Forest Service Proposes New Regulations to Modernize Forest Management

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(09/30/1999) - Defenders of Wildlife today praised the U.S. Forest Service’s draft regulations to govern the future management of the nation’s 191 million acres of national forest land. The draft regulations, made public today, would revise the forest planning regulations that implement the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) by making ecological sustainability the primary goal of forest managers and by retaining a requirement to maintain viable populations of wildlife. However, Defenders reserved final judgment on the proposal pending review of key details contained in the complex and lengthy regulatory document.

The draft regulations propose a stronger conservation focus for forest management and adopt many recommendations given by a panel of the country’s top scientists.

"The regulations incorporate innovative new approaches to national forest planning that collectively would serve to accomplish a long-overdue modernization of forest management," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife. "We applaud the emphasis on ecological sustainability, basing decisions on detailed ecological assessments and independent scientific review of plans. However, we are also quite concerned that the new regulations provide sufficient assurances that the stronger conservation vision is actually achieved, and our scientists and lawyers will be reviewing this aspect closely in the weeks ahead."

The regulations are based, in part, upon recommendations of a blue- ribbon panel of scientists appointed in 1997 by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to review forest-planning policies. The recommendations appeared in a March 1999 report entitled Sustaining the People’s Lands. The report has been praised by conservationists including Defenders of Wildlife for providing a solid scientific foundation for forest management and deflating controversial attempts to weaken the agency’s NFMA responsibility to protect biological diversity.

Two previous Forest Service efforts to rewrite the regulations implementing NFMA were unsuccessful. Defenders of Wildlife and other groups had criticized the Forest Service for attempting to weaken species conservation requirements and for failing to base their prior draft rules on sound science. At serious issue with prior draft rules was the agency’s regulatory duty to protect wildlife viability by maintaining well-distributed populations of individual species. This "viability rule," which implements NFMA’s biodiversity mandate, has become the most important standard for protecting species other than the Endangered Species Act. In 1991, and again in 1995, the Forest Service proposed repealing the viability rule. 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 replace it with an undefined and subjective goal that must be determined for each individual ecosystem.

The Committee of Scientists’ report instead reaffirms the principle that ensuring the viability of individual wildlife populations is an essential component of a scientifically credible approach to managing for sustainability. The draft regulations also contain a new focal species approach that has the 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 meaurement of its success in fulfilling its legal obligation under NFMA to maintain biological diversity," noted Schlickeisen. "Sustaining the Peoples Lands decisively settled a long-running dispute between conservationists and the Forest Service over the need to maintain the agency’s population viability regulation."

Defenders credits Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck for bringing a new ethic to the Forest Service. "In the past, national forests were often treated as purely a source of timber for the logging industry, a policy with a top priority of ‘sustained yield,’" said Mary Munson, Senior Habitat Conservation Associate for Defenders of Wildlife. "In 1998 Chief Dombeck announced his Natural Resources Agenda for the 21st Century, which placed top priority on maintaining and restoring the health of ecosystems and watersheds. These regulations are one of the administration’s first attempts to put that policy into specific, on-the-ground practice. We have yet to determine whether these regulations fully advance this agenda. However, it is clear that they contain many long- overdue improvements that represent a giant step in the right direction."

"One of the issues we will be reviewing most closely is whether the regulations grant the agency too much discretion," continued Munson. "The vast majority of Forest Service employees are excellent stewards of the land. But for the few who are still dedicated to ‘getting the cut out’ without regard to the effects on wildlife, we must have enforceable standards to fall back on. The agency must be held accountable for protecting wildlife on its lands."

Defenders of Wildlife is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 360,000 members and supporters nationwide. Defenders 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.

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Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270

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