Volume 4, Number 40 - December 30, 2004
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U.S. Forest Service moves to environmental management system
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service has released its final rule that provides the framework for individual forest management plans governing the 155 national forests and 20 grasslands. For the first time, an environmental management system will be used during the planning process to improve performance and accountability.
The rule establishes a dynamic process to account for changing forest conditions, emphasizes science and public involvement and ultimately will help local forest managers provide future generations with healthier forests, cleaner air and water and more abundant wildlife while sustaining a variety of forest uses.
“The new rule will improve the way we work with the public by making forest planning more open, understandable and timely,” said Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins. “It will enable Forest Service experts to respond more rapidly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats, such as invasive species.”
The agency will adopt an EMS for each forest and grassland—a management tool used widely by the public and private sector both nationally and internationally that includes internationally accepted standards. EMS connects planning with implementation so that plans can be dynamic, and outcomes of project-level decisions can be assessed for continuous improvement. A key feature of the EMS is the requirement for independent audits of the Forest Service’s work. This new review and oversight of agency performance will help the Forest Service more fully account for its management of more than 192 million acres of public land.
The new rule will make forest planning more timely and cost effective. Currently, the forest planning process generally takes five to seven years to revise a 15-year management plan. For example, the management plan for the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests in Colorado took seven years and $5.5 million to revise. Under the new rule, forest plan revisions will take approximately two to three years, with a comprehensive e valuation of the plan to be completed every five years to ensure it is meeting goals and objectives. Desired land conditions will be outlined in each management plan, and local managers will be held accountable for their efforts to achieve them. This will make planning more relevant to on-the-ground practices and outcomes.
“This rule applies the most current thinking in natural resources management,” said Collins. “It takes a 21st century approach to delivering the full range of values that Americans want for their quality of life: clean air and water; habitat for wildlife; and sustainable uses that will be available for future generations to enjoy.”
The new rule directs forest managers to take into account the best available science to protect air, water, wildlife and other important natural resources at a landscape-level. Plant and wildlife protections will be provided first by conserving ecosystems as a whole, with more targeted protections for listed species and other species of concern. Management decisions will consider ecological, social and economic sustainability, consistent with broadly accepted international standards.
Under the new rule, local experts will be able to more effectively comply with environmental laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Because information gathered and analyzed at the local level will be current and constantly updated, the Forest Service will have a better basis for evaluating the environmental effects of projects.
Land management plans under the new rule will be strategic in nature. Generally, these plans will not include specific project management decisions. If a plan does include decisions with on-the-ground effects, it will require an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement as appropriate, consistent with NEPA. This provision is in a separate proposal identifying how plan development, amendment and revision will comply with NEPA requirements.
The final rule moves many detailed procedural requirements to the Forest Service’s directive system, which is the agency’s “how to” internal manual. For example, broad species protection goals remain in the new rule, but the analytical procedures on how to achieve those goals will be spelled out in the directive system. The proposed directives will be released soon for public review and comment.
The new rule neither promotes nor discourages any particular forest use, such as recreation, grazing, timber harvest or mineral development. Decisions regarding such uses will be made on a forest-by-forest basis and will be informed by local conditions, science and public input. Guidelines on activities, such as timber harvesting, will be placed in the directives.
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires the Forest Service to develop, periodically revise and amend all forest and grassland plans. The first generation of forest plans was developed under a regulation adopted in 1982. There are currently 49 revisions underway using the 22-year-old regulation. Those forests and grasslands may now choose to change to the new rule or wait to use the new rule for their next revision or amendment. An additional 42 are awaiting revision and must use the new rule, including the Bridger-Teton, which is slated to begin the revision process in 2005 and complete that process in 2009.
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