The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service on Thursday unveiled its proposed “Forest Planning Rule,” which would establish a new national framework to develop land management plans that the agency says will protect water, fish and wildlife and promote rural economic development.
Forest Service land management plans guide management activities on about 191 million acres in the 155 national forests and 20 grasslands in the National Forest System. The proposed planning rule provides a “collaborative and science-based framework for creating land management plans that would support ecological sustainability and contribute to rural job opportunities,” the agency says.
The proposed rule includes new provisions to guide forest and watershed restoration and resilience, habitat protection, sustainable recreation, and management for multiple uses of the National Forest System, including timber.
If finalized, it would replace the 2008 planning rule the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California invalidated, holding that it was developed in violation of National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
“This proposed planning rule seeks to conserve our forests for the benefit of water, wildlife, recreation and the economic vitality of our rural communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “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.”
Publication of the proposed planning rule in the Federal Register will kick off a 90-day public comment period, which ends May 16. The Forest Service will use comments to develop a final rule.
To encourage public engagement, the Forest Service is hosting an open forum to discuss the proposed rule on March 10 in Washington, D.C. The meeting will be Web cast to allow for national participation, and there will be additional public forums held throughout the country. The proposed rule, meeting information, and additional information can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/planningrule
Agency officials say the highlights of the proposed planning rule include:
-- A more effective and efficient framework that would allow adaptive land management planning in the face of climate change and other stressors.
-- Increased requirements for public involvement and collaboration throughout all stages of land management planning.
-- Improved ability to respond to climate change and other stressors through provisions to restore and maintain healthy and resilient ecosystems.
-- Increased protections for water resources and watersheds.
-- More effective and proactive requirements to provide for diverse native plant and animal species.
-- Provisions to guide the contributions of a national forest or national grassland to social and economic sustainability.
-- Updated provisions for sustainable land, water and air-based recreation.
-- Requirements to provide for integrated resource management of a range of multiple uses and values including outdoor recreation, range, timber, water, wildlife, wilderness, energy, mining, and ecosystem services.
-- New requirements for a local and landscape-scale monitoring program that are based on the latest science.
Earthjustice represented a number of conservation organizations in that successful court challenge to the 2008 rule created under the Bush administration, claiming it was illegal because, among other things, it failed to protect watersheds and eliminated mandatory wildlife conservation requirements.
An Earthjustice press release responding to the proposed plan’s release says it still falls short.
"The Forest Service has more work to do if it’s going to live up to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s vision of safeguarding the rivers and streams of our national forests that provide drinking water for 60 million Americans and are home to thriving fish populations,” Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles said. “The draft released today grasps the concepts of stream and watershed protection, but lacks hard and fast rules that will ensure the protection of water and watersheds. Without such requirements, the protection of our streams, rivers, and important watersheds could be left in limbo.”
"For example, the draft rule requires mandatory protection zones for habitats along streams, rivers, and lakes, but it doesn't set a minimum size for those protection zones or set rules for what activities can or cannot occur within those zones,” she said. “Without these sorts of minimum national standards, the on-the-ground protection of these important habitats along streams is still totally uncertain.”
"As another example, the Forest Service directs national forests to identify for protection and restoration “priority” watersheds — those areas that are most important for fish and clean water. At the national level, this is a conceptual breakthrough; however, the rule fails to give national forest managers any criteria or guidance on how to choose these key watersheds and how to ensure that all the work to protect and restore is done effectively,” Boyles said.
"There are also some misses in this draft rule. First, in order to protect forest watersheds, the Forest Service must effectively manage logging roads — the largest long-standing threat to water quality along these streams and in their watersheds. On this issue, the draft rule is silent.”
The Forest Service says it got it right this time.
"This proposed planning rule is the outcome of an open and transparent development process," said Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman. "It's a positive framework that will allow the Forest Service to more effectively restore our natural resources, support the economy, and adapt to changing conditions.”
The proposed rule would update planning procedures that have been in place since 1982, creating a modern planning process that reflects the latest science and knowledge of how to create and implement effective land management plans.
“The Forest Service has been a steward of American lands for more than a century, and this proposed planning rule will build on that tradition," said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “We value the thoughtful input we've received in the development of this proposed rule, and we look forward to continuing collaboration to construct an adaptive management framework for the people's forests and grasslands, based on sound science and reflecting public values."
The proposed rule is the product of the most participatory planning rule development process in Forest Service history. To develop the proposed rule, the Forest Service held over 40 public meetings and roundtables across the country that drew more than 3,000 participants, and hosted a blog to engage the public. Additionally, the Forest Service reviewed more than 26,000 comments on the notice of intent to issue a new planning rule.
Drinking water for approximately one in five Americans comes from the National Forest System. American forests, including those in the National Forest System, also capture and store enough carbon every year to offset 11 percent of the nation’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, hundreds of millions of Americans visit national forests and grasslands annually, with 98 percent of these lands offering free access. More information is available at www.fs.usda.gov/planningrule