Comments Needed: U.S. National Forest Service’s New Plan

The U.S. National Forest Service announced it was seeking broad public input into its new 97-page plan for the country’s 193-million acre forest system. The new plan, according to The New York Times, will better enable the Forest Service to respond to natural disasters and climate change, deal with lawsuits, and empower local forest managers. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said the updated forest management rules will encourage forest resiliency. The revamped plan, which could “potentially guide mining, logging, and wildlife protection in 155 national forests” is expected to undergo fierce public scrutiny. More than 3,000 participants in 40 public forums have already logged 25,000 comments in the first phase of review.

Forest Service officials said the new plan enables local knowledge and science to take precendence. Managers can now better draw on science related to their local areas and work out the details on the watershed areas and wildlife species that need protecting in specific forests. For example, the issues facing forests in Alaska will be far different from those in Florida.

Still, some environmental groups argue that the minimum requirements are too lax. According to The New York Times, the current forest rules, which were established under President Reagan in 1982, “require that the forest be managed to maintain ‘viable populations’ of all native fish and wildlife. Under the proposed rule, local managers could choose which species would be of ‘conservation concern’ beyond those already receiving mandatory protections under the Endangered Species Act.”

Overall, environmental groups seem split on the plan. Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation advocacy organization, said: “The bottom line is that this is a significant rollback of required protections for wildlife and habitat compared to what currently exists. It is amazing. The public had the right to expect more from the Obama administration.” In addition, in comments to The Washington Post, he was critical of the new plans to give local forest managers more discretion over managing their lands. “They give too much discretion to individual forest supervisors. We don’t know that they’re going to protect species or not. There is no question that this is a rollback to required protection to wildlife habitat.” In contrast, the Sierra Club has said the plan “is a step in the right direction.”

The extensive commenting period is designed to help reduce the expensive litigation the Forest Service has faced in the past. Individual forest plans have taken five to eight years to move forward because of lawsuits and “other hurdles.” Vilsack says this could be reduced to three years with the new plan.

The “proposed planning rule” will be officially released on February 14, starting a 90 public comment period. Learn more about how to comment. There are also public forums, and a blog where responders can ask questions.  

Image credit: White River National Forest, Colorado / Camping Tourist

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