Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New rule could protect forest watersheds

Feds propose conservation-minded plan


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

The Department of Agriculture announced a new plan Thursday that could protect watersheds and wildlife on almost 200 million acres of national forest nationwide.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the plan as a response to a forest planning rule thrown out by a federal court in 2009. Environmentalists had claimed the rule revoked key forest protections, a problem that Vilsack said he hopes this plan will remedy.

Under the new rule, any land-use decisions on national forests will have to include components that restore and maintain grasslands and forests. Plans for land use will also include provisions protecting wildlife habitat, water quality and watersheds.

The proposed rule maintains the public hearing process through which forest land-use plans are vetted before approval.

Forest Service planning rules have not been updated since 1982. Vilsack said the new rule would ensure that land-use plans take current scientific research into account while streamlining the decision process.

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"[This plan] will safeguard our natural resources and provide a roadmap for getting work done on the ground," Vilsack said in a press release. "[We] will restore our forests while providing job opportunities for local communities."

Those jobs would come from commercial uses on national forest land.

Vilsack told The Associated Press on Thursday that the revised rule reflects more than 300,000 comments received from the public since a draft plan was announced last year.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told The Associated Press that the guidelines would allow individual forest management plans to be completed more efficiently than under current rules.

"We really can protect the forest at lower cost with less time," he said.

If approved, the rule would take effect this March. Three proposed Forest Service rules have been struck down since 2000.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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