Defenders Praises New Science Report on National Forest Management

(03/15/1999) - Defenders of Wildlife praised a report issued today by a scientific panel appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, calling Sustaining the People's Lands an "excellent, science-driven guideline" for management of the National Forest System in the 21st century. The report, which reviews U.S. Forest Service implementation of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), is intended to provide the basis for new regulations governing management of the nation's 156 national forests.

"We've always known that modern science could provide a solid foundation for sustainable management of our national forests, and today's report confirms that view," Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said today. "Sustaining the People's Lands addresses many of the conservation community's concerns. In particular, it deflates attempts to weaken biodiversity protection under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976. Implementing NFMA's biodiversity mandate ranks second only to implementing the Endangered Species Act in its importance to protecting wildlife."

Defenders will testify tomorrow on the report before the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. "The report provides Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck with a solid foundation upon which to strengthen his agency's commitment to conserving the wildlife of our national forests," remarked Schlickeisen. Establishment of such a scientific panel was urged by environmental groups critical of earlier failed Forest Service efforts to rewrite the regulations implementing NFMA. Defenders of Wildlife and other groups had criticized the Forest Service for attempting to weaken species conservation requirements and for failing to base the agency's efforts on sound science. Many organizations had urged the Agriculture Department to convene a new Committee of Scientists, similar to the panel that provided advice in 1979 on the original regulations implementing NFMA.

Sustaining the People's Lands strongly reaffirms the need to maintain the Forest Service's population-viability regulation, which requires the agency to protect wildlife viability by maintaining well-distributed populations of individual species. The viability regulation, which implements NFMA's biodiversity mandate, has become the most important U. S. standard for protecting species other than the better known Endangered Species Act.

In 1991 and again in 1995 the Forest Service proposed repealing this regulation. The Service proposed to replace the viability regulation with a general duty to maintain "habitat capability." In doing so, the agency proposed to remove species status as a measurable regulatory endpoint and to replace it with an undefined and subjective goal that would be determined for each individual ecosystem.

The new report instead reaffirms the principle that ensuring the viability of individual wildlife populations is to a scientifically credible approach to managing for sustainability. It also proposes a new "focal species" approach that has great potential to be a more scientifically credible and efficient mechanism (in terms of agency resources) for determining the impact of management actions on maintaining species diversity in individual forests.

"In the past the Forest Service has repeatedly attempted to free itself from its duty to maintain viable wildlife populations, the single most meaningful measurement of success in fulfilling its legal obligation under NFMA to maintain biological diversity," noted Defenders' Schlickeisen. "This authoritative report should decisively settle a long-running dispute between environmental advocates and the Forest Service over the need to maintain the agency's population viability regulation."

The report also addresses the issue of the priority given to ecological sustainability in the context of NFMA's multiple-use mandate. Some in Congress and some private groups have suggested that wildlife conservation in national forests should be de-emphasized in order to increase timber production, which they argue is necessary to implement the Forest Service's multiple-use mandate. Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management, has proposed legislation that in effect would make logging the dominant use of national forests. Today's report, by contrast, declares that ecological sustainability is a necessary precondition for multiple use and should provide the foundation for Forest Service planning and management.

Sustaining the People's Lands recommends that ecological sustainability be maintained through ensuring ecological integrity as well as maintaining the viability of individual species. Key elements of ecological integrity include maintaining the characteristic ecosystem composition, structure and processes. In its recommendations, the science panel urges the Forest Service to supplement its existing management emphasis by creating a two-pronged approach to ensuring sustainability -- emphasizing both ecological integrity and conservation of individual species.

The report stresses that Forest Service actions must be based on sound science. In particular, the committee envisions that management standards for ecosystem integrity and species diversity will be based on the best available scientific information. Strong emphasis is placed on more monitoring and research than is presently done by the Forest Service in order to ensure scientifically credible validations of conservation approaches developed in regional assessments.

Sustaining the People's Lands recommends a number of additional biological concepts for incorporation into forest management. These include placing exclusive emphasis on managing for native species, expanding the existing concept of viability to include restoration, extending the species viability standard to include invertebrates, requiring independent scientific review of forest planning documents, recommending multiple planning scales, and codifying in regulation the agency's sensitive-species program. None of these important scientific concepts are contained in the Forest Service's current forest management regulations.

"The report establishes a solid framework of ensuring the sustainability of our national forests and the wildlife that depend on them," said Mary Munson, a Senior Public Lands Associate for Defenders of Wildlife. "The biggest questions now are to what extent the Forest Service will actually heed the scientists' recommendations and whether the agency will develop the clear standards so vital to ensuring sound implementation," she added. "Given the strong emphasis placed by Chief Dombeck on maintaining the natural resources of our national forests, we hope that he will issue new regulations that strengthen his agency's commitment to wildlife."

Defenders of Wildlife is a nonprofit conservation organization with approximately 300,000 members and supporters nationwide. It supports the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities and is a leader on issues regarding protection of public lands and endangered species.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270