Today, Coloradans have a chance today to shape the future of America’s National System of Forests, some 193 million acres of mountains, grasslands, rivers and lakes all across the country. The U.S. Forest Service is hosting more than 30 national town hall meetings to hear, straight from the people who use these lands, why our nation’s forests are so important. One of those meetings will be held tonight in Lakewood, Colorado, with sessions following throughout the region [PDF] beginning tomorrow in Missoula and Billings, Montana, and in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.
Chances are the Forest Service is going to get an earful. Colorado alone has 14.5 million acres divvied up among 11 national forests and two grasslands. From adventures scaling Colorado’s famous “14ers” to sportsmen and anglers setting out to their favorite haunts, Colorado’s national forests have many fans, representing many different voices.
However, these lands are also used for timber, grazing, and even oil and gas development. Historically, development agendas have driven how the Forest Service decides to manage these lands and their resources.
But in recent years, the Forest Service has started to realize and document just how popular and important these lands are beyond resource extraction and development. Nationwide, national forests receive nearly 200 million visits each year, pumping some $900 million into the economy [PDF]. But that’s not all: national forests also help to store, clean and deliver drinking water to millions of Americans, while also helping to fight climate change by soaking carbon pollution out of the atmosphere.
So why is the Forest Service putting on this traveling road show? Because attempts by the previous two administrations to change the regulations that guide forest management – The National Forest Management Act – have not worked out. The Clinton administration tried to update the nearly 30-year-old rules just before leaving office. But when George W. Bush took over, his administration worked tirelessly to rollback important environmental protections for wildlife. His rules were overturned twice by the courts. Now it’s up to the Obama administration to get forest planning right. And doing so is now more important than ever before.
National forests and grasslands today are facing unprecedented threats – from larger wildfires and prolonged droughts to shorter, warmer winters and shrinking wildlife habitat. The U.S. Forest Service must adapt its management decisions to address these new challenges.
By giving wildlife equal consideration with other uses, the Forest Service can take a big step toward achieving this goal. Protecting wildlife and their habitat leads to benefits for people, too. For example, keeping rivers free of runoff and pollution leads to healthy fish stocks and well fed bears, but it also means the water is good for kayakers, rafters, fishermen and hikers alike.
While the Forest Service and the Obama administration are busy gathering public input, let’s hope they don’t overlook the good work Congress is already doing on this issue. Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have been working on a bill called
America’s Wildlife Heritage Act (H.R. 2807). The bill directs federal land managers to monitor important populations of fish, plants and wildlife in each forest to help them gauge the health of the entire forest. It has the backing of a number of conservation groups as well as hunting and fishing organizations and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies -- some of the very same people the Obama administration is soliciting for input today.
The Forest Service listening tour moves on tomorrow to other cities throughout the West, so Coloradans should take their chance now to make their voices heard.
Cat Lazaroff is communications director for Defenders of Wildlife.