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Obama Plan Could Leave National Forest Streams, Watersheds, and Wildlife Without Adequate Protection

Agency must work to strengthen and fix proposed rule before finalizing
March 10, 2011
Washington, D.C. — 

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service convenes a national forum to promote the agency’s newly proposed planning rule to guide the future of our National Forests. Unfortunately, the proposed plan could allow wildlife to become imperiled and does not insure adequate protection for the waters and watersheds within our National Forests.

Forest plans typically last 15–20 years and serve as blueprints for all activities on our National Forests. They must ensure protection of the critical watersheds they contain, which provide drinking water for 124 million Americans, as well as the diverse wildlife on these lands. The agency released its proposed forest planning rule on February 10, 2011, to replace the Reagan administration’s 1982 planning rule.

The new planning rule recognizes important forest management concepts, but it lacks clear direction and binding standards to ensure the protection of waters and wildlife in our National Forests. Without such requirements, the protection of our streams, rivers, fish, and wildlife is left in limbo, subject to shifting politics and local development pressures.

“The Forest Service’s draft rule shows that the Obama administration understands and supports the basic concepts of how to protect the indispensible watersheds on our National Forests, but, by failing to adopt enforceable standards, it falls short of guaranteeing the protections our country desperately needs,” said Earthjustice Vice President of Policy and Legislation Marty Hayden. “The residents of 900 U.S. cities across 33 states depend on these waters and on the administration getting this right.”

“About half of the population of the entire western United States relies on National Forest watersheds for their drinking water, so the stakes are far too high for the Obama administration to propose a rule that doesn’t set real standards to protect these waters,” added Hayden.

“It’s not just the streams, rivers, and wetlands outside my back door and yours that remain in trouble. Waters across the nation are threatened by a legacy of serious harm from forest and grazing land use on National Forest lands,” said Dr. Chris Frissell, director of science and conservation for the Pacific Rivers Council. “This history is a principal reason why our native trout and salmon are in such tough shape today, and this means the new planning rule will need to take firm steps forward, not backward, to ensure the health of our watersheds and fisheries is restored.”

“The rule still needs, among other things, clear direction to reduce harm to watersheds by removing and restoring forest roads, an established national minimum streamside buffer zone, and development and compliance with firm standards protecting waters and aquatic life,” said Dr. Frissell. “Good intentions are great, but in an ecosystem as complicated as a watershed, standards and a commitment to real monitoring are necessary to ensure that the agency’s actions in fact protect and restore the environment. This draft rule doesn’t get us there. “

On the proposed rule’s treatment of science, Dr. Frissell added: “The rule still needs language to say it’s the Forest Service’s job to both bring the best available scientific information to the table and to actually use it as the basis for planning, and to implement and monitor the measurable standards that are necessary to ensure water resources and watershed health are in fact being protected and restored.”

The rule may translate into even greater losses for the wildlife in National Forests, some of the most ecologically diverse lands in the world and home to over 5,000 species of fish and wildlife and over 10,000 plant species.

“For the wildlife in our National Forests, the Forest Service’s proposal is a major step backward. Unlike the 1982 rule, this rule does not lay out safeguards for all species on National Forests lands,” said Hayden. “Instead, it allows some species to be left behind until they are in the emergency room. Any failure to keep common species common will be felt by the millions of Americans who hunt, fish, and camp on these lands, as well as our $730 billion-a-year outdoor recreation economy.”

“The good news is that there is still time to fix this proposed rule,” said Hayden. “We hope the Obama administration and the Forest Service provide the necessary safeguards for the waters and wildlife of our National Forests in any final rule they adopt.”

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Background on the National Forest Planning Rule:

Protection of National Forests and Grasslands is essential for the future of our nation. We have 155 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands covering 193 million acres. Our National Forests are the single largest source of drinking water in the nation, supplying 124 million Americans.

The 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. The current rules governing the protection of these treasured wild lands have been in place since a 1982 Reagan administration rule.

The Bush administration twice tried to rewrite the 1982 rules in an attempt to eliminate wildlife conservation requirements and undermine sound science and environmental analysis. Earthjustice challenged both of the Bush-era rules on behalf of a coalition of organizations in the courts, and the courts soundly rejected both rules.

How To Fix the The National Forest Management Planning Rule:

Preserve Water and Watersheds
The rule must guarantee safe, clean water by protecting and restoring streams, rivers, and watersheds, which provide drinking water to millions of Americans. It can only do so by:

  • Requiring mandatory, scientifically sound protection zones for habitats along streams, rivers, and lakes.
  • Setting a minimum default width (at least 100 feet) for those protection zones and setting rules for what activities can or cannot occur within those zones. Management actions within these zones must be limited to those that are scientifically proven to be necessary to achieve their protection. Without such minimum national standards, the on-the-ground protection of these important habitats will remain uncertain.
  • Requiring that forest managers identify for protection and restoration “priority” watersheds—those areas that are most important for fish and clean water. In particular, the effective management of logging roads in these watersheds is critical as they are the largest long-standing threat to water quality on our National Forests.
  • Giving forest managers specific criteria and guidance on how to choose these key watersheds and how to ensure that all work to protect and restore them is done effectively.

Protect Fish and Wildlife
The rule must use sound science to safeguard our natural heritage by conserving healthy fish and wildlife populations and their habitats.
It can only do so by:

  • Setting mandatory and specific wildlife viability standards that ensure more than a species’ mere survival, but also protect the species’ ability to keep thriving into the future. The Forest Service must provide for the health of all species on its lands—those doing well and those in decline.
  • Establishing a process for assessing and responding to threats to fish, wildlife, and habitat in the development and implementation of forest plans.
  • Creating a monitoring program based on sound science to ensure that forest habitats are being adequately protected and can support viable wildlife populations.

Use Sound Science

  • The rule must require forest plans conform to the best available science.

Contact:
Liz Judge, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 237