Center for Biological Diversity accuses USDA of weakening wildlife protections, public accountability, in final planning rule for 193 million-acre national forest system
March 23, 2012
– The U.S. Forest Service today released its new final rule to govern the nation’s 193-million-acre national forest system. The new rule significantly weakens longstanding protections for fish and wildlife species on national forests. While the Forest Service was previously required to ensure the viability of those populations, the new rule largely defers to local Forest Service officials.
“The Forest Service today completed what it’s been trying to do for 12 years, which is to weaken wildlife protections and public accountability on our national forests,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These forests, owned by the American people, are vitally important habitat for hundreds of species now vulnerable to climate change — yet the Forest Service is weakening, rather than strengthening, the safety net that keeps them alive.”
Congress enacted the National Forest Management Act in 1976 to guide management of the national forest system, which consists of 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. In 1982, the Forest Service adopted national regulations to provide specific direction for activities such as logging, mining, livestock grazing and recreation. Those rules included strong, mandatory protections for fish and wildlife, requiring the Service to monitor and maintain viable populations.
The new rule represents the Forest Service’s fourth attempt since 2000 to weaken those 1982 regulations. All three previous attempts were challenged in court by the Center and allies; federal courts found all three unlawful. Like the 2000, 2005 and 2008 rules, the Obama administration’s new rule decreases protections for wildlife and increases the discretion of local Forest Service officials.
The Forest Service’s 1982 regulations required that the Forest Service maintain viable populations of fish and wildlife; that requirement applied to both forest plans and site-specific projects. The new rule requires that the Forest Service only maintain viable populations of species “of conservation concern,” and only at the discretion of local forest supervisors; plan protections set forth for those species can be voluntary “guidelines” rather than mandatory “standards.” The new rule also replaces the longstanding administrative appeal process with a pre-decision objection process; it eliminates opportunities for post-decision administrative solutions, leaving litigation as the public’s only means to correct harmful and unlawful decisions.
“At a time when the emergency room is already overflowing with endangered species, weakening preventative care is exactly the wrong approach,” said McKinnon. “But by making species protection voluntary rather than necessary, that’s exactly what today’s rule does.”