Forest Service Wants Streamlined Planning

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After years of hearings, debates, lawsuits and controversy, the U.S. Forest Service last week issued new rules for drawing up management plans for the nation’s 155 national forests and grasslands — and now awaits public comment.

The Forest Service said the new rules would streamline the process of coming up with a broad plan for each forest once every 15 years coupled with new ways to monitor and update those plans.

Previous efforts to overhaul the rules have repeatedly been tossed out by federal judges, leaving many of the plans covering 193 million acres of land badly out of date — including the master plan for managing the Tonto National Forest.

The Forest Service hopes the new rules will make it much easier to update the overall forest plans —cutting the time for a major overhaul from about eight years to more like three years.

“We want less time in the courts and more in the forest,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at a Washington press conference announcing the long-awaited rule change.

“Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, expressed disappointment in the Obama administration, saying that when it comes to endangered species and protecting the forests, the administration has made few changes in the Bush-era policies. Schlickeisen termed the new rules as “a significant rollback” of protections for wildlife.

The key shift involves downplaying the importance of endangered and threatened “indicator species” of wildlife when considering the impact of a new policy — like a timber sale, grazing permits and recreational development.

Rim Country has a vital stake in the new rules, since the Forest Service owns the great majority of land in Gila County. Payson and other Rim communities are built on small islands of private land in a sea of Forest Service land and the growth of those communities has depended critically on land exchanges with the Forest Service.

Local officials have expressed deep frustration with the slow pace of Forest Service decision-making. For instance, the years-long process of getting the Forest Service to sell land already earmarked for disposal by Congress remains a key obstacle to Payson’s plans to build an ASU campus.

The Forest Service has stalled for years a decision on urgent requests by Gila County to provide emergency escape routes for a host of fire-menaced, landlocked communities, like Beaver Valley. Local officials and environmentalists have also been pushing the Forest Service for years to offer long-term contracts to timber companies to thin the dangerously overgrown forests choking millions of acres of land in Rim Country. Moreover, delays by the Forest Service in approving an environmental assessment of the Blue Ridge pipeline pushed the timetable on that project back by months.

The Forest Service has a budget of $5.3 billion nationally, with about $2.6 billion earmarked for preventing and fighting fires. The discretionary budget has increased from about $4 billion in 2005. The Forest Service has been enmeshed in lawsuits for years, mostly actions filed by conservation groups asserting the Forest Service has ignored environmental laws in managing the forests.

Three national forests intersect in Rim Country — Tonto, Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves. All have forest plans adopted in the 1980s, which have grown badly out of date. The Coconino and the Apache-Sitgreaves are in the process of overhauling their plans. The Tonto’s efforts lagged behind and so got caught in a pause ordered to adopt the new rules — after federal court judges rejected two previous Forest Service efforts to complete an overhaul.

Major issues have festered in the long wait for the new rules. For instance, the Tonto National Forest nearly two years ago held hearings on a plan to restrict off-road travel and close some dirt roads, but final action remains stalled.

The new rules include many references to basing management decisions on scientific evidence. For instance, a federal judge ordered the Forest Service to reconsidered its decision to delist the desert bald eagles after national political appointees ignored the views of field biologists. However, after going through a new review process — the Forest Service upheld that earlier decision, triggering another lawsuit by environmental groups.

The legal impasse nationwide has resulted in a dramatic decline in logging and grazing on Forest Service lands, all but eliminating businesses that once served as pillars of Rim Country’s economy.

Experts have debated the cause of the collapse of the timber industry locally — some blaming the lack of big trees that provided the biggest profit and others pointing to the endless delays and uncertainty caused by the lawsuits. In either case, studies show the forest is now choking on small trees that pose a severe fire danger to virtually every forest community.

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