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Forests For Our Future: Strengthening the Forest Planning Rule

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service and named the first National Forests. So began our nation’s reverence for its own outdoor legacy, the waters that sustain it, and the diverse wildlife it harbors.

Today, we have 155 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands covering 193 million acres combined. Our National Forests are the single largest source of drinking water in the nation, supplying drinking water to 124 million Americans. Millions more every year visit these lush, diverse forests and grasslands for their pristine beauty, magnificent landscapes, family camping spots, world-class recreation and sporting opportunities, hunting and fishing, and abundant and rare wild creatures. These lands provide habitat for more than 5,000 species of fish and wildlife and more than 10,000 plant species. They are among the most ecologically diverse lands in the world. These national treasures help keep the United States’ $730 billion-a-year outdoor recreation economy afloat.

Protection of these forests and their waters is necessary for the future of our nation.

The U.S. Forest Service manages our National Forests under one set of rules, which in turn directs the development of plans for individual forests in 42 states and Puerto Rico that typically last 15 or more years. The current rules governing the protection of these treasured wild lands have been in place since 1982, when President Reagan, based on the evaluation of a committee of scientists, created them with a strong national mandate to protect wildlife.

But today, are forests and their critical watersheds are damaged by logging, road construction, grazing, and other industrial activities. Our vital waters, drinking supplies, and prized wildlife are suffering. It is past time for a new planning rule that is strong and smart enough to protect our National Forests and life-giving waters within them, now and well into the future.

On February 10, 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service unveiled a new draft Forest Planning Rule to govern the individual plans that guide the management of each unit of our National Forest System.

Unfortunately, the rule that the Obama administration proposed lacked the hard-and-fast standards that will ensure the protection of water, watersheds, and wildlife in our National Forests. Without such requirements, the protection of our streams, rivers, and important watersheds could be left in limbo, subject to shifting politics and local development pressures.

Earthjustice helped to lead a large coalition of national, regional, local citizen groups to advocate for a stronger final rule that adequately protects our critical waters and wildlife. Earthjustice supporters joined with conservationists, hunters, fishers, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, wildlife watchers, and other concerned citizens to generate more 300,000 public comments on the proposed rule, urging the Obama administration to strengthen our forest, water, and wildlife protections.

On January 26, 2012, the Obama administration and its Forest Service revealed its final proposed rule for managing our National Forests. (Read our full press statement.)

That rule is a step forward from past plans in terms of protecting our nation’s critical water resources. In addition, it is clear that the Forest Service took those 300,000-plus public comments seriously and improved the plan’s water safeguards.

For the first time ever, the Forest Service showed that it is beginning to look at the health of the forest its watersheds in a new, holistic and sustainable way, by treating the causes rather than just the symptoms.

Unfortunately, however, while the plan is a great improvement for our nation’s threatened waters, the proposal leaves the fate of many fish and wildlife species uncertain. Our National Forests are sacred ground, providing core habitat for so many species. They are critical to the survival of our wildlife, and if they are not managed to protect wildlife populations, then we are likely to lose many species.

Earthjustice will be working in the final 30 days of review to strengthen this plan and make sure that it gives adequate protections to wildlife in our National Forests.