The American Forest Resource Council and a group of national and regional interests filed suit this week in Washington, D.C. to overturn the new federal Forest Service Planning Rule adopted last April.
The complaint alleges that the new rule violates the statutory requirements Congress has given the agency to prepare forest plans to provide for multiple uses of outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish.
The rule, says the complaint, instead elevates the “vague concepts” of “ecological sustainability” and “ecosystem services” such as carbon storage and spiritual values above all else which will lead to years of lawsuits over new forest plans and forest management projects.
“This is the latest in a series of failed attempts by the Forest Service to write a planning rule consistent with Congressional intent and the National Forest Management Act in 1976,” said Tom Partin, AFRC president. “Especially in the area of ‘species viability’ the statutory direction is to manage our national forests for multiple use, sustained yield and a diversity of species habitats, not to manage exclusively towards benefiting one or two species at the cost of all else.”
“We are disappointed that the Rule abandons the Forest Service’s hard fought legal victories which held that judges are to defer to the professional expertise of the local forest managers experienced with local conditions. It is frustrating that the rule undermines local on-the-ground knowledge by imposing a new ‘best science’ requirement over which no one, not even scientists, can ever agree,” Partin said.
In March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final Planning Rule for America’s 193-million acre National Forest System that he said includes stronger protections for forests, water, and wildlife while supporting the economic vitality of rural communities.
This final rule – which followed USDA’s Feb. 3 publication of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement – replaced the 1982 rule procedures currently in use, and provides a new framework to be used for all individual management plans for 155 national forests and grasslands across the country. Over half of Forest Service units are currently operating with plans that are more than 15 years old, the USDA said in March.
“This new rule provides the framework we need to restore and manage our forests and watersheds while getting work done on the ground and providing jobs,” said Vilsack. “The collaboration that drove this rulemaking effort exemplifies the America’s Great Outdoors initiative to foster conservation that is designed by and accomplished in partnership with the American people.”
USDA and Forest Service officials said they “carefully considered over a quarter million comments received on the proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement issued in February to develop the final rule, which emphasizes collaboration, sound science and protections for land, water and wildlife.”
They say “the final rule strengthens the role of public involvement and dialogue throughout the planning process. It also requires the use of the best available scientific information to inform decisions.”
Land management plans under the final rule includes:
--Mandatory components to restore and maintain forests and grasslands.
--Requirements to provide habitat for plant and animal diversity and species conservation. The requirements are intended to keep common native species common, contribute to the recovery of threatened and endangered species, conserve proposed and candidate species, and protect species of conservation concern.
--Requirements to maintain or restore watersheds, water resources, water quality including clean drinking water, and the ecological integrity of riparian areas.
--Requirements for multiple uses, including outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish.
--Requirements to provide opportunities for sustainable recreation, and to take into account opportunities to connect people with nature.
--Opportunities for public involvement and collaboration throughout all stages of the planning process. The final rule provides opportunities for tribal consultation and coordination with state and local governments and other federal agencies, and includes requirements for outreach to traditionally underrepresented communities.
--Requirements for the use of the best available scientific information to inform the planning process and documentation of how science was used in the plan.
--A more efficient and adaptive process for land management planning, allowing the Forest Service to respond to changing conditions.