Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. (Katie Falkenberg/For The…)
Collaboration and a greater reliance on science are the keys to the Obama administration's new guidelines in managing about 193 million acres of national forest and juggling the competing interests of industry and conservation groups.
Known as the forest planning rule, the guidelines unveiled Thursday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell aim to protect the environment and reduce the time for approval of development projects.
It will replace the old framework, which has been the center of legal battles for years. The federal courts threw out theGeorge W. Bushadministration's plan in 2009.
Vilsack and Tidwell said they hoped the new rule, released in draft form last year, would lead to less litigation. The proposal is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Feb. 3, and could go into effect this year.
"We expect to see much less litigation because of the increased collaborative effort" in deciding what happens in each forest, Tidwell said. He also said that the plan's reliance on the best available science in settling some issues should help.
Groups on both sides of the issue reacted with caution and said they would seek tweaks to the rule.
Groups such as the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats campaign and Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm separately praised the document, especially its greater focus on water, recreation and climate. Both groups endorsed what they said was the plan's holistic approach. But there was a caveat.
"While the plan is an improvement for our nation's threatened waters, the proposal leaves the fate of many fish and wildlife species uncertain," Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles said, adding later, "We hope that the Forest Service uses these final 30 days of review to strengthen this plan and make sure that it gives adequate protections to wildlife in our national forests."
Jan Poling, the American Forest and Paper Assn.'s vice president and general counsel, said the group was still reviewing the rule but hoped that some of its concerns "regarding the costly procedural requirements in the proposed rule [are] addressed in the final rule."
Vilsack said the Obama administration was trying to balance competing interests over how to use the nation's 155 national forests and areas such as grasslands, which the Forest Service administers in more than 40 states.
There must be an emphasis on jobs, as the president outlined in his State of the Union message, but the need for timber industry jobs has to be balanced by the need for recreation, officials said.
"The changes use the best available science, along with our expertise, to strengthen the requirement when it comes to recreation," Tidwell said. "People wanted recreation to be a key part of multiple use."
The existing rule goes back to 1982 and is long out of date, Vilsack said. Attempts to modernize the rule, however, have been bogged down in the courts. At least three revisions have been struck down since 2000. In 2009, a Bush administration plan was thrown out after environmentalists argued that it ended some previous protections.
The Obama administration did not appeal that ruling, choosing instead to develop a new forest planning rule.
Tidwell emphasized that the rule announced Thursday would speed up the time in which individual forest plans could be developed. The new plans can be done within three or four years rather the seven years typical under the old rule. That faster rate should save money, but will also allow local managers to react more quickly to conditions such as the need to thin forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.