The Department of Agriculture had wide support Friday as undersecretary Harris Sherman signed new forest management rules.
If you listen to the environmental and sportsmen groups that backed the rules, it sounds like the only issue is how well the U.S. Forest Service will mplement them.
But despite the support of groups like the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the key will be if the rules can hold up to court challenge. That’s why the opposition from the Center for Biological Diversity is so important.
The rules would replace rules written in 1982 that set up a long drawn-out process that is largely out of date. It takes national forests nearly a decade to put into place new plans that set the sideboards for everything from logging to campground building, watershed protection, fire management and wildlife habitat protection.
The proposal would make plan revisions take less time, cost less money, and provide stronger protections for land and water, officials said. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said this will give his agency, constrained by budget cuts, more time for individual projects.
Several efforts to update the rules have been shot down in the courts, the last time in 2009 when Bush-era rules were tossed. The Obama administration did not appeal; instead, it rewrote them for the 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands.
Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the rules reduce protections for wildlife -- and that's why his group will oppose them.
“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.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a formidable legal adversary, so it is certain the rules will have to run a litigation gantlet before they are finalized. But noticeably missing from the flurry of press releases Friday following the rules signing was Earthjustice.
The group serves as an environmental law firm for dozens of groups nationwide, including some of the groups supporting the rules. It was silent Friday. It had put out a release in January expressing guarded pleasure with the improvements in the rules but with the hope they would be improved.
If Earthjustice weighs in, then there will be two sets of attorneys with powerful organizations behind them fighting the rules that many environmental groups support.
These rules are important for Idaho because 20 million acres of the state is national forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Under the current rules, grazing was cut back in the Payette National Forest to protect bighorn sheep; a new wildlife strategy that encourages the protection of big, older ponderosa pines in the Boise National Forest was approved.
And the Clearwater–Nez Perce National Forest is slated to be an early adapter, using the new rules for its planning update.