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Feds unveil national forest planning rules

In Az., only National Forest will be impacted for now

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Forest Service unveiled new planning rules Thursday that it said will emphasize the protection of forest and watersheds while maintaining and creating forest-industry jobs.

“People want us to have a planning process that takes less time, that it costs less, but at the same time provides the same level of protections or higher level of protections for our forests and our watersheds and for wildlife habitat,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “And I feel that this … does that.”

The new rules will take effect in March and have an immediate impact on two-thirds of the country’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands.

But in Arizona, officials said only the Tonto National Forest will be affected by the new rules as it revises its land management plan. All of the other national forests in the state are in the late stages of revising their plans and will be grandfathered in under current rules.

Plans for Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Coronado, Kaibab and Prescott national forests are expected to be complete within the next year, said Bob Davis, director of planning for the Forest Service’s Southwestern Region. They would only be affected by the new rules if they made subsequent revisions or amendments to those plans.

“At this point, what we will see is various national forests that are in the process of updating their forest plan that will be using these new guidelines,” said Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.

Current national forest management plans were developed under procedures that have been in place since 1982. The Bush administration tried to update the rules, but a federal court threw out that plan in 2009.

“Congress has provided pretty clear direction that management plans should be updated every 10 to 15 years, but unfortunately we’ve waited almost 30 years for many forest plans to be revised,” Skroch said.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he believes the new rules will help restore forests and leave them in better condition for future generations.

“We are hopeful and confident that there is support for this rule and that we can move forward to update our management plans,” Vilsack said as he announced the plan.

Businesses and timber and mining trade groups on Thursday guarded their reactions, saying they want to carefully examine the entire plan.

The American Forest Resource Council, a lumber trade group, said it hoped the Forest Service had listened to its comments and made changes “to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

“We hope that ecological, social and economic objectives are given equal weight in planning so that all of the needs of our citizens will be met by our federal forests,” said council President Tom Partin in a news release.

The group said it would review the new rules, talk with the agency and its members before deciding how to proceed.

Environmentalists and conservation groups generally approved of the new rules. Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said Arizona will benefit from the plan’s emphasis on protecting national forest watersheds.

“We get a lot of our water from the national forest, their watersheds, for many of the people in Arizona,” she said. “If we want flowing rivers and clean drinking water, protecting those watersheds, keeping water from being contaminated, those are important benefits for all of us.”

Bahr also applauded the plan’s reliance on science, saying “we could use a lot more science and less politics in our decision-making” on forests.

Jim deVos, director of conservation affairs for the Arizona Elk Society, said he likes the plan because it invites public input on decisions.

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“Organized groups have people that do things like read the Federal Register, and they become informed that way. But by using the Internet and other communication tools that are more modern, it allows the general public to become more informed,” he said. “It’s a step forward, in our view.”

The Forest Service said it received nearly 300,000 comments on the plan after issuing a proposed rule last February.

Skroch said the Arizona Wilderness Coalition likes the fact that the new rules could protect potential wilderness areas. But he thought they could have gone further, noting that the new rules retain criteria that exclude any such areas where “you may see or hear things outside of the wilderness area that are not compatible with that wilderness.”

He also said the new rules do not do enough to protect wild species.

But deVos said the Forest Service did a good job balancing social, cultural, ecological and economic conditions in many parts of the new rules. As a result, he believes they will likely satisfy most people.

“Certainly any document that serves the diverse American public and the diverse American forest has got to have some give and take,” deVos said. “It appears to me to be a nice workable plan that doesn’t side too heavily with any particular user group.”

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The Tonto National Forest will be affected by new planning regulations announced by the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday.