USFS eyes new rules for forest planning

The U.S. Forest Service is drafting a new set of rules for the management of 193 million acres of public land, including vast forest tracts in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

 Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified before Congress in Washington, D.C., last week about the strengths of the agency’s new Planning Rule, which will govern conservation and development throughout the National Forