New U.S. Forestland Rules May Trim Development Time

(Corrects name of Natural Resources Defense Council in third paragraph in story published Jan. 26.)

The Obama administration has proposed rules that it said will protect wildlife and watersheds while reducing the time it takes to get approval for development projects in the 193 million acres managed by U.S. Forest Service.

The proposal for managing national forestland may not end lawsuits that pit green groups against loggers, miners and energy companies, environmentalists and an industry group said.

“When you’re in conflict over values that are hard to measure, it will always be hard to reach agreement,” Daniel Dructor, executive vice president of the American Loggers Council, a timber group based in Hemphill, Texas, said. Niel Lawrence, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed, saying in some courts cases environmentalists will have a slimmer chance of winning.

Efforts to develop parts of the 155 forests, 20 grasslands and one prairie in the national-forest system for commercial and recreational use have resulted in lawsuits or been tied up in a cumbersome approval process, complicating effective resource management, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a conference call from Philadelphia. The new rules will bring stakeholders together earlier in the process, helping to reduce litigation and delays, he said.

The proposal, replacing guidelines that date to 1982, will be published in the Federal Register on Feb. 3 and may take affect later this year.

‘Road Map’

The rules recognize that the lands in the U.S. forest system are used for a variety of purposes, Vilsack said. The proposal “will safeguard our natural resources and provide a road map for getting work done on the ground that will restore our forests while providing job opportunities for local communities,” he said.

Work on a management plan has been going on since rules drafted during President George W. Bush’s administration were thrown out by a federal court in 2009. The latest effort, started after the current White House decided not to challenge the ruling, has received more than 300,000 comments, according to the USDA.

Lawrence, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s forestry project, said the government proposal in many ways is an improvement on the current system. Still, he said it may end up resulting in more restricted habitats for some animals. Hard-and-fast requirements that protect species “are replaced by a lot of guidance about how to do the right thing,” he said. “But without enforceability, under a different administration that would just be so much eco-babble.”

Vilsack said the new rules will require that the best available science be used in making decisions about land and water use. Striking a balance among contending interests is key to maintaining a sustainable forest system that creates jobs and protects natural resources, he said.

“It’s important to leverage the resources we have most effectively,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan in Washington at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net.

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