The Obama administration's proposed new rules for protecting clean water and wildlife on the United States' nearly 200 million acres of national forests goes against the president's pledge to let science be the guide, conservation groups and two former Clinton administration officials said Monday.
The administration made a "clear commitment" to make conservation policy based on sound science when it took office, said Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group.
"One of the things we are asking for today is simple: Use science to set clear standards," Danowitz said. "Make sure water and wildlife are protected for generations to come."
The comments came in a teleconference from Washington, D.C., marking the end of a 90-day public comment period on new rules governing administration of the National Forest Management Act. The U.S. Forest Service expects to come out with final rules by the end of the year.
Also participating was Jamie Rappaport Clark, a Defenders of Wildlife executive and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director. Clark said forest supervisors being given unprecedented discretion under the new rules need strong standards and guidelines to resist the political pressure they regularly face in making decisions on managing their lands.
Jim Furnish, a former deputy chief of the Forest Service, said the proposed rules tell local forest supervisors to consider science but leave them room to ignore science when making decisions on protecting clean water resources, fish and wildlife habitat, and endangered species.
The proposed rules represent another shift to the right on environmental issues for the Obama administration, which recently stood aside as Congress lifted Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the Rocky Mountains and took steps to ramp up domestic oil production by extending drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.
The 155 national forests and grasslands managed by the Forest Service cover 193 million acres in 42 states and Puerto Rico. They provide about 40 percent of the nation's clean water and threatened and endangered species habitat.
Balance between industry and conservation in those areas has been tough to find since the existing rules took effect in 1982. The existing rules were the basis for lawsuits that cut logging by more than 80 percent to protect salmon, the northern spotted owl and other fish and wildlife.
Tony Tooke is overseeing development of the rules as Forest Service director of ecosystem management coordination. He said the agency is trying to write rules that will guide a collaborative process based on science and other information sources. It looks forward to improving the rules after reviewing more than 100,000 public comments received, he added.
"There are other important sources of information as well, used in the planning process," Tooke said. "For example, local indigenous knowledge, public input, agency policies, the results of the monitoring process and the experience of land managers on the ground."
On national forest policy, the Obama administration came into office supporting protection of undeveloped areas known as roadless areas and payments to rural counties hurt by the loss of logging revenues.
Earlier this year Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he wanted to break through the logjam of political conflict over forest management by using science to do what is best for the forests.
More than 400 scientists and a bipartisan group of congressmen wrote letters urging Vilsack to also include more specific protections for clean water and wildlife habitat in the rules.
"This policy is probably one of the most important conservation measures I think this administration will ever undertake," said U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.