Verde Laguna: Activists lambast Obama's plans for forest management

After a decade of revision and litigation, on Feb 10. the U.S. Forest Service unveiled its proposed Forest Planning Rule, which would establish a new framework to protect the 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, including more than 20 million acres in California.

There are 220,000 miles of streams and rivers, and more than 2.3 million acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs in the National Forest System — an area of fresh water about 3 ½ times the size of Rhode Island. These waters provide habitat for native fish, while forests and grasslands themselves act as a massive filtering system, supplying an estimated economic value of $7.2 billion in water alone, according to the Forest Service.

Water is one of the most important resources found in forests. The Forest Service manages the largest single source of water in the U.S., providing drinking water to more than 66 million people, according to the agency.

At a time when at least 36 states anticipate water shortages in the next 10 years, according to the General Accounting Office's Freshwater Supply Report from July 2003, it's important to support stewardship efforts at all levels to promote healthy, sustainable watersheds fundamental to ecosystem and public.

In addition, millions of Americans visit the forests for recreation every year. The Outdoor Foundation estimates that outdoor recreation activities provides a $730 billion contribution to the U.S. economy, supporting 6.5 million jobs across the country and generating $49 billion in annual tax revenues.

The proposal is being developed under the National Forest Management Act that governs all forests activities since 1982, when the Reagan administration adopted wildlife viability protection in response to the decline of sensitive and rare species under the Endangered Species Act.

This rule stopped approval of development projects that did not take into account the need to conserve wildlife. The litigation began in 2005 and again in 2008 when the Bush Administration tried to rewrite this regulation, lifting the requirement that the Forest Service manage its lands so that all native species can remain viable.

This was challenged by Defenders of Wildlife in the courts, which found that the proposed regulation was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

"The proposed planning rule seeks to conserve our forests for the benefit of water, wildlife, recreation and the economic vitality of our rural communities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated in a Forest Service press release Feb. 10 announcing the planning rule. "The proposed rule will provide the tools to the Forest Service to make our forests more resilient to many threats including pests, catastrophic fire and climate change. Healthy forests and economically strong rural communities form a solid foundation as we work to win the future for the next generation."

Land management of these areas focuses on timber harvesting, livestock grazing, water, wildlife and recreation. Unlike National Parks, commercial use of these forests is permitted.

To develop this draft, the Forest Service worked hard to strengthen public involvement in the planning process; they held more than 40 public meetings and roundtables across the country that drew more than 3,000 participants and hosted a blog to engage the public. In addition, more than 26,000 comments were reviewed to issue this rule, the Forest Service stated.

The proposed framework for the planning process consists of a three-part cycle: assessment, plan revision or amendment, and monitoring. Each phase includes requirements for working with the public and requires identifying unique roles and contributions to the local area, region and nation. In the face of climate change, plans would maintain or restore ecosystem, watershed health and resilience; protect key ecosystem elements including plan and animal diversity, and water resources

Some environmental groups praised the proposed rule as an improvement over the Bush regulations, but quickly expressed disappointment at what they see as a setback for conservation.

In her blog, Liz Judge, of Earthjustice, said "there is good news and bad news" in the proposed forest plan. "Unfortunately, the plan proposed by the Obama administration is strong on modern concepts but severely weak on real standards and measures to protect the waters of our national forests."

Roger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, the group that halted the plans proposed by the previous administration, was quoted in the Kansas City Star saying that, "They do a little thing here or there that's good. But this is a significant rollback of protections for wildlife and habitat."

The main concern for these groups is that the draft rules lack standards that would protect animals and watersheds from harm. For example, the current rule requires that the forest be managed to maintain "viable populations" of all native and wildlife, while under the new rule local managers could choose which species would be of conservation concern, beyond those already receiving mandatory protections under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal also requires buffer zones around streams and rivers that are critical for drinking water, but it does not provide specifics.

Jane Danowitz, Program Director for the Pew Environmental Group, issued this statement after the proposed rules were announced: "The Obama administration's proposal provides some important guidance for restoring our national forests, but takes a significant step backward from the strong wildlife protection standards first issued by President Reagan that are still in force today. With our forests facing unprecedented threats from climate change and energy development, protections for water and wildlife are needed now more than ever. Our national forests are the source of drinking water for more than 120 million Americans and host more rare species than even our national park system. We hope that the administration will back up its proposal with clear standards for water and wildlife protection."

The bottom line for anyone who loves the sights, sounds, smells and all the countless emotions the forests offer us — plus all who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, camp and fishing — is that the publication of the proposed planning in the Federal Register will kick off a 90-day public comment period, ending May 16. To encourage public participation, the Forest Service is hosting an open forum to discuss the proposed rule March 10 in Washington, DC, but the event will be web cast to allow national participation. Additional information is available at http://www.fs.usda.gov/planningrule.

As caretakers or stewards of the earth, we have a responsibility to build our habitat in a way that allows for the survival of all species at all times.

GUSTAVO GRAD is a Laguna Beach resident and certified sustainable building advisor. He can be reached at ggrad@cox.net.

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