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GRANTS PASS, Ore.
Hoping to break a legal logjam that has stymied logging as well as ecosystem restoration, the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday it was revising its planning rules to take more control over national forests and find more common ground between industry and conservation groups.
The old rules, dating back to the Reagan administration, designated certain animal species that must be protected to assure ecosystems are healthy. However, the system became the basis of numerous lawsuits that sharply cut back logging to protect habitat for fish and wildlife.
The new rules call for monitoring a broader range of species, including plants, while giving forest supervisors greater discretion to decide what science to apply and which species to protect, depending on local conditions.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said from Washington, D.C., that it's in everyone's best interest to have forests that stay healthy amid climate change and economic demands.
"Rather than responding to the political pressure of the time, it would be much better to say to the scientists, 'What is the best way to make this forest the most resilient it can be,'" Vilsack told The Associated Press.
The conservation group that forced the revision by persuading a federal judge to throw out the last one said the proposal represents a dangerous rollback of mandatory protections and gives too much discretion to forest supervisors.
"This flies in the face of the principal that has been in place, that the Forest Service's job is to keep common species common," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
The 155 national forests and grasslands managed by the agency cover 193 million acres in 42 states and Puerto Rico. Balance between industry and conservation in those areas has been tough to find since the existing rules went into effect in 1982.
One revision of the rules by the Clinton administration and two by the Bush administration were thrown out by federal courts.
Lawsuits to protect habitat for threatened and endangered species have cut national forest logging levels to a quarter of their peak. Meanwhile, the timber industry continues to clamor for more logs, and conservation groups keep challenging timber sales, drilling and mining projects.
The new rules being developed may seem "wonky" but are important because the national forests provide drinking water for 124 million people in more than 900 cities nationwide and habitat for more rare species than national parks, said Jane Danowitz, public lands director for the Pew Environment Group.
The proposed rules give more authority to local supervisors working with the public to determine the best use of an individual forest, whether it's for mining, hunting and fishing, or preservation of a diverse mix of species, Vilsack said.
"We have to get away from focusing on our own narrow niche of what we want the world to be and recognize that we have to share the world with other folks who have interests that need to be recognized." Vilsack said.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the proposed rules would eliminate the old system of using indicator species, such as the northern spotted owl, to determine the health of an individual ecosystem, and instead carefully track a broad range of species.
A timber industry group said it was happy to see more recognition of the role of forests in providing jobs in rural communities, and felt that allowing objections to be lodged before planning decisions are made will lead to better outcomes.
However, rules applying to protecting a diversity of species need to be clarified, and the requirement to consider the best available science goes against efforts to streamline and simplify regulations, said Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council.
Conservation groups said the rules were a good start, but a lot of work remained to ensure the changes promised are delivered.
Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics said getting rid of the indicator species system would make it harder to sue the Forest Service to protect species struggling to survive, because the new rules shift the burden of proof from the Forest Service to the public.
Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, said the watershed protections rated only a C grade. While the changes showed the Forest Service grasped the need to protect trees and brush along streams -- a frequent issue in lawsuits over logging and grazing -- the revisions did not include specific standards, Boyles said.
The proposed rules incorporate public comments from more than 40 roundtables drawing more than 3,000 participants, and an Internet blog.
After a 90-day public comment period, the rules could become final by the end of the year.
Forest Rule website: http://bit.ly/hkcLly