Top Scientists Say Obama's Forest Rules Leave Water, Wildlife at Risk

More than 400 scientists, lawmakers and the nation's top conservation leaders asked the Obama administration to set clear standards for water and wildlife protection in sweeping new rules that would apply to 193 million acres of national forest lands.

The call comes at the end of a 90-day public review period, along with more than 300,000 comments from people across the country urging the administration to develop a stronger policy.

A chief complaint raised by the scientists and environment groups is the absence of concrete standards for forest managers to follow, such as a minimum buffer of undisturbed land around rivers and streams or a mandate to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations and their habitat. The leaders of conservation groups also noted that in its fine print, the rule lacks a clear commitment to apply the best available science.

"Without measurable standards and effective monitoring, forest planning will too often fail to comply with the broader purpose and intent of the National Forest System and the National Forest Management Act," said a letter from 405 scientists. Last month, an analysis from the Society for Conservation Biology, an international scientists' association, raised some of the same concerns.

National forests are a source of drinking water for about 124 million Americans. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, these areas and grasslands sustain 223,000 jobs in rural areas and contribute $14.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

"The Obama administration's proposal lacks firm protections for water quality and wildlife," said Jane Danowitz, U.S. Public Lands director for the Pew Environment Group. "Forty percent of Americans rely on our national forests for drinking water, and those forests host more rare species than even our national park system. It's critical that the administration backs up the good guidance in its proposal with clear standards for water and wildlife protection."

A bi-partisan group of 62 U.S. Representatives  wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today, calling for more specific safeguards. "The course set by these sweeping new rules will determine the future of our national forests for generations to come – it is essential that we get this right. . . . [W]e believe the proposal goes in the wrong direction by rolling back longstanding protections for wildlife. . . . It is vital that the final rule include a strong standard for wildlife conservation that is meaningful, measurable and non-discretionary."

A letter from the nation's 13 largest conservation groups to the administration today urged that the rule

  • protect water resources through mandatory minimum buffer zones of at least 100 feet along streams and other water bodies that limit harmful activities;
  • maintain viable populations of all fish, wildlife and other species, well distributed across their existing ranges on national forest lands; and
  • require decision-making to "conform" to the best available science rather than to "take it into account."

The Obama administration's new forest policy is being developed under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), the law that governs most activity on Forest Service lands. The final rule, expected by the end of the year, would replace current NFMA regulations originally developed in 1982 and would apply to national forests and grasslands in 44 states.