Here at Defenders we’ve spent the last week reading, thinking about, and evaluating the new Forest Service planning rule. We’ve previously publicized our expectations for the rule, but as you can see from our initial response, our expectations have not been met. Here are the key problems for wildlife in the proposed rule:
The viability standard is discretionary
A viability standard requires that the long-term persistence of all fish and wildlife be provided for. The version of the standard proposed in the rule, however, only applies to those “species of conservation concern” for which the local forest determines there is “evidence demonstrating significant concern about its capability to persist.” The proposal does not set out clear criteria for how local forests are to make the critical determination of whether a species does or does not receive protection under the viability standard. Formal mechanisms for determining the long-term persistence of a species, such as population viability analysis, are not required. Criteria will instead be relegated to the FS Directive System.
Protections are not clearly defined
It is not clear what level of protection the standard affords a species. Under the proposed rule, a population’s viability is based on an undetermined relationship between the population’s distribution and the population’s ability to be “resilient and adaptable”. Because the terms “resilient and adaptable” are not defined, it appears that a local forest could determine at its discretion when a population is sufficiently distributed to meet the standard.
The “external factors” clause is ambiguous
Local forests are not obligated to meet the viability standard if the forest manager decides that the forest is incapable of supporting a viable population. While a reasonable “external factors” clause is good policy, the proposal introduces a non-standardized approach that would allow each forest to determine when the “inherent capability” of a forest precludes the obligation to maintain viable populations of species of conservation concern
The results of applying the standard are not evaluated through monitoring
In addition to the above weaknesses, there is no requirement to monitor the actual species of conservation concern to determine if the viability standard is being met.
The Forest Service justifies the narrow and discretionary viability standard by assuming that “healthy and resilient” ecosystems will “maintain species diversity.”
Unfortunately, no clear mechanism is provided to verify that ecosystems are in fact meeting species diversity objectives. It is not clear how the local forest will define and interpret their obligations, and monitor their achievements under the “healthy and resilient” ecosystem standard.
The assumption that healthy and resilient ecosystems support species diversity could be verified if the rule required population monitoring of focal species to demonstrate that species diversity objectives are actually being met. Unfortunately, the rule only requires a local forest to monitor the “status” of focal species to “gauge progress” toward achievement of planning objectives. The failure to establish a management standard for focal species makes monitoring a paper exercise and fails to provide for any accountability.
You can learn more about what Defenders is doing to strengthen the rule here.