New Forest Regulations Loosen Governance
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, new federal rules that would change the way the country’s forests are managed.
The changes would loosen the control and governance of the 155 national forests in the United States, covering some 192 million acres.
Under the new rules, regional forest managers would be given more authority and discretion to decide whether to allow timber removal, road construction, grazing, and other economic activities in their respective forests.
The U.S. Forest Service would no longer require that environmental impact reports be issued for broader plans in forests.
Instead, federal officials will look at the impact of specific projects such as a timber sale. But forest managers also will place a greater emphasis on assessing the overall health of a forest rather than the fate of individual species when they make their decisions.
Supporters of the changes, which were years in the making, say the rules will cut years off the planning process and better address looming problems like forest fires by allowing for timber removal.
But many environmental groups say the new regulations allow for too much development and too little protection of wildlife.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, two views on how these new rules will change the way forests are run. Sean Cosgrove is the national forests specialist for the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group.
And Rick Cables is with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s worked in forests for three decades. He’s the regional forester for the Rocky Mountain region, overseeing 22 million acres in five states.
And Rick Cables, I guess you’re one of the managers who would be affected by these new rules.
Explain what it would mean in your day-to-day work and what it would mean to the forests in your view.
RICK CABLES: Well, thank you. And thanks for having us on the show tonight. This is a really profound change for our field professionals.
The current rule we’re operating under was promulgated in 1982. And so it’s 22 years old and a lot has changed in the last two decades.
The issues that we’re dealing with today — catastrophic wildfire, invasive species that are propagating all over the national forest and actually globally, the explosion of recreation use that’s impacting our national forest and grassland are different issues than we had 22 years ago.
And we need a set of forest planning rules and regulations to take us into the 21st century.
The biggest change in my mind is that this rule is going to enable our field people to get on the ground and do the things the American public expects our forestry professionals to be doing: Monitor the use of the recreation, recreating public, make sure that we’re detecting invasive species when the outbreaks are small and we can control them.
And the firefighting and the wildfires we’ve had in the West, the catastrophic fires, here in Colorado we had the largest fire in the history of the state in 2002.
Firefighters will tell you the biggest threat to their health and safety is the unnatural condition of the forest.
And if we aren’t able to quickly and urgently manage those forests and put them in a more natural condition, which protects communities and makes the wildfires less catastrophic, then we’re not doing our job.
So the biggest change in my mind is enabling our people to get to work on the ground, implementing plans instead of just sitting in the office chained to a computer developing plans.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you noted that the rules were 22 years old. Were there anything in the old rules that kept you from managing recreation, working on fire management plans and the kinds of things you just named?
RICK CABLES: Well, the processes had become so bureaucratic over time: 22 years litigation, court cases more rules on top of rules, it had become a real maze of policies and bureaucracies layered on top of each other over that length of time.
And so when we had a developing situation, for example, the condition of the forest that we’re trying to restore now, has happened over the past couple decades, and then you have a drought so you’ve got an urgent situation.
The old rules required you to go through so many steps and process that it took years, literally, to make a change and enable you to deal with the conditions on the ground.
In my region, for example, here, the Black Hills National Forest, we’ve been ten years revising a forest plan that’s got a lifespan of fifteen years. And that just doesn’t make sense to people.
It’s too much time staying engaged with the process, and the only people that can stick with it that long — for ten years — are what one of our retired chiefs called the paid gladiators, the special interest advocates on either side of the equation that can stick with the process that long.
But most citizens don’t have nearly the amount of time or energy to do that. This new rule will shorten the process, and work by a substantial amount, and give us the chance where regular citizens actually have a shot at staying with the planning process and influencing how their national forests are going to look over time.
RAY SUAREZ: Sean Cosgrove, you heard the forester talk about having a more nimble, responsive service. Problem?
