Obama’s Forest Rule: Seeing the Forest for the Wildlife

President Obama’s draft forest rule is coming soon, and here at Defenders we’ve been thinking a lot about what a successful rule will look like (see our full report here).  This rule will be about so much more than just forests – it’s about the wildlife that depend on our national forests, the water that millions of Americans drink every day that is sourced from national forests, and creating resilient ecosystems that can stay vibrant in the face of climate change.  For us, of course, the protection of wildlife is job number one.  Here are the three key components of wildlife protection that we’ll be looking for in the forest rule:

The American marten depends on national forest land to survive.

Mandatory Species Viability Standard

The Forest Service has a duty to protect biodiversity on the national forests.  For decades, a clear and nondiscretionary species viability standard has been in place as a measure to live up to this duty, and we want to see this standard carried forward.  A viability standard works by requiring that management actions provide for the long-term persistence of fish and wildlife on our national forests.  This means that as the Forest Service plans for the future, the impacts that actions will have on fish and wildlife must be weighed and considered to be sure we aren’t hurting their chance to survive and thrive on our public lands.

Scientists suggest that the viability standard should allow a small loophole – an exception for “external factors” – so that the Forest Service isn’t held responsible when factors beyond its control (like activities on neighboring land) cause a species to decline.  We support the use of such an exception, however, it will only work if applied only when absolutely necessary, and we will be looking for a clear definition.

Assessments of risk to wildlife and habitat

The rule must establish a process for assessing and responding to threats to fish, wildlife and habitat in the development and implementation of forest plans.  The Forest Service cannot maintain the viability of species if it is unaware of what threats to viability exist.  By assessing the likely impacts of climate change on sensitive species, for example, forest managers can take actions to help those species withstand future changes.  We will be looking for strong assessments to inform smart forest management.

A scientifically defensible monitoring program

Forest plans are really all about implementation, and investments in assessments and planning must pay off in good on the ground decisions.  To determine if forest plans are effectively doing the things they say they will, including providing for the long-term persistence of fish and wildlife, the rule must include a science-based monitoring strategy that can be applied to every forest.  Successful monitoring and strategic evaluation is all about collecting the right bits of information that tell you a lot about your effectiveness without wasting time and money.  To evaluate an ecosystem, you need to look at its key components, the elements that make the system tick.  To ignore critical components is to deprive oneself of invaluable information, at the risk of not realizing when the condition of a forest may be collapsing.  For that reason, evaluating a forest’s entire condition based only on the status of it’s trees, and not actual wildlife populations, is like a doctor telling a patient their heart is healthy because they “appear to look good” while ignoring their blood pressure.  We will be looking for a monitoring program in which targeted population surveys for a small group of key wildlife species are used to validate that forest plans are effectively making forests healthier.

Those are our expectations; what are yours?  We welcome your questions and comments!

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2 Responses to “Obama’s Forest Rule: Seeing the Forest for the Wildlife”

  1. Lisa says:

    I’m concerned that the Obama administration is turning out to be worse for wildlife than even Bush/Cheney. The troubling way in which the Obama administration has postponed the listing of numerous endangered species — calling them “candidates” so he can avoid the political battle of protecting them — has gone on long enough.

    Now we’ve even heard that the Obama administration supports the idea of allowing Congress to delist the gray wolf — letting regional politics decide the fate of an animal rather than science. An animal has never been removed from the endangered list via Congress, and it would set a terrible precedent.

    With his weak attempt to support climate change legislation, his weak efforts to protect endangered species, his low-balling the budgets for the National Wildlife Refuge System, and now a potentially weak forest management rule, Obama will end up doing less for wildlife species than Bush/Cheney.

    Conservationists and environmentalists helped Obama get elected, and we have long memories.

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