New Forest Service rule: more questions than answers |

New Forest Service rule: more questions than answers

A proposed planning rule change that would update the existing, nearly 30-year-old U.S. Forest Service rule has met with contention from Colorado environmentalists who think the rule is too loose.

The rule, amounting to almost 80 pages, is the framework within which land management plans are developed. The plans guide management activities on the 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands in the National Forest system.

The goal with the new rule is to reflect the latest science and knowledge of how to create and implement effective land management plans.

“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,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Rocky Smith, of the environmental group Colorado Wild, said the rule wouldn’t necessarily have a disproportionate effect on the White River National Forest, at least until they revise their management plan in the near future.

However, he said the proposed regulations are weaker, in terms of their requirements, than they were when the White River National Forest plan was originally composed, shortly after the turn of the millennium.

Smith said there could be effects to wildlife with vague language about protection and conservation. He added that monitoring of projects such as oil and gas development and timber cutting is more lax.

“You ask what do they monitor? That’s a good question,” he said. “We don’t know. We’ll keep an eye on that.”

Language is also less specific for watersheds and protection of cultural and historical resources, he said, explaining that the rules do require management plans to protect the cultural resources, but have contradictory language.

Smith said the preamble to the rule “allows resources to be damaged if it’s necessary to meet another plan objective.”

He added there’s more interest in national forests than when the current rule was written in 1982.

“If anything, you’d think the Forest Service would want to protect resources,” Smith said.

He seeks to promote public input on the proposed rule changes to encourage the Forest Service to improve them before they put them in place.

“If we have a plan that doesn’t require protection, it won’t get done,” he said. “Weaker rules mean weaker plans which put resources at risk well into the future.”

But Forest Service staff say the new rule is “a positive framework that will allow the Forest Service to more effectively restore our natural resources, support the economy and adapt to changing conditions,” Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman said.

The proposed plan is said to promote ecological sustainability and contribute to rural job opportunities, as well as guide forest and watershed restoration and resilience, habitat protection, sustainable recreation and management for multiple uses of the forest service system, including timber.

Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said he’s struggling to identify how the new rule would impact Summit County, comprised of some 70 percent, or nearly 180-square miles, of national forest land.

“The devil is in the detail,” he said, explaining that he’s normally able to quickly determine how a document would impact his territory.

His main concerns are how the new rule would impact forest health, the economy coming from national forest tourism, multiple uses, climate change, efficient and effective management, collaboration and cooperation, wildlife habitat and watersheds.

“It’s important to pay attention to what this really means,” he said. “It could have major – positive or negative – consequences to Summit County.”

He does, however, agree that the rules need updating – saying it’s “scary” to him that they haven’t been updated in nearly 30 years, particularly when forests have changed significantly.

The proposed rule is the product of more than 40 public meetings and roundtables across the country that drew more than 3,000 participants. It also reflects feedback from a public blog and 26,000 comments from the notice of intent to issue a new planning rule.

“The Forest Service has been a steward of American lands for more than a century, and this proposed planning rule will build on that tradition,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said. “We value the thoughtful input we’ve received in the development of this proposed rule, and we look forward to continuing collaboration to construct an adaptive management framework for the people’s forests and grasslands, based on sound science and reflecting public values.”

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