Forest Service wants to play by a new set of rules

 

While reform of the Endangered Species Act captures headlines across the West, some conservationists say an equally important law is also in danger.

It is the National Forest Management Act, or NFMA, which has governed watersheds, soils and wildlife for nearly two decades. Forest Service officials now propose wholesale changes in the regulations that implement the 1976 law.

"The Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act get all the press, but really it's the NFMA that's been holding our forests together," says Jennifer Ferenstein of Missoula's Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Ferenstein says the law's current regulations specifically direct the Forest Service to maintain viable populations of native species throughout their ranges and protect water quality and soil productivity. "No other public-land law is so sweeping and so straightforward," she says.

But the Forest Service, in a 35-page explanation, contends that these rules are difficult to understand and contain too much "language without real substance." It says new rules are needed to give the agency greater flexibility, to streamline forest plans, and to allow for "adaptive management" necessary to implement ecosystem analysis.

Environmentalists fear the new regulations go far beyond streamlining.

"All the clarity in the current regulations has been removed," says Ferenstein. "Wherever the current regulations say the agency "shall protect streams and streambanks," or "shall provide for fish and wildlife habitat," the proposed regulations substitute a lot of vague language about professional judgment and the need for flexibility."

Ferenstein says when her group makes an administrative appeal on a logging project, it is almost always based on the act. "We use (it) to ensure that riparian areas are protected, to ensure that soil compaction doesn't occur, and to ensure that regeneration needs are met," she says. "All of that is going down the drain with these new regulations."

Jeff Juel of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council in Spokane, Wash., says the new regulations amount to "total industrial dominion" over publicly owned forests. His group recently filed a legal challenge to a timber sale on the Kootenai National Forest, alleging the sale will threaten population viability of eight native species. The new regulations would prevent such court challenges on behalf of any species not already listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Speaking for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., planning specialist Ann Christensen says the current regulations require her agency to perform unrealistic analyses. "The meaning of a term like population viability has evolved over the years," she says. "Depending on the interpreter it can be beyond the grasp of anyone to implement the current regulations."

But Kieran Suckling of the Southwest Center for Biodiversity in Silver City, N.M., says rules like the minimum viability requirement are essential. "With the current rules, you can measure the effect of Forest Service projects and hold the agency accountable for them," says Suckling. "You can go out and count woodpeckers; you can judge the accuracy of a forest plan by acquiring data."

The proposed rules, he says, reflect an "ethereal world with no measures and no accountability."

Because grassroots groups across the West have used this law to shut down countless logging and grazing plans, adds Suckling, "It's no surprise the Forest Service wants to get rid of it."

A copy of the proposed regulations, which are scheduled to become final in early 1996, can be obtained at any forest supervisor's office or by requesting them from the Forest Service at P.O. Box 96090, Washington, D.C. 20090.

Erik Ryberg is a freelance writer who lives in, and cares about, the forests in central Idaho.

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