Thursday, December 23, 2004

New Forest Service Rules

The LA Times reported today that the US Forest Service has changed some rules regarding how forests are managed (link, registration possibly required; same article also appears to be here). Here are a few excerpts:

"The 160-page document outlining the new rules contains two major revisions to forest planning regulations. The first drops the 25-year-old requirement that managers prepare environmental impact statements — a cornerstone of public involvement in environmental decisions — when they develop or revise management plans for individual national forests."


"The second change drops a mandate, adopted during the Reagan administration in 1982, that fish and wildlife habitat in national forests be managed to maintain 'viable populations of existing native and desired nonnative vertebrate species.' Instead, managers will be directed to provide 'ecological conditions to support diversity of native plant and animal species.'"

Speaking as an invertebrate biologist, I like the thought behind the second change. Vertebrates make up less than 5% of the named animal species on the planet, and even though they are often keystone species in habitats, it still seems ridiculous to focus our conservation regulations on vertebrates.

However, while I like the taxonomic thought, I don't think that a directive to maintain species diversity will provide as much protection to the organisms in our national forests as a directive to maintain viable populations, primarily because many species diversity indices are relatively unaffected by the complete loss of some species under many circumstances. Additionally, the requirement to "maintain diversity" seems extremely vague. Calculating species diversity is not a trivial task, and there are many possible methods of doing so that all have different assumptions and goals. Which are they using?

The rules (PDF, see page 148, §219.10) specify that project managers are to look at "ecosystem diversity," and at "species diversity" in some cases, but does not specify how these are to be quantified or exactly what either entails. Without seeing more specifics about the science behind the rules, it seems likely that this rule change is designed primarily to "vague-ify" the species protection requirement of the planning process, and thus to quietly make it easier to log and use the forests for industrial purposes without regard to conservation. The LA Times article does point out that the current head of the Forest Service is a former timber industry lobbyist.

The primary argument cited in the article (and the Forest Service PDF) for eliminating the environmental impact statements is that the reports are hard to complete and that eliminating them will save significant amounts of time. Maybe it's just me, but isn't making sure that we (both the Forest Service and the public) understand the impacts of proposed changes in forest management worth spending time on?

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