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Center for Biological Diversity:
Summit County Citizens Voice , March 24, 2012

New forest planning rule may be challenged in court
Conservation advocates want stronger protections for wildlife

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — With more than half the country’s 155 national forests operating under outdated management plans, the U.S. Forest Service is eager to start implementing a new planning rule that was finalized March 23.

But like several previous attempts to revise the existing 1082 rule, this latest version may face a legal test. Now that the rule is final, the Center for Biological Diversity is evaluating whether to pursue a courtroom challenge, said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the organization.

McKinnon said his organization is scrutinizing the rule for compliance with the National Forest Management Act and will also take a close look at the biological opinion accompanying the rule to see if meets federal standards for protecting plants and wildlife.

“This rule reflects the work of a lot of federal lawyers,” McKinnon said, referring to the perception that the rule was designed at least in part with the idea of repelling potential legal challenges.

The way the Center for Biological Diversity sees it, the latest version of the rule represents the fourth attempt to weaken wildlife protection. The Forest Service was not able to successfully defend its previous attempts to update the planning rule.

Top agency officials say the rule includes stronger protections for water and wildlife, and touted the rule as providing a path toward long-term forest restoration.

“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,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. Listen to a previous teleconference on the planning rule here.

According to the Forest Service, the new planning rule includes requirements 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.

But McKinnon said the new rule only includes mandatory conservation requirements for species of concern, while the old rule included broader standards aimed at maintaining viable populations of all native species.

And reiterating a concern expressed by conservation advocates throughout the rule-making process, McKinnon said the new rule gives local Forest Service officials too much leeway in deciding whether individual plans offer adequate protection.

“They’ve taken mandatory protections and make them discretionary,” he said.

Altogether, the Forest Service received more than 250,000 comments on the rule during the process. The agency says it 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.

“We are ready to start a new era of planning that takes less time, costs less money, and provides stronger protections for our lands and water”, said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “This new rule will bring 21st century thinking to a process that is sorely needed to protect and preserve our 193 million acres of amazing forests and grasslands.”

Conservationist concerns over loss of species shouldn’t be taken lightly. Leading biologists have been warning for years that the current global wave of species extinctions is a serious threat to the web of life. with each loss affecting greater ecosystems in ways that are as-yet little understood.

That’s a tough thing for Forest Service planners and bio-crats to grasp as they focus on technicalities and on making sure that their plan is legally foolproof.

In areas other than species conservation, the new rule has garnered favorable reviews, especially in its push for restoration of forests and watersheds. If the agency is successful in healing scarred ecosystems, those efforts could do more to maintain healthy plant and animal communities than legal battles over individual species or projects.

Here are some of the highlights, as outlined by the Forest Service. Land management plans under the final rule will include:

-- 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.

A federal advisory committee will help implement the rule, and several forests around the country will begin revising their management plans this spring under the new rule, including the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests in Idaho, the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico, El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico and California’s Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra National Forests.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton