Opinion Columns & Blogs

Washingtonians should weigh in on proposed rules for forest land management

Washington has glorious parks. But it’s our national forests that make this the Evergreen State — nine million acres of them — with three times as much old growth as our national parks combined. This week you have a chance to help make sure our kids will get as much from them as we do.

What do we get?

If you’re a hiker, fisher or hunter, a skier, mountain biker, or nature lover, you already know. Most of our high country, our ski resorts and our woodland recreation opportunities are in national forests. So too is our most vital natural resource: more Washingtonians drink water from their clear, clean streams than from any other source.

In the past, these public preserves took a beating. When the timber industry started to run out of big, old growth trees from private lands in the ’70s and ’80s, the U.S. Forest Service ramped up its logging program. Clear-cut fields blossomed across the state’s national forests. Soon, you could literally see from outer space the border between pristine Olympic National Park and the logged-over national forest next door.

That extravaganza fouled streams, triggered landslides, and squeezed out wildlife. And eventually it ran aground on the basic management rules for national forests. Most significantly, those rules bar timber sales from jeopardizing the well-being of forests by locally wiping out native vertebrate species.

Today, with the rules enforced by court order, and the market for timber cooled down, Washington’s national forests are much less threatened. But the rules that citizens utilized to save them are not so secure. That’s where you come in.

The Forest Service is proposing a new set of management rules. The new proposal has some laudable features. It acknowledges the crucial importance of maintaining federal forests in good ecological condition. And it’s full of sound concepts and helpful guidance for managers.

Where the rubber meets the road, though, it falls naively short.

It fails to deliver the kind of strong direction that saved Washington’s forests the last time around. Instead, it leaves the tough choices to local decision makers. It counts on them to make the right call no matter how much pressure they’re under from commercial interests and politicians, how little time and budget they have to track down and learn the relevant facts and science.

That’s not the kind of uncertainty we need for these forests. We need to take harmful options off the table. We need strong rules that will keep local agency officials out of trouble. We need something we can rely on to restore and maintain thriving fish and wildlife populations, clear-running rivers, and old growth forests.

You can help get those kind of rules adopted. The Forest Service is taking public comment on its proposal through Monday. The agency knows that the public owns these lands and it’s listening to the owners.

Take a few minutes to weigh in. Tell the agency not to set up its forest managers for failure with weak rules. Here are four critical upgrades the proposal needs.

1. Prohibit activities that adversely affect species’ viability or distribution across their existing ranges.

2. Mandate a minimum 100-foot buffer space around water bodies, inside which management has to promote aquatic health.

3. Require decisions to follow — not just consider — the best available science.

4. Retain the existing 90 days for public review of final management plans.

You can submit comments online at www.govcomments.com, or get more details on other ways to comment by searching online for “Forest Service Planning Rule Revision.” Take a few minutes today, and help shape our state’s evergreen heritage for tomorrow.

Niel Lawrence is director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s forestry project and can be reached at nlawrence@nrdc.org.