In February, 2011, the U.S. Forest Service released its proposed revision of the NFMA (National Forest Management Act) planning rules. In its fourth attempt since 1982 to revise the rules that guide planning on 155 National Forests, the Forest Service has once again fallen short of legal mandates and conservation goals.
The proposed new rules severely limit biodiversity protections, threatening to erode the backbone of our nation’s forested wildlife habitat and give the agency carte blanche to approve forest plans that threaten thousands of fish and wildlife populations.
Rather than force the Forest Service to maintain the array of native species on public lands, the new planning rules only suggest that the Forest Service consider the impacts of logging and livestock grazing on species that are already trending toward extinction.
FSEEE has fought back each time the Forest Service has attempted to revise the NFMA planning rule to remove their obligations to protect biodiversity on National Forests. In 2009, we prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the Bush Administration’s second planning rule revision, which eliminated protection of wildlife species and exempted forest plans from environmental disclosure requirements.
Once again, our staff is evaluating the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed planning rule. Already, we have found that the environmental impact statement falls short of its mandate to disclose the effects the new planning rule would have on the 193 million acres of National Forest lands.
To protect the viability of our wildlife and the diversity of our forests, the new planning rules must be stopped.
In March 2011, FSEEE executive director Andy Stahl attended the national planning rule forum hosted by the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. He advocated for revised planning rules that are simple and straightforward; ones that include enforceable standards, strict regulations on clear-cutting and a ban on logging that harms water quality. The Forest Service must adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act and continue to protect the viability of all wildlife that lives on our National Forests, and FSEEE staff will be attending regional planning rule forums to ensure that Forest Service planners and managers get the message.
The latest attack against the viability rule is the most sophisticated we have seen to date. The danger is greater than ever because the Forest Service is taking advantage of the Obama Administration’s progressive reputation to shield its machinations from scrutiny.
The Forest Service has proposed an alternative, conceived by the timber industry, to protect wildlife species viability. The scheme, called the “historic range of natural variability,” was developed by Boise Cascade Corporation to certify that its Idaho logging is safe for wildlife.
This untested theory holds that if a set of forest conditions has ever existed since the last Ice Age, those conditions must be able to support today’s diversity of wildlife species.
For example, if at one time in the distant past a forest fire had swept through killing most of the big trees, then the agency may assume that wildlife can survive widespread logging, which also kills big trees. Of course, this parallel does not work. Unlike logging, wildfire doesn’t remove the trees—it leaves them in the forest, where they are able to provide critical habitat for cavity nesters and nutrients for the new forest.
The Forest Service proposes to use this “historic range of natural variability” notion, which has never been published or peer-reviewed in the scientific literature, as a “coarse filter” to eliminate from its consideration most wildlife species. Under the new rule, only species formally listed under the Endangered Species Act, or species whose populations are absolutely known to be plummeting, would be eligible for protection in new forest plans.
There are hundreds of forest species that live in old-growth forests. Most are not protected by the Endangered Species Act and there are no hard data on their population trends. Many live in small, isolated populations that rely on unique habitat features, such as rocky slopes, forested wetlands, or unusual soil conditions. No “coarse filter” strategy can possibly provide the habitat protection these species need. And without the hard data on their population status, they would be ineligible under the new rule for protection.
Defeating this fourth effort to eliminate the most important wildlife protection rule we have on the books will not be easy. FSEEE is building opposition to the Forest Service’s proposed gutting of the critical wildlife viability rule. Utilizing our contacts in both the scientific and legal fields, we will work to ensure that the Forest Service places the protection of wildlife and our public lands at the forefront of forest planning.
Anything less could spell disaster for our public lands, but it will take a concentrated effort to defeat this latest attack on the integrity of our National Forest wildlife.