There has been good news recently for America’s national forests, and some that could have been better.
On the decidedly plus-side was a decision by a federal district judge in Anchorage reinstating a Clinton-era rule prohibiting logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is home to some of the country’s last remaining stands of primeval forest and is the crown jewel of the whole forest system.
The Clinton rule banned logging on nine million acres in the Tongass as part of a nationwide effort to protect roadless areas across 155 national forests. Bowing to the timber industry and Alaska politicians, the George W. Bush administration opened 2.3 million acres of the Tongass to logging. Judge John W. Sedwick has now invalidated the Bush rule as “arbitrary and capricious,” partly because it failed to account for public input.
The other piece of news is more complicated. Last month, the Agriculture Department proposed long-awaited forest-planning rules. The rules, mandated by 1976 National Forest Management Act, are supposed to guide forest managers as they decide which parts can be logged and which should be fully protected.
The act’s bedrock principle is that the health of the forests and their wildlife is to be valued at least as much as the interests of the timber companies. The Clinton administration’s rules firmly embraced that principle; the industry-friendly Bush rules did not.
The Obama administration’s proposed rules improve on the Bush rules and are full of high-minded promises about maintaining “viable” animal populations. But they are disappointingly vague on the question of how — and how often — the biological diversity of any particular forest is to be measured and what actions are to be taken to ensure its survival.
The net result is to give too much discretion to individual forest managers and not nearly enough say to scientists. This is dangerous because, over the years, forest managers have been easily influenced by timber companies and local politicians whose main interest is to increase the timber harvest.
As secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack has been more attentive to the needs of the forest, so far, than any agriculture secretary since the Clinton days. He should make sure these rules are strengthened.