Forestry | Ecotrope

New rule for the Forest Service: More time in forests, less time in court

Ecotrope | Feb. 10, 2011 3:25 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:41 p.m.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed a new forest planning rule today that attempts to balance multiple interests in federal forestland before they clash and land the U.S. Forest Service in court. It prioritizes using science to protect entire forest ecosystems rather than just individual species, and it almost openly responds to a litany of lawsuits from environmental groups.

In a press conference this morning, Vilsack explained how the new planning rule shifts the old framework to consider up front the best science on protecting clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and ecosystem resiliency while still allowing logging, mining, outdoor recreation and other forest uses.

He and other forest service officials insisted that these interests aren’t competing directly with one another, and that each forest should have a management plan that is tailored to the local economic, ecological and social needs.

By inviting more public involvement throughout the forest planning process, Vilsack said, the forest service hopes to “spend less time in court and more time in the forest.” The existing planning rules went into effect in 1982. Since then, there have been regular clashes between industry and environmental groups on forestland management and three attempts to revise the rules have been thrown out by federal courts. The new planning rule, Vilsack said, is designed to speed up the revision process. Under the old rule, a revision is required every 15 years, and it typically takes five to eight years to do a revision; under the new rule the average time should be three years.

When it comes to protecting ecosystems, Vilsack said the new rule builds “coarse” and “fine” filters into forest planning framework. A coarse filter takes broader science on habitat, watersheds and climate change into account while a fine filter zeroes in on protecting fragile species. The former planning process relied on “management indicator species” to guide actions on forestland, but officials today said that tool didn’t work.

In the Pacific Northwest, we’ve seen the many lawsuits filed to protect habitat for threatened and endangered species (the Northern spotted owl, for one) slash logging in federal forests.

When asked whether the new planning rule would result in more or less logging and mining in federal forests, Vilsack suggested it would depend on the forest.

“Each forest is its own individual entity,” he said, “and each forest has particular uses that we obviously want to showcase. Each forest has to be treated within the context of its own identity. This is really not about pitting one use against another. I think that’s the old way of looking at this. What we’re trying to do with this planning rule is to try to encourage folks to understand that we have these multiple uses and that these forest uses benefit all of us.”

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