New Light in the Forest
Early next month, the Obama administration will finalize important and long overdue rules for the management of 155 national forests covering nearly 200 million acres. The rules will guide individual forest managers as they decide which parts of the forest can safely be opened to logging, mining and recreation, and which parts must be set aside to protect wildlife and the health of the forest.
The rules are a great improvement on the existing guidelines, which date to the Reagan administration. They are also more protective of the environment than a preliminary plan unveiled by the Obama administration last year. But the wildlife provisions could be strengthened.
The rules are mandated by the National Forest Management Act, which was passed in 1976 to restrain out-of-control logging, make sure that “ecological integrity” of the forests was valued as much as the interests of the timber companies and give cover to forest supervisors under local pressure to increase the timber harvest.
The Clinton administration in 2000 proposed updated rules, but those were repudiated by the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Bush’s Forest Service twice tried to reset the scales in industry’s favor; both sets of rules were rejected by the courts for failing to give adequate protection to the environment.
The new rules will allow all uses, including logging, energy development and recreation. But the clear focus is on conservation and restoration. Science will be respected, streams will be protected (the national forests supply one-fifth of the nation’s drinking water), excessive logging and other environmental abuses will be prohibited.
There is still too much wiggle room for forest supervisors to avoid taking action to protect species that show decline, and it is not clear whether the promise to maintain “viable populations” means protecting species in one small area, which would be inadequate, or across their historical range. But, over all, this is a sound approach.