Forest Service Planning under Way

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Anyone interested in a new planning directive for the U.S. Forest Service can check out a live Webcast on the topic this week and attend a roundtable discussion being held in Portland next week.

This isn't a revision of a management plan for an individual national forest or even a region: It's the guiding document that tells the Forest Service what the agency must consider and how it must engage the public as it makes land management decisions all across the country.

To understand the significance of the effort, look no further than the northern spotted owl, that controversial denizen of the very oldest Pacific Northwest forests. When the owl was listed as endangered in 1990, it was enforcement of a Forest Service planning rule that brought logging on Oregon's national forests to a virtual standstill.

Mandated by Congress in 1976 and put into practice by the Forest Service in 1982, the National Forest Management Act required that fish and wildlife habitat be managed to maintain viable populations of existing native species.

It was language judges couldn't ignore, said Andy Stahl, executive director of the nonprofit conservation group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, and the key to the lawsuits that halted logging and eventually led to the development of the regional Northwest Forest Plan that's still in place today, governing wildlife protection and logging on the federal forests that comprise millions of acres in Oregon.

The 1982 planning rule is a dense document that includes the way the Forest Service must evaluate recreation, timber, mineral, wilderness, cultural and historic resources as it manages forests.

Administrations going back to President Reagan have tried to change the planning rule, Stahl said. But alterations by the Clinton administration in 2000 were too complex to implement, and revisions in 2005 and 2008 by the Bush Administration got shot down in the courts.

Now the Obama administration is going to try its hand at making changes.

The 1982 version needs an update for several reasons, said Phil Mattson director of resource planning and monitoring for the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest region.

Its analytical requirements aren't particularly useful, he said, and it doesn't address the contribution of forests to the social and economic well-being of communities. It also is silent on the use of science.

Stahl agrees that the analytical benchmarks (which Stahl said he wrote while working as a timber industry lobbyist at the time) should be scrapped and the overall language simplified. But the standards that protect the environment should be kept, he said.

"They have substantive mandates that are enforceable in a court of law," he said.

Advocates for the timber industry would like to see alterations that reflect changing conditions on the forest, said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council.

"We'd like to see a balance in the forest planning process," Partin said.

"We're reminding people that balance and sustainability are important, as well as survivability for rural economies," he said.

National forests represent 70 to 80 percent of the land ownership in many western rural counties, Partin said.

The American Forest Resource Council has submitted written comments including a request for a revision on the species viability rule. …