SEAN COSGROVE: Well, it’s interesting to me, Ray, in that a number of the things that the Forest Service says why they need these new rules, they say they’re going to be more responsive to the public; they’re going to protect wildlife better.
That’s exactly what these rules don’t do. The Forest Service has a problem with placing their priorities in line with what the public wants.
For long time, the Forest Service had a huge timber sell program of logging ancient forests in the Northwest and that’s basically what leads to a lot of litigation because the public doesn’t like it.
Well, these new rules basically eliminate the overall framework that tells Forest Service managers what their actual requirements are, helps them measure their standards against a solid goal.
What they want to do now is basically remove these rules and have a more flexible framework that doesn’t really lead to real protection or any real goals on the ground.
RAY SUAREZ: So you’re saying there’s nothing in the new regulations that protects wildlife and habitat the way the old regs did?
SEAN COSGROVE: That’s exactly true. One of the more simple requirements in the old regulations was what they call the viability standard, to protect vertebrate species.
These are not lichen and fungus that people have never heard of, these are vertebrate species, salmon, Goss hawks, creatures that people go – pay money to visit their national forests to see or to hunt or fish.
These new rules remove that standard; they basically say we are not going to require Forest Service managers to protect wildlife species.
We’re just going to ask them to kind of create a framework they can more or less be flexible with, and carry about their planning projects as they want to.
RAY SUAREZ: Rick Cables, do you the new regulations require to you protect habitat and protect species in the same way as the old ones did?
RICK CABLES: Actually, they require us to do it in a much stronger and more progressive way and including the most recent science.
The old rule, and Sean mentioned the viability standard, was built in 1982 and it was basically a species-by-species approach.
We’ve learned over the years that the best way to protect the viability and provide for the viability of wildlife species, is to take an ecosystem-wide approach or a landscape-wide approach.
And that is looking at the whole system. If we can maintain the system in a healthy condition, the species that are part of that system will be healthy.
Under the old rule or under an individual species-by-species approach, we could be taking care of an individual species and the whole system could be unraveling on the side.
And that’s not what we want to do.
But not only does this new rule enable us to look at the whole system which is a far more scientifically credible approach, we also have provisions in the rule to do a species-by-species analysis, as necessary.
If we find a species that’s getting in trouble or a species of concern, then we absolutely are able to — with the flexibility of these new rules, to address that and address it immediately, instead of this long, laborious process under the old rule.
So we’ve got the best of both worlds in this new rule. We’re able to look at – ecosystem-wide at the whole system, which is the best way to protect viability, and secondly we’ve got provisions to protect species on an individual species basis.
So I couldn’t disagree more with the assessment that Sean laid out, and I believe the natural resource professionals and the scientific community far prefer this current approach that we’ve just completed.
RAY SUAREZ: When this takes effect, what do you see happening to the forests?
SEAN COSGROVE: Well, let me give you an example of how this will work.
If you were to lay a quilt out on your floor and every day you cut an inch or two out of that quilt, that real small inch isn’t going to make a difference, but if do you that every single day through the course of a year, what you end up with is a pile of scraps and fabric on the floor, you’ve destroyed that quilt.
That’s how important these rules are, because it gives managers a standard for a very long time, over decades, of the health of the forest.
And so if you implement a number of different individual projects, timber sales, the cumulative impact is going to be devastating, clean water, water sheds, fish and wildlife habitat.
That’s the problem with this, is it basically cuts out the public, and it increases the ability for bad projects to go forward.
The Forest Service talks a lot about wanting flexibility, but they have some serious problems with their priorities.
Last year we spent — taxpayers spent $36 million to log the Tongass Rainforest; that subsidized about 200 jobs.
I don’t know how much they pay in the Forest Service these days, but that’s about $170,000 a job, a little more.
They’re still carrying out some very bad projects on the ground. These rules are going to eliminate the overall standard which those projects are measured against.
RAY SUAREZ: Sean Cosgrove, Rick Cables, gentlemen, thanks for your points of view.