“To put it bluntly, we have a mess on our hands.”

No, these words were not uttered by Nancy Pelosi on November 4th, but by the late Senator Hubert Humphrey in response to major mismanagement of our national forests in the 1970s, including controversial clearcutting on West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest. Congress responded by passing  the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) in 1976, which required the Forest Service to draft comprehensive plans for individual forests and to “provide for diversity of plant and animal communities” when managing those forests.  This provision is considered to be the strongest mandate in federal land law to conserve biodiversity.

Rules for implementing the NFMA were created during the Reagan administration.  Those regulations put a finer point on the plant and animal diversity provisions and required the Forest Service to “maintain viable populations” of native species in the national forests.  A viable wildlife population is a distinct group of animals that are likely to persist over time because they have sufficient numbers and habitat to reproduce and survive.  Loss of individual wildlife populations contributes to the epidemic of species extinctions.

The Reagan-era regulations have stood the test of time, despite attempts by the Clinton and both Bush administrations to revise the forest planning rules.  The Clinton rules, drafted with the support of an advisory Committee of Scientists, were abandoned by the incoming Bush administration who found them to be a bit too scientific, yet Bush’s attempts to rollback the rules were judged illegal by the courts.  As a result of all this confusion, the Forest Service is in regulatory no man’s land, operating under the ambiguous “transition provisions” of the Clinton planning rule.

So here we go again. The Obama administration has proposed yet another rewrite of the forest rules.  Why the need for change you ask?  Good question.  While many of the fads of the 1980s have gone out of style, certainly the commitment to conserving wildlife and their habitat on our public lands has not.  The forest rules do need to be modernized to address emerging conservation challenges, such as the impact of climate change on forest ecosystems.  However, this administration should resist the urge to weaken wildlife diversity provisions by inserting undue discretion into the new rules.  While it may be rational for agencies to seek to maximize their discretion, the results can be less than optimal in terms of the public interest. When it comes to managing the people’s lands, discretion cannot trump accountability.  To that end, Defenders of Wildlife is working to ensure that the new Forest Service regulations are held to a high conservation standard.  Stay tuned to this blog for insight into the NFMA rulewriting process.  The Forest Service intends to release a proposed rule along with a draft environmental impact statement early in 2011.

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  1. […] the new year, the Obama administration will create sweeping new policies that govern how our national forests will be managed for decades to […]

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.