Are National Forests and Drinking Water Supplies in Peril?

President Obama's draft plan for national forests and grasslands is well-intentioned, but lacks real protective measures that will guarantee accountability.

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Anyone who likes to hike, camp, fish, hunt, or view wildlife in our national forests—or anyone who wishes to do any of this anytime in the future—should be aware of a proposal for managing our national forests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Forest Service, released yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell announced and released their new draft rule for protecting our national forests and grasslands, approximately 191 million acres of critical watersheds and wildlife habitat across the United States.

The importance of this rule can’t be overstated.

National forest lands are the single largest source of drinking water in the nation, providing fresh water to some 66 million people. In addition to giving many of us the water we drink, our forests also are cherished grounds of our nation’s outdoor legacy. Every year, millions of Americans visit national forests for recreation and sport. While some of us would argue that time in the woods and wild is priceless, the Outdoor Industry Foundation estimates that activities like hiking, hunting, fishing, contribute $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

It’s also critical that the Obama administration gets this rule right because these forest plans typically last 15-20 years. The plan the Forest Service currently operates on is from 1982, when President Ronald Reagan created it with a strong national mandate to protect wildlife. This one document serves as a long-term blueprint for all federal and local action in and protection of the national forests—so it must be written to protect the forests adequately today and well into the future. That is to say, it must be strong and specific, it must have real standards, and it must employ a good amount of foresight, anticipating future challenges and, more importantly, taking good measure to avoid them.

On the rule, there is good news and bad news.

Unfortunately, the plan proposed by the Obama administration yesterday is strong on modern concepts but severely weak on real standards and measures to protect the waters of our national forests. It’s clear that Sec. Vilsack and chief Tidwell understand how forest watersheds must be protected, which is a huge improvement over the 2008 Bush administration rule, which was struck down as illegal by the courts for, among other things, failing to protect watersheds and eliminating mandatory wildlife conservation requirements. On watershed protection, Obama proposal contains some great concepts grounded in strong science—such as creating mandatory protected areas around streams and identifying key watersheds on which to give extra protection—but it lacks standards that will guide forest managers in how to execute those good ideas or guarantee that any local work is done effectively.

When a federal plan is high on theory but low on substance—that is, real standards, measures and requirements that guarantee accountability—it negates all the good thinking that was put into it. All can be lost on the ground. For that reason, it’s crucial that this blueprint for managing our forests contain the kind of standards and requirements that guarantee protection for our drinking water and water habitats.

That was the good news. It seems Sec. Vilsack and chief Tidwell put lofty thinking into their plan regarding forest watersheds. Now all they have to do is put some real standards in there, and they will write their legacy.

The bad news is that the proposed plan is a big problem for wildlife as well as a problem for anyone who likes to hunt, fish, or view wildlife in our national forests. The Obama administration’s plan is a major rollback of the strong safeguards for wildlife conservation issued by the Reagan administration in 1982. President Reagan’s administration built that plan around a key requirement that the U.S. Forest Service maintain healthy and sustainable fish and wildlife populations. Explained Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles in our reaction yesterday: “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 problem with the Obama plan, added Boyles, is that it “only requires attention once the species is on life support” by wiping away that federal directive to protect wildlife. It takes away the overarching federal requirement and puts wildlife protection on the shoulders of each individual forest manager, without accountability to the public. Effectively, it leaves the fate of hundreds of species uncertain.

Finally, there is a bit more good news: This is just the proposed rule. The public has 90 days to weigh in and demand stronger protections for our National Forests and the important waters and wildlife within. We still have a chance to strengthen this rule and protect our forests. We will keep you posted on how you can make a difference in the coming days and weeks.

Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.