The federal Department of Agriculture unveiled a new plan Thursday to manage the national forest system that government officials said would give them more flexibility in responding to modern stresses like climate change while also heading off lawsuits.
The 97-page plan, which could potentially guide mining, logging and wildlife protection in 155 national forests across nearly 200 million acres, is only a proposal and is likely to face fierce scrutiny and undergo many changes before it goes into effect.
While mining and timber industry groups seemed to take a wait-and-see attitude, several environmental advocacy groups quickly expressed deep disappointment over what they saw as setbacks for conservation.
“The bottom line is that this is a significant rollback of required protections for wildlife and habitat compared to what currently exists,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, an advocacy group that through litigation halted two forest management plans proposed by the administration of President George W. Bush. “It is amazing. The public had the right to expect more from the Obama administration.”
At a news conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department was trying to put a new emphasis on maintaining “forest resiliency.” He also said he hoped that if the process of forestry management was made much more open to the public for comment at earlier stages, a consensus could develop that would make litigation less likely.
Because of lawsuits and other hurdles, it now generally takes five to eight years for a plan for an individual forest to go forward, from carving out protections for wildlife to granting permission for logging or mining. But that could be reduced to three years under the proposed framework, Vilsack said.
“We want less time in the courts and more in forest,” he said.
But environmental groups said while the new rule was full of solicitous language about scientific standards and concern about biological diversity, it was short on the kinds of minimum standards that would protect animals and watershed areas from harm.
For example, the groups said, the current forest rules, put in place in 1982, require that the forest be managed to maintain “viable populations” of all native fish and wildlife. Under the proposed rule, local managers could choose which species would be of “conservation concern” beyond those already receiving mandatory protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The proposed rule also requires buffer areas around stream and river areas critical to drinking water but it does not specify the size of those areas or what activities could be precluded there, the groups said.