The United States Forest Service's Response to Biodiversity Science

Article excerpt


Scientists agree that Earth is experiencing a mass extinction spasm.(1) Entire plant and animal species are disappearing daily; possibly more than seventy species disappear per day in the species-rich tropical forests alone.(2) This rate of extinction is approximately 100,000 times the rate scientists associate with normal "background" evolutionary extinction.(3) And even in the less-species-rich areas of the world the current extinction rate still exceeds background rates.(4) Indeed, the present extinction spasm may surpass all others known in Earth's history, both in magnitude and scope.(5) At the current rate, based on conservative estimates of the total number of species on Earth, an additional five to ten percent of Earth's species will be lost in just thirty years.(6)

Of the many modern anthropogenic causes of species loss,(7) habitat destruction is the primary culprit threatening species with extinction.(8) One recent study found that habitat destruction is the suspected cause of decline for eighty-five percent of all species in the United States for which data are available.(9) By dissecting habitat destruction into categories, scientists have revealed the effect of specific habitat-altering activities on different kinds of species. For example, ninety-one percent of all fish species listed or proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act(10) are imperiled from water development projects.(11) Timber extraction provides another compelling example.(12) Through the outright loss of forest habitat, habitat fragmentation, and stream destruction, among other things, timber extraction poses a serious threat to species' survival.(13) But forest managers can minimize the effect of timber extraction on forest dwelling species through management geared toward maintaining a diversity of healthy plant and animal populations (biodiversity).(14) Forest management--the combination of forest practices and other management decisions employed by forest managers--is therefore a crucial element in maintaining forest habitats capable of sustaining forest-dependent species. The United States Forest Service, under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA),(15) is the agency charged with maintaining biodiversity in the national forest system,(16) which covers approximately 191 million acres.(17)

The Forest Service's mandate to manage for biodiversity has evolved over the years, from virtually no mandate under the Organic Administrative Act of 1897 (Organic Act)(18) and Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 (MUSYA),(19) to the current directive of NFMA.(20) As the mandate has evolved, the agency's discretion over how it manages biodiversity gradually has diminished. Following WWII, with an increased public demand for forest products, the Forest Service became a major producer of the nation's timber, managing the forests with little regard for species diversity or survival.(21) With Congress's passage of MUSYA, the agency's mandate for the first time included consideration of multiple resources and a variety of uses.(22) Yet, even with that broadened scope, timber production remained the primary agency goal,(23) and the Forest Service managed the national forest system with apparently unassailable discretion.(24) In response to public outcry over the Forest Service's management practices,(25) Congress passed NFMA, setting substantive limits on how the Forest Service manages the national forest system and requiring a detailed process of forest management planning. One of those limits is that in developing Land and Resource Management Plans, commonly referred to as forest plans, the Forest Service must adhere to guidelines designed to maintain biodiversity.(26)

Congress intended in NFMA to limit the Forest Service's discretion over forest management by requiring the agency to maintain biodiversity in the national forests.(27) However, cognizant that forest management presented complex issues of science beyond the scope of its expertise, Congress did not attempt to define how the Forest Service should fulfill that directive. …