Hundreds of scientists, 67 members of Congress, more than a dozen national conservation organizations and nearly 300,000 citizens are calling on the Obama administration to strengthen protections for wildlife and water in its proposed forest policy.
Monday marked the end of the 90-day comment period for the public to respond to the Obama administration’s forest-planning rule, which guides how the U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of forest and grasslands under the National Forest Management Act.
Experts view the forest-planning rule as one of the most important conservation policies the Obama administration will undertake. However, the CEO’s of 13 national conservation and environmental organizations say that the draft rule is far from complete.
A major problem is the rule leaves implementation to the discretion of individual forest managers, without adequate direction for drawing the line to prevent harmful activities.
At the same time, it eliminates longstanding requirements that managers report back on how activities like logging are affecting wildlife and forest health. Without these safeguards, the rule will be weaker at maintaining viable wildlife populations than the 1982 rule it would replace, environmental groups said.
"The outpouring of public support for wildlife and water shows just how important national forests are to all Americans. While we’re encouraged by some of the forward-looking features of the proposal, such as making restoration of rivers and streams a priority and managing forests so that they’re more resilient to threats such as climate change, there’s widespread concern that the rule lacks clear, necessary standards to ensure it will be fully implemented to achieve these goals on the ground," says Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and current executive vice president for Defenders of Wildlife.
"In my experience, land managers welcome clear rules because that clarity makes tough but proper decisions easier to defend against unwarranted political pressure. Without such clarity, this planning rule could lead to a confusing and contradictory implementation decisions from forest to forest, undermining the effectiveness of the rule in protecting America’s wildlife and water," Clark adds.
"They [the regulations] must provide clear standards and strong safeguards for managing our national forests: provisions that guide line officers away from the mistakes of the past and make public input and participation fully meaningful," the CEOs said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack.
Sixty-seven members of Congress echoed similar concerns in a separate letter: "The proposal suffers from weaknesses which collectively eliminate longstanding and vital protections intended to ensure that all native wildlife species remain viable on our national forests.
First, the proposal does not require that species be monitored to demonstrate that forest management activities are actually maintaining fish and wildlife populations. Second, the wildlife standard suffers from excessive discretion; forest managers could selectively determine which species deserve protecting on our national forests. Moreover, the agency can arbitrarily absolve itself of the responsibility to protect these species because the criteria to do so are ambiguous."
Identifying the forest-planning rulemaking as a top priority, the groups are urging the Obama administration to issue a final policy that:
- Sets up no-development buffer zones around water resources. Protect water resources with mandatory, minimum buffer zones of at least 100 feet along streams and other water bodies–limiting harmful activities.
- Maintains viable wildlife populations. Require the Forest Service to maintain viable, self-sustaining populations of all fish, wildlife and other species, well distributed across their existing ranges on national forest lands.
- Conforms to the best available science. Require decision-making to conform to the best available science rather than to simply take it into account. President Obama has pledged to uphold science in public policy. The Obama administration should live up to that commitment in this rulemaking.