The U.S. Forest Service today released a new draft rule for managing our National Forests and Grasslands, approximately 191 million acres of critical watersheds and wildlife habitat across the United States. National Forest lands are the single largest source of drinking water in the nation, providing fresh water to some 60 million people. Watersheds on our National Forests cradle our rivers and streams and anchor sport and commercial fisheries. Protection of these forested watershed areas is necessary for the future of our nation. The planning rule, once finalized, will govern the long-term plans that guide the management of each unit of our National Forest System. Forest plans typically last for 15 or more years.
This draft rule comes after a 2008 Bush administration rule was struck down as illegal by the courts for, among other things, failing to protect watersheds and eliminating mandatory wildlife conservation requirements. Earthjustice represented a number of conservation organizations in that successful challenge. The current rules governing the protection of these treasured wild lands have been in place since 1982, when President Reagan created them with a strong national mandate to protect wildlife.
The following is a statement from Earthjustice Attorney Kristen Boyles:
"The Forest Service has more work to do if it’s going to live up to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s vision of safeguarding the rivers and streams of our national forests that provide drinking water for 60 million Americans and are home to thriving fish populations. The draft released today grasps the concepts of stream and watershed protection, but lacks hard and fast rules that will ensure the protection of water and watersheds. Without such requirements, the protection of our streams, rivers, and important watersheds could be left in limbo.
"For example, the draft rule requires mandatory protection zones for habitats along streams, rivers, and lakes, but it doesn't set a minimum size for those protection zones or set rules for what activities can or cannot occur within those zones. Without these sorts of minimum national standards, the on-the-ground protection of these important habitats along streams is still totally uncertain.
"As another example, the Forest Service directs national forests to identify for protection and restoration “priority” watersheds—those areas that are most important for fish and clean water. At the national level, this is a conceptual breakthrough; however, the rule fails to give national forest managers any criteria or guidance on how to choose these key watersheds and how to ensure that all the work to protect and restore is done effectively.
"There are also some misses in this draft rule. First, in order to protect forest watersheds, the Forest Service must effectively manage logging roads—the largest long-standing threat to water quality along these streams and in their watersheds. On this issue, the draft rule is silent.
"Since President Ronald Reagan first proposed the original wildlife conservation standard for our national forests, the Forest Service has been obligated to provide for the health of all species on its lands—those doing well and those in decline. The idea was to keep fish and wildlife out of the emergency room. The wildlife conservation proposal embedded in the draft rule only requires attention once the species is on life support. This is a problem for anyone who likes to hunt, fish, or view wildlife in our national forests."
"As it written, this proposal delivers on theories but misses on accountability and delivery—Americans want more than words; they want the reality that the waters of our national forests will be protected and the healthy fish and wildlife populations will be conserved for all Americans who depend on national forests for jobs, recreation, and cherished family pastimes. In the coming months, we hope the administration finishes the job it started on this rule."