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Guest opinion

Grijalva: Forest plan should focus on more than trees


In the Southwest, we are keenly aware that our livelihoods depend on how we take care of the fragile environment around us. The Grand Canyon, for example, draws millions of tourists every year, and the Sonoran Desert drives a big part of Tucson's economy. So we do our best to protect these natural wonders.

We also understand that proper stewardship improves our quality of life. Poorly managed forests and rangelands can become fuel for wildfires, posing a serious threat to our lives, homes, properties and businesses. In addition, forests provide the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places where we go to find relaxation and recreation.

That's why I'm concerned with recently proposed federal regulations that guide how the U.S. Forest Service will manage some 11 million acres of national forest lands in Arizona - about 193 million acres nationwide. The proposed forest-planning rule stands to weaken wildlife protections that have been in place for 30 years.

This rule, implementing the National Forest Management Act, is meant to guide the Forest Service's decisions on where it should allow development, such as mining and logging, and which parts of the forests should be off limits so as to protect resources like clean water and wildlife.

The current rule is built on the notion that the health of our national forests and their waters and wildlife are as important as other uses such as timber harvests. And the way to ensure that the Forest Service lives up to this standard is to require forest managers to protect and maintain healthy watersheds and wildlife populations. When the fish and wildlife are doing well, it means our national forests are being responsibly managed.

The Obama administration's proposed rule, however, is muddy on which animals - and how many - will be protected and monitored. It also lacks clear direction and binding, enforceable standards to ensure the protection of watersheds and wildlife in our nation's forests.

Instead, the new rule gives nearly complete discretion to forest managers to decide which animals are deserving of protection and which are not - potentially limiting the role of science and scientific experts in management decisions.

There is good reason to be alarmed as The New York Times points out in its March 15 editorial: "This is dangerous because, over the years, forest managers have been easily influenced by timber companies and local politicians whose main interest is to increase the timber harvest."

Not strengthening wildlife and water protection is a costly proposition. Nearly half of Tucson's water allotment from the Colorado River originates on forest lands, and we draw our groundwater from Coronado National Forest runoff - though this water is priceless to arid Tucson, the meter value of this water is estimated at $67 million annually.

Similarly, outdoor recreation in Arizona's pumps some $2.1 billion into our economy each year.

Bottom line: The new rule needs to be improved to ensure the protection of wildlife populations and require that forest plans identify, restore and protect important watersheds.

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva represents Arizona’s 7th Congressional District.

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