National Forest Management Act (NFMA)

“The days have ended when the forest may be viewed only as trees and trees viewed only as timber. The soil and the water, the grasses and the shrubs, the fish and the wildlife, and the beauty of the forest must become integral parts of the resource manager's thinking and actions.”
-Senator Hubert Humphrey, 1976

1976 National Forest Management Act

The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976 was designed to counter damage to natural ecosystems on public lands. The act put in place a system for forest management following several debates over the legality of clear-cutting forests. In an effort to protect national forests from excessive and destructive logging, Congress instructed the U.S. Forest Service to develop regulations that limit the size of clearcuts, protect streams from logging, restrict the annual rate of cutting, and ensure prompt reforestation.

The NFMA is a cornerstone of environmental law intended to protect biodiversity in National Forests and to ensure public involvement in forest planning and management. It provides for logging while recognizing "the fundamental need to protect and where appropriate, improve the quality of soil, water, and air resources." NFMA is supposed to insure that timber will be harvested from National Forest lands "only where..soil, slope or other watershed conditions will not be irreversibly damaged." It also specifies that "protection is provided for streams, stream-banks, shorelines, lakes, wetlands, and other bodies of water from detrimental changes in water temperatures, blockages of water courses, and deposits of sediment, where harvest are likely to seriously and adversely affect water conditions or fish habitat.”

The National Forest Management Act requires the Secretary of Agriculture to evaluate forest lands, develop a management program based on multiple-use, sustained-yield principles, and implement a resource management plan for each unit of the National Forest System. Among other requirements, the NFMA required the Forest Service to “maintain viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species in the planning area.” A viable population was defined in the regulations as “one which has the estimated numbers and distribution of reproductive individuals to insure its continued existence is well distributed in the planning area.”

2000 Planning Rule

Before leaving office in late 2000, President Clinton revised the 1982 regulations. The 2000 Planning Rule rewrote the existing Forest Service regulations implementing the National Forest Management Act. The proposed rule is based on the recommendations of a Committee of Scientists and 20 years of experience implementing forest planning.  The rule would have:

  • Based forest and grassland planning on the principles of ecological, economic, and social sustainability.
  • Required the Forest Service to actively engage the public and our other federal, state, local, and tribal partners in the management of our national forests and grasslands.
  • Integrated science and scientists into the planning process and requires the Forest Service to focus on managing entire ecosystems rather than single species or outcomes.
  • Integrated planning and management activities more closely so that the Forest Service can respond to new information and opportunities in a timely manner.

In May 2001, the Bush administration suspended the 2000 regulations under pressure from the timber industry and revised the NFMA regulations without consulting a committee of scientists or weighing in public opinion. In September 2003, a draft plan of the administration’s changes revealed their intention to eliminate environmental review and cut out scientific assessment

2005 Planning Rule

In 2005, the Administration published new regulations that would seriously weaken safeguards for our national forests, places that millions of Americans treasure and enjoy. The Administration’s 2005 forest planning regulations, required by the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) for managing the nation’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands, reduced requirements for environmental review, weakened wildlife protections, and limited public participation in the development of management plans for individual forests. The rule gave more discretion to forest managers to approve mining, logging, and other commercial projects without environmental review. It also eliminated the requirement that the government maintain viable populations of native wildlife in forests, monitor some populations regularly, and limit logging and drilling for oil and gas.

Some of the changes proposed by the Rule are:

  • The elimination of the requirement to maintain “viable populations” of native fish and wildlife species in the national forests.
  • The elimination of the requirement to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) whenever a forest plan is revised or significantly amended. Instead, forest plans “may be categorically excluded from NEPA documentation”, which means that the Forest Service can entirely bypass the NEPA process whenever it revises or amends a forest plan.
  • To no longer require the Forest Service to examine alternatives to its proposed plan or to supply information about the comparative advantages of various alternatives.
  • To only require agency officials to “take into account” the best available science.
  • To completely ignore the NFMA’s requirement that forest plans identify lands that are economically unsuitable for timber production.
  • To entirely eliminate the use of mandatory “standards” in forest plans, in favor of discretionary “guidelines.”
  • To require the Forest Service to establish an “environmental management system” (EMS) for each national forest. EMS is a planning and monitoring process that has been adopted by large timber companies like Weyerhaeuser Corporation to deal with environmental regulations while maximizing corporate efficiency and profits.

These changes were not only a step backward for our public forests, they were also illegal. In March of this 2007, Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the Federal District Court in San Francisco found that the Administration failed to consider and analyze the effects of the “paradigm shift” in changes it made to the rules, including eliminating the requirement that forests must ensure that special wildlife species will survive. Judge Hamilton said the Forest Service had to go back to the drawing board and issue a new rule in compliance with the law.

2007 Proposed Planning Rule

The Bush administration announced their “new” rule in August. Unfortunately, it is essentially the same as the 2005 Rule. Rather than proposing an improved rule, the Forest Service has proposed the inadequate 2005 regulations all over again.

The proposed 2007 forest planning rule would:

  • Completely scrap a key requirement to maintain viable wildlife populations in the national forests, a protection that has been in place since the Reagan administration.
  • Remove important protections that limit clearcutting, one of the central goals of the original 1976 National Forest Management Act.
  • Eliminate critical safeguards for water quality and watersheds from timber harvesting, road-building, and other activities that can damage aquatic habitats and community water supplies.
  • Make it more difficult for the public to meaningfully participate in planning about the future of our national forests.

This is the Bush administration’s latest attempt to undermine environmental protections of the National Forest System and open federal lands to more logging and other extractive activities. Instead of removing protections for our public forest system, the Forest Service should abide by court rulings and stop attempting to rewrite our most treasured environmental laws.

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