After striking out the last three times, the U.S. Forest Service is embarking on another rewrite of the basic planning rule that balances logging against fish and wildlife and clean water in national forests.
Echoing his speech earlier this year laying out a greener future for the national forests, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced from Washington, D.C., on Thursday that work is starting on an environmental impact statement to take the place of the most recent one produced by the Bush administration that was struck down by a federal judge.
"Our national forests and grasslands are great natural treasures that we must conserve and restore for the benefit of future generations," Vilsack said in a statement. "Developing a new planning rule provides the opportunity to manage national forests and grasslands for the benefit of water resources, the climate and local communities."
The Bush administration's attempt to ease protections for fish and wildlife habitat under the rule were struck down last June by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, Calif., who found that the Forest Service failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of changing the rule.
Learning from the past, the Forest Service is committed to a transparent, public process based on science, and was even starting a blog on its Web site so anyone could weigh in on the issues, said Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the Forest Service in charge of the national forest system.
Besides the traditional issues of timber production, fish and wildlife habitat, and clean water, the process would also consider global warming, restoration of unhealthy forests, and the growth of wildfires on the 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, he said.
After World War II, the primary role of the national forests was turning out timber, until the 1976 National Forest Management Act created the idea of multiple use, making the Forest Service responsible for providing fish and wildlife habitat and clean water, as well.
The 1982 update of rules putting the act into force included a mandate to maintain viable populations of so-called indicator species, such as the northern spotted owl. As the demands of that sank in, forests had to cut back timber production, until today national forests produce about a quarter of what they did during the peak years in the 1980s.
The rule became a political football, depending on whether environmental groups or timber groups held sway in the White House. One revision by the Clinton administration, and two by the Bush administration were all thrown out by federal judges for failing to follow environmental laws.
After eight years of the Bush administration trying, but largely failing to ease environmental protections to boost timber production, the timber industry, conservation groups, and members of Congress have all become frustrated with the Forest Service. Two bills have been filed in Congress that would tell the Forest Service to get going on forest restoration projects.
"Our hope is the administration will reconvene the committee of scientists like it did for the 1982 rule, which was the last time a solid conservation rule emerged from this rule-making process," said Pete Frost, a lawyer for the Western Environmental Law Center, who helped win the latest ruling against the Forest Service.
Tom Partin, president of the timber industry group American Forest Resource Council, said he hoped the new rule would make room for more large-scale timber sales that would help loggers and mills go back to work.
"There's just a lot of confusion out there," said Partin.
Pending forest management plans will be written under the 1982 rule, Holtrop said.