Known as "Pacfish," the new plan establishes buffer zones along thousands of miles of waterways covering 16 million acres in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, northern California and Idaho. New logging, grazing or recreation activities in these zones will be barred. But approved timber sales and grazing under current management plans can continue, though the agencies may modify them if they pose an "unacceptable risk."
The buffers extend 300 feet on either side of salmon and steelhead trout-bearing streams, 150 feet from non-fish bearing streams and 50-100 feet from streams that dry up in the summer, depending on their importance to fish, according to a 100-page environmental assessment.
Scientists say protecting these riparian areas is crucial for keeping water-cooling foliage over the fish's spawning grounds and sediment out of the water.
Agency officials say the measures are similar to those proposed in the Clinton administration's plan for spotted owl forests, and are designed to head off the growing salmon and steelhead crisis. Of the more than 200 fish stocks at risk, 134 occur on Forest Service lands and 109 on BLM-administered lands, they say.
"With Pacfish strategies in place, we can look forward to healthier watersheds and habitats which will play a significant role in preserving salmon and steelhead trout populations," says Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. "We also hope to play a role in offsetting the need for multiple listings under the Endangered Species Act."
The new regulations will go into effect this summer, after the agencies reevaluate the plan following a 45-day comment period ending May 9. Agency officials say they are implementing the regulations on a temporary basis while three separate environmental impact statements are drawn up, one for the Eastside forests of Oregon and Washington, one for Idaho and one for Northern California. Those plans, expected to be completed in 18 months, will replace Pacfish, they say.
Environmentalists reacted to the new rules with guarded optimism, while timber officials and ranchers said they will be hurt them.
Jim Riley, a lobbyist for the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, told the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review that Pacfish's buffer zones would put one-third of the national forests off-limits to timber harvest.
The agencies estimate the plan could reduce logging in the region by 58 million board-feet and provide 42,000 fewer animal unit months of grazing over an 18-month period. But Pacfish isn't designed to shut down grazing or logging, says Gordon Haugen of the Forest Service. "All those things can still take place; you just have to do it right."
Haugen says the agencies are already implementing Pacfish on 10 million acres of public land in the Snake River Basin due to the presence of three salmon species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The law requires them to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service before undertaking any activities on those lands, he says.
David Bayles, public lands director for the Pacific Rivers Council in Eugene, Ore., praises the Clinton administration and Jack Ward Thomas for issuing the new Pacfish regulations. "They're looking for uniform management that will obey the law and allow the fish to survive," he says.
But Bayles says the draft assessment sidesteps the problem of protecting lands upslope of the buffers. "Everybody - even the miners, loggers and grazers - concedes that riparian zones need to be managed differently than they have been in the past," he says. "The thornier question is what are we going to do upslope."
If a problem starts at the top of a watershed, he says, it will inevitably work its way downstream. Logging operations high in a watershed, for example, can increase water temperature and sediment-choked runoff, he says. "Once a piece of sediment is in the system, it will stay there all the way down."
Idaho conservationist Pat Ford agrees. "This isn't ecosystem management," he says. "Without a system of protected (land) reserves, it won't be able to assure the survival of the at-risk anadromous fish." Anadromous fish are spawned and reared in freshwater. They migrate to the ocean where they spend most of their adult life before returning upstream to freshwater spawning areas, sometimes as far away as a thousand miles.
Ford says the plan also fails to look at the habitat of a freshwater species, the bull trout, which environmentalists want added to the endangered species list. "That was really dumb of the agencies," he says. "I don't see how they're going to get ahead of the curve on that debate."
Incomplete as Pacfish may be, some observers say it marks the beginning of a new era in public-land management. "Watersheds will now become the foundation of management," says David Bayles. "That's the centerpiece of the owl plan and that's the centerpiece of Pacfish."
How committed the administration is to watershed-based management remains to be seen. All eyes now turn to the work on the three environmental impact statements for the region over the next 18 months. The agencies have set up offices in Walla Walla, Wash., and Boise, Idaho, and are beginning a series of public meetings.
For a copy of the 100-page environmental assessment, call Jim Sanders of the Forest Service, 202/205-1060. To send comments by May 9, write "PACFISH EA," Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box 96090, Washington, DC 20090-6090.
* Paul Larmer