3:52pm

Fri March 25, 2011
Environment

Forest Plan Overhaul Sparks Controversy

The Obama Administration has been holding public meetings throughout the region on a sweeping new proposed National Forest planning rule.  This is the big one, the document that guides local forest plans which dictate everything from where mountain bikers can ride to which trees can be logged.  They’re always controversial and the current new national proposed rule up for comment seems to be no exception.

The current rule the Forest Service is operating under goes all the way back to 1982, with some revisions made in 2000.  A lot has changed on national forests since then.  Logging is on the decline, climate change’s unwelcome impacts are on the rise to name two. 

"I think what we want to have is a rule that is our best effort to try to reflect the broad and diverse interests of the American people and of those who use and enjoy the national forests," says Ric Rine, the assistant director for planning at the US Forest Service’s Washington DC office.

Rine is traveling throughout the West explaining the proposed new plan, and getting an earful from everyone from off-road vehicle users to timber companies to wildlife groups. 

Like any bureaucratic planning document, the proposed rule isn’t exactly bedtime reading.  But there are several clear themes; such as directives that the Forest Service consider the best possible peer-reviewed science before issuing local management decisions and a push for more forest restoration and habitat protection jobs.

"The proposed forest rule has some promising ambitions," says Caitlin Balch-Burnett, Colorado outreach representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "However, we feel like these ambitions really do not translate into meaningful and binding standards."  

Defenders of Wildlife is one of the groups that sued the Bush Administration during its attempt to revise the 1982 planning rule.  Courts threw that out twice in 2005 and 2008.  Balch-Burnett says the Obama Administration’s plan gives too much discretion to the Forest Service and its local forest managers when making decisions on watershed or wildlife habitat protection.

"Our concern is with so much flexibility and not enough guidance given, that’s when you know, critters can fall through the cracks in terms of management and protection," she says.

But by giving more flexibility to local forest managers in its proposed rule, the Forest Service also seems to be trying to address complaints from critics of litigious-minded conservation groups who argue current planning gets too bogged down in administrative appeals. 

Tom Troxel, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Association which represents timber companies in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota, says in this era of budget deficits, the planning process is too long and costly. 

"I live in Rapid City," Troxel says. "The Black Hills National Forest I think has the world record for forest plan revision, it took them 16 years to finish a 10-15 year plan."

In other words, Troxel says, forest plans are supposed to get updated every 10-15 years.  On average, local forests take about six years just to revise a plan. 

That was about how long it took Colorado’s most visited forest, the White River N.F., to issue its latest version in 2002, according to a forest spokesman.  And much has changed there since then.  Just think about all those beetle-killed trees dotting the hillsides of Summit County, for instance.

Troxel says the current national proposal does little to address the costs and complexity embedded in the existing rule which he says has made it difficult for timber businesses to operate under.

"Whatever your interest in the national forest is, it’s better to have them managing forests and maintaining trails and improving wildlife habitat than it is in this endless planning process," Troxel says. 

At a public meeting earlier this month in Golden, Forest Service officials fielded criticisms similar to those of Troxel and conservationists.  The agency’s Ric Rine says that’s why the proposed national rule is a draft, not a done deal.

"If people believe that there’s more that’s needed in the rule, than we would like to hear that comment," Rine says. "We’d particularly like to hear what they recommend."

The Forest Service is taking written comments until May 16th.  The agency says it will then write a final rule in the months following.