great ideas here, but problems remain. Her concern was that the section on protecting animals gave too much flexibility to forest managers.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said in a statement: “We hope that ecological, social and economic objectives are given equal weight in planning so that all of the needs of our citizens will be met by our federal forests.
Planning Rule Opinion Boxscore (cont.)
5. Concerns about flexible managers
6. Hopes for an equilateral triangle
American Forest Council
7. High marks for vision BUT oh those loopholes