Phil Taylor, E&E reporter \ Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Obama administration today released a crucial new proposal that aims to protect wildlife while promoting recreation, logging, grazing and other uses on nearly 200 million acres of national forests.

The new planning rule will make land management on 175 national forests and grasslands cheaper, more efficient and less vulnerable to lawsuits, the administration said.

At the same time, the new guidelines will enhance collaboration between the Forest Service and the public and will require the use of the best available science to inform decisions, the agency said.

“The most collaborative rulemaking effort in agency history has resulted in a strong framework to restore and manage our forests and watersheds and help deliver countless benefits to the American people,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Our preferred alternative will safeguard our natural resources and provide a roadmap for getting work done on the ground that will restore our forests while providing job opportunities for local communities.”

The new planning rule — which seeks to update 1982 guidelines and replace proposals since then that were thrown out in court — is designed to make forests more resilient to threats like wildfire, pests, drought and other stressors. The rule will determine how forests and grasslands develop individual management plans, which govern activities from logging to recreation and the protection of endangered plants and animals.

The guidelines come as forests face new hazards from climate change and a surge in bark beetle attacks that have swept across states including Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The agency said about half of its 127 land management plans are more than 15 years old and are past due for updates. The new guidelines are expected to trim the planning process from about six years to as little as three and, in many cases, cut the cost in half, the agency said.

“Under our preferred alternative, plan revisions would take less time, cost less money, and provide stronger protections for our lands and water,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

The final rule will be closely watched by environmentalists, hikers, motorized users, loggers, miners and ranchers, all of whom share access to the nation’s forests. Several sources today said they will need time to digest the rule before commenting.

The agency’s draft rule a year ago drew more than 300,000 comments and was the subject of multiple congressional hearings (E&ENews PM, Feb. 10, 2011).

Some critics warned the draft rule was too wordy and included new environmental protections that could open the door to special-interest lawsuits (E&E Daily, Nov. 16, 2011). But conservationists said the draft rule lacked regulatory teeth, gave too much discretion to local forest managers and rolled back protections for streams and riparian areas (E&ENews PM, May 16, 2011).

“We hope that ecological, social and economic objectives are given equal weight in planning so that all of the needs of our citizens will be met by our federal forests,” said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, in a statement this morning.

“We hope to see direction in the rule that forest plans provide direction to harvest timber for the many benefits it provides, including wood products, forest health and habitat diversity, and that timber management is not neglected in the planning process.”

The agency said its final planning rule provides “strong support for vibrant rural communities” and requirements to consider a range of uses including timber, mining, grazing, energy and outdoor recreation.

Conservationists over the past year have warned the draft rule gives forest supervisors too much discretion to decide which species should be monitored for stronger protections.

Tom Franklin, director of policy and government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said resource monitoring is key if the Forest Service hopes to successfully implement adaptive management, which is designed to give managers the flexibility to modify projects as resource conditions change on the ground.

“They’re giving tremendous authority to line officers,” he said last June. “It appears the use of best available science is kind of optional in a sense. The line officer will determine when it is appropriate to use it.”

While forest planners are required to use best available science in decisionmaking, such information must only be “taken into account and documented,” rather than given a lead role in planning, the draft rule stated.

Still, many observers said the requirement to seek best available science could introduce legal challenges and increase the workload for responsible officials.

The agency said its new planning rule also requires officials to consider habitat to support hunting and fishing.

Click here to read a summary of the preferred alternative for the new Forest Service planning rule.

Click here to read the final programmatic environmental impact statement for the new forest planning rule.