New Rules May Put National Forests at Risk

Environmental groups are criticizing the Obama Administration’s new proposed rules for managing the country’s nearly 200 million acres of national forest, arguing that they weaken current standards for protecting wildlife and watersheds.

More than 100 organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife, signed on to a letter sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Monday, arguing that the proposal “fails to provide critical, concrete protections for the most precious resources of our forests — water and wildlife,” and that it “weakens the strong standards for safeguarding water quality and wildlife viability first issued in 1982 by the Reagan Administration and currently still in place.”

In a February press release announcing the new proposed rules, the USDA (which manages the Forest Service) touted the new proposal as creating increased protections for water resources and an “improved ability to respond to climate change and other stressors through provisions to restore and maintain healthy and resilient ecosystems.”

Last week a New York Times editorial explained the apparent discrepancy this way:

The Obama administration’s proposed rules… are full of high-minded promises about maintaining “viable” animal populations. But they are disappointingly vague on the question of how — and how often — the biological diversity of any particular forest is to be measured and what actions are to be taken to ensure its survival.

The net result is to give too much discretion to individual forest managers and not nearly enough say to scientists. This is dangerous because, over the years, forest managers have been easily influenced by timber companies and local politicians whose main interest is to increase the timber harvest.

Neil Lawrence, the director for the NRDC’s forest project, says one of the most vital pieces missing from the proposed rules is strong guidance for forest managers.

“These rules contain a lot of fine phrases, but where the rubber meets the road, they really don’t do the job,” said Lawrence. “They open up far too many opportunities for misuse of discretion, or simply bad mistakes made in haste, or ignorance, or lack of resources at the local level.”

California has 18 national forests which together encompass about 20 million acres.  The letter to Vilsack points out that most of the state’s snowpack lies within national forests, providing about 50 percent of the state’s drinking water. It also highlights the value of California’s national forests in terms of tourism dollars, endangered species habitat, and carbon sequestration.

The environmental organizations worry that without strong guidance from above, managers at the local level may not value these benefits as highly as they should.

From the Times editorial:

The rules, mandated by 1976 National Forest Management Act, are supposed to guide forest managers as they decide which parts can be logged and which should be fully protected. The act’s bedrock principle is that the health of the forests and their wildlife is to be valued at least as much as the interests of the timber companies.

“I think some at the Forest Service are really pushing hard to get more discretion to do as they see fit, and I think many of these are well-intentioned people,” said Lawrence.  “But they forget the many problems we have in national forests – the damage to the forests, to streams and wildlife, to recreational value, to scenic beauty – most of that damage has been due to the well-intentioned exercise of discretion. They’re forgetting how easy it is to get in trouble when you manage these lands.”

The public comment period on the rules is open until May 16th.

  • R.G. Taylor

    Region 5 of the Forest Service (California) has 18 National Forests, not 14, as stated. As the article seemed to be focusing on the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the 4 not counted were the Southern California Forests; Los Padres, Angeles, Cleveland, San Bernardino.

  • http://www.kqed.org/climatewatch Gretchen Weber

    Thanks for catching that error, R.G. I’ve updated the post to reflect this correction.