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Forest planning rule uses collaboration to cut lawsuits

New planning rules proposed for national forests will help keep ecosystems healthy and biologically diverse while reducing legal gridlock through better collaboration with the public, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.

The proposed rule affects the forest planning process, which governs management on 155 national forests and 20 grasslands.

Vilsack said the proposed rule change will help forest managers respond to the sweeping effects of climate change, while cutting down on lawsuits that have halted both logging projects and ecosystem restoration.

Vilsack made the announcement at a news conference in Washington, D.C. But some of the collaborative work he described is already under way in the Colville National Forest.

The 1.1 million-acre forest in northeastern Washington has worked collaboratively with timber, environmental and recreation interests since 2005. The effort to find common ground has paid off, said Franklin Pemberton, a Colville Forest spokesman.

“We’ve gone through at least 22 projects, including timber sales, with no appeal or litigation,” Pemberton said.

The collaborative effort involves the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a diverse group of timber, ranching, environmental and other interest groups. At the moment, the coalition is working toward building consensus for new wilderness designations in the Colville National Forest.

Mike Petersen, executive director for the Spokane-based Lands Council, has played a key role in Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. He’s a strong supporter of collaboration, but said the new rule – as proposed – could weaken wildlife protections by allowing local decisions to trump national standards. “It makes things a lot more nebulous,” he said.

Vilsack said it’s possible to manage national forests for multiple uses, including rural economic development, while still protecting wildlife and old growth.

Other parts of the proposed rule drew praise from The Wilderness Society. The rule recognizes national forests’ role in providing clean drinking water, but should go further to protect watersheds, said Chris Lancette, Wilderness Society spokesman. He also noted that for the first time, the rule would require forest managers to anticipate and plan for climate change.

Vilsack said the rule seeks to make forests more resilient to the stresses caused by a warmer climate, including insect outbreaks.

“We don’t have to go very far in the West to see the impact with the pine bark beetle,” Vilsack said. “One of the reasons we’re faced with the problem is the distance between trees. The beetle can hop from one tree to another.”

The new rule, if adopted, would be the first revision to the forest planning process since 1982. Earlier efforts to amend the rules were thrown out by the federal courts.

To develop the proposed rule, the Forest Service held more than 40 public meetings across the country, which drew more than 3,000 participants.

After a 90-day comment period, the rules could become final by the end of the year.

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