WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today signaled the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s intent to issue a new planning rule for America’s 193-million acre National Forest System that seeks to deliver stronger protections for forests, water, and wildlife while supporting the economic vitality of rural communities, by releasing online a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for the National Forest System Land Management Planning Rule. (See the PEIS at www.fs.usda.gov/planningrule ).
USDA and the Forest Service considered nearly 300,000 comments received on the proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement issued last February, to develop the agency’s preferred course of action for finalizing the planning rule. This is included in the PEIS released today as USDA’s preferred alternative. A notice of availability for the PEIS will be published in the Federal Register on February 3, 2012, and the Secretary will issue a record of decision selecting a final planning rule no less than 30 days afterwards.
“The most collaborative rulemaking effort in agency history has resulted in a strong framework to restore and manage our forests and watersheds and help deliver countless benefits to the American people,” said Secretary Vilsack. “Our preferred alternative will safeguard our natural resources and provide a roadmap for getting work done on the ground that will restore our forests while providing job opportunities for local communities.”
The preferred alternative emphasizes collaboration and strengthens the role of public involvement and dialogue throughout the planning process. It also would require the use of the best available scientific information to inform decisions.
Highlights of the preferred alternative include:
• Plans must include components that seek to restore and maintain forests and grasslands.
• Plans would include requirements to maintain or restore watersheds, water resources, water quality including clean drinking water and the ecological integrity of riparian areas.
• Plans would be required to provide habitat for plant and animal diversity and species conservation. These requirements are intended to keep common native species common, contribute to the recovery of threatened and endangered species, conserve proposed and candidate species, and protect species of conservation concern.
• Plans would provide for multiple uses, including outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish.
• Plans would be required to provide opportunities for sustainable recreation, and to take into account opportunities to connect people with nature.
• Opportunities for public involvement and collaboration would be required throughout all stages of the planning process. The preferred alternative would provide opportunities for Tribal consultation and coordination with state and local governments and other federal agencies, and includes requirements for outreach to traditionally underrepresented communities.
• Plans require the use of the best available scientific information to inform the planning process and documentation of how science was used in the plan.
• The planning framework provides a more efficient and adaptive process for land management planning, allowing the Forest Service to respond to changing conditions.
“This approach requires plans to conserve and restore watersheds and habitats while strengthening community collaboration during the development and implementation of individual plans,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Under our preferred alternative, plan revisions would take less time, cost less money, and provide stronger protections for our lands and water. Finalizing a new rule will move us forward in managing our forests and grasslands, and will create or sustain jobs and income for local communities around the country.”
Continuing the strong emphasis USDA and the Forest Service have placed on public engagement throughout this rule-making effort, USDA is forming a Federal Advisory Committee to advise the Secretary on implementation of the final rule. The call for nominations for this committee was published in the Federal Register on January 5, 2012 and will close on February 21, 2012.
"We value the input we have received from the public throughout this process," said Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman. "This preferred alternative is a positive framework that will allow the Forest Service to more effectively restore our natural resources, support the economy, and adapt to changing conditions.”
The planning rule provides the framework for Forest Service land management plans for the 155 forests, 20 grasslands and 1 prairie in the National Forest System. A final rule, when selected, would update planning procedures that have been in place since 1982, creating a modern planning process that reflects the latest science and knowledge of how to create and implement effective land management plans. Revisions of the land management plans would take less time and cost less money under the preferred alternative than under the current 30-year-old procedures, while achieving better results for people and the environment.
The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.
USDA works with state and local governments and private landowners to conserve and protect the nation’s natural resources. During the past two years, USDA’s conservation agencies—the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Farm Service Agency—have delivered technical assistance and implemented restoration practices on public and private lands. They are working to better target conservation investments: embracing locally driven conservation and entering partnerships that focus on large, landscape-scale conservation.