New national forest rule lacks rigor

  • Camas blooming in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon.

    Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service

If you had come upon the U.S. Forest Service's new draft planning rule in the second week of February and, unable to contain your curiosity, given it a hasty read, you might have come away impressed. Since 1982, the forest planning rule has provided the blueprint for managing 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands; every individual plan derives from it. And unlike two forest rule proposals from the previous administration, this current draft seems realistically up to that task. It suggests responding to new threats with the fluid wisdom of emerging science, not the dogma of sclerotic bureaucracy. It encourages adapting policies to the 21st-century pressures of climate change and disease. It recommends involving the public as deeply as possible in forest planning.

The draft also upholds certain accepted goals of forest management from the 1982 rule, such as maintaining healthy wildlife populations and preserving the diversity of forest plant life. What it doesn't do, however, is clearly obligate local forest managers to meet those goals. "I liken it to an airplane," says Michael Francis, forest program director at The Wilderness Society, just one of many environmental groups that praise the general drift of the rule but consider its safeguards inadequate. "The Forest Service bought the plane, got it up in the air and course-corrected, so it's headed in the right direction. But it turns out they forgot the landing gear."

The new draft is the fifth attempt at a forest rule since Congress started requiring one with the National Forest Management Act of 1976. The Reagan administration's 1982 rule is the only one that took. The Bush administration tossed a Clinton-era draft and replaced it with one that boldly exempted individual forest plans from federal environmental review; that plan, along with another version in 2008, was in turn thrown out in court.

The Obama administration seems to have engineered its forest rule in hopes of avoiding that fate. It comes out of what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has lauded as "the most participatory planning and development process that has been used in Forest Service history." Some 3,000 people -- scientists, industry representatives and tribal leaders among them -- weighed in at more than 40 public meetings; the agency even hosted a blog to collect more comments. The result is a rule that Vilsack says "provides a far more flexible and adaptive approach" than the 1982 rule. He hopes it will allow forest managers to "spend less time in the courts and more time in the forests."

But it's precisely that flexibility that worries Peter Nelson, federal lands director at Defenders of Wildlife. "Flexibility absent consistent guidance can lead to a variety of outcomes for water and wildlife," he says, "not all of them good." For instance, "the proposal directs forest managers to provide for the viability of species" -- to make sure, in other words, that no species is at risk of extinction. "But it also says that if you're not able to, you don't have to. And it's not clear to me how forest managers are required to prove that they can't."

The proposed rule requires forest supervisors to develop plans that "maintain or restore the structure, function, composition, and connectivity of a healthy and resilient ecosystem," writes Tony Tooke, the agency's director of ecosystem management coordination, in an e-mail. Yet there's little in the rule to define those terms.

"How will you or I know that we've walked into a resilient ecosystem?" Nelson says. "There's no clear criteria set out in the draft to determine that." Nor does it require proof in numbers that such an ecosystem is, as the proposal assumes, beneficial to a variety of wildlife. "I'm afraid the Forest Service thinks monitoring at the species level is burdensome," Nelson says. "I think of it as a trust-building exercise." With ecosystem protection as with nuclear arms control, it's "trust, but verify."

In short, the new rule leaves a lot up to the discretion of local forest managers. That's not necessarily bad: Forest supervisors can observe changes at the local level that would elude bureaucrats in D.C. "It's hard at the regulation level to provide any one-size-fits-all standard," says Martin Nie, associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana. "I can think of some forest supervisors who'll go to town with this thing in terms of meaningful standards and requirements."

Local supervisors under pressure from politics or industry, however, could theoretically veer in a less constructive direction. "The pushback is always economics," says Congressman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who has criticized the proposal for weakening wildlife protection. "But when you have habitat shrinking, species disappearing and wild places not being protected, your decision-making can't be subjected to biased outside pressure. You have to have strong federal oversight to make sure what you do is based on facts and science."

Timber and other industry interests have not yet commented on the rule, except to say they're watching it closely. Meanwhile, the Forest Service will take public comments through May 16.

Francis thinks everyone should consider contributing. For Westerners, "the planning rule affects everything from where you hike to the quality of your drinking water." After all, it's your plane the agency is piloting, he says, "and you need to have some way of knowing whether it's staying on course."

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