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

February 6, 2015

The final forest planning directives were released in the Federal Register today. More information can be found at this Forest Service website.

February 27, 2013

Today the agency released notice in the Federal Register of preparation of new Forest Planning Directives for the Forest Service Manual and Forest Service Handbook. These directives provide forest managers with guidance in preparing new forest management plans, in line with the new Planning Rule. Copies of the proposed directives are available here. Comments from the public on the substance of the new directives will be accepted by the agency until April 29, 2013. See the Federal Register notice for more details.

March 23, 2012

Final Planning Rule signed today

The Forest Service announced today the finalizing of the new forest planning rule. According to the agency, no significant changes were made from the draft rule published in May, 2011, however, clarifications were made for important issues, such as the use of the best available science. You can read the rule here, or at the Forest Service planning rule website, where you will also find a summary, FAQs, and additional information and documents pertaining to the rule.

Read the Forest Service press release announcing the final rule here.

Although there was widespread support for retention of the strong viability rule language from the 1982 version of the rule (see below), no such viability rule now exists for wildlife. However, because of the strong commitment to utilizing the best available science, we believe that the new rule can be equally as protective for wildlife viability and biological diversity, if commitments for monitoring and adaptive management are kept. Public participation in new forest management plan development will be essential to ensure that these commitments are met, and that national forest management continues to evolve along with our increased scientific knowledge.

If we are to sustain the biological treasure that is the Sierra Nevada for posterity, we must take seriously the threats of climage change and loss of habitat and ecological processes that face the national forests of our mountain range. The GTR-220, An Ecosystem Management Strategy for Sierran Mixed-Conifer Forests, and the latest companion technical report, GTR-237, Managing Sierra Nevada Forests, along with Sierra Forest Legacy's conservation strategy in development, are the right tools we will need to get off to a good start for forest planning in California.

January 26, 2012

Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement issued today for new forest planning rule

The Forest Service issued the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (FPEIS) today for the new planning rule that lays out the latest revisions to regulations implementing the 1976 National Forest Management Act. The document and the agency's "Preferred Alternative," the associated press release, background and history are available from the Forest Service website here.

The agency also announced that the Sierra National Forest, Sequoia, and Inyo National Forests will be among the first eight forests nationally to begin using the new planning rule as the basis for their next plan revision. Plan revisions are required every 15 years under NFMA, and many forests are long overdue for a revision.

For a detailed discussion of our concerns about the new rule, see our comments below, submitted when the draft rule was published in 2010. Also, we recommend reading the following science reviews and comments for additional background on the key issues relative to conservation:

Science Review, April 2011

Letter Signed by 400 Scientists, May 2011

February 14, 2011

The final draft planning rule was published in the Federal Register today. Final comments from the public are due by May 16, 2011.

Last week, the Forest Service issued a press release announcing the release of the latest rule. The rule is a revision of part 219 of Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, the implementing regulations of the National Forest Management Act. The proposed rule and all other background documents that are currently available can be downloaded from the agency website. The draft environmental impact statement is also now available here.

The Forest Service is planning a round table meeting for our region to discuss the new rule for March 21, 2011, in Sacramento at the Wildland Fire Training and Conference Center,  3237 Peacekeeper Way, McClellan.

The plan contains a lengthy overview and the actual rule language does not commence until page 36 (in pdf) of the Federal Register rule (page 8514 in the Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 30). At first reading, we note that the single most important measurable protection to ensure protection of wildlife, afforded by the 1982 regulations, has been removed entirely. Called the "Viability Standard" at 219.19 in the 1982 regulations, it stated:

"Fish and wildlife habitat shall be managed to maintain viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species in the planning area. For planning purposes, a viable population shall be regarded as one which has the estimated numbers and distribution of reproductive individuals to insure its continued existence is well distributed in the planning area. In order to insure that viable populations will be maintained, habitat must be provided to support, at least, a minimum number of reproductive individuals and that habitat must be well distributed so that those individuals can interact with others in the planning area." (1982 Planning Rule, 219.19).

Without such clear direction for protecting wildlife, the new planning rule represents a step backward, suggesting that the agency has abdicated its long held responsibility for maintaining our national forests as the last refuge for the continent's increasingly imperiled wildlife. In the coming days, look for more information here as we begin a formal critique of the rule with our partners.

The agency will also host an open forum to discuss the proposed rule on March 10, 2011 in Washington, D.C. This meeting will also be webcast. The proposed rule, meeting information, and registration information can be found at

July, 2010

The U.S. Forest Service anticipates having a proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) in August and September of 2010. The proposed rule and DEIS will be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other cooperating Federal agencies before publication.  When the proposed rule and DEIS are published this December there will be a formal comment period. There will also be opportunities to provide feedback on the final planning rule and EIS.

Also, in June-July, the agency will post proposals for some of the key aspects of the planning rule to the planning rule blog and website.  The rule writing team will be monitoring the blog postings and they say they will use this feedback to design the discussions at the national roundtable, July 29-30, 2010.  

February 16, 2010: Read our detailed comments (22 pages) on the Notice of Intent developed cooperatively with 30 other conservation organizations nation-wide.

February 16, 2010: Read the comments on the Notice of Intent signed by more than 100 conservation organizations nation-wide (3 pgs).

December 18, 2009: The Forest Service has issued a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare an environmental impact statement to analyze and disclose potential environmental consequences associated with a new National Forest System land management planning rule. The new forest management planning regulations will replace the 2000 rule.

June 30, 2009: Federal Court overturns and remands the 2008 Bush Administration's Planning Rule...Read the court opinion here....

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 implementing regulations were finalized in 1982. Those rules are frequently refered to today as "the 1982 planning rule"; and because the regs contained strong language to protect wildlife habitat, there has been non-stop pressure from extractive industries to dilute and revise the rule language.

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 1982 implementing regulations 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.” Referred to as the "Viability Standard", it stands as the core principle upon which all wildlife habitat protection rests.

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.

2008 Planning Rule

The Bush administration announced their “new” rule in August 2007. Unfortunately, it is essentially the same as the 2005 Rule. Rather than proposing an improved rule, the Forest Service has finalized a rule that is a mirror image of the 2005 rule which was defeated in court.

The 2008 forest planning rule:

  • Completely scraps the Viability Standard, a key requirement to maintain viable wildlife populations in the national forests, a protection that has been in place since the Reagan administration.
  • Removes important protections that limit clearcutting, one of the central goals of the original 1976 National Forest Management Act.
  • Eliminates critical safeguards for water quality and watersheds from timber harvesting, road-building, and other activities that can damage aquatic habitats and community water supplies.
  • Makes 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 and thankfully last 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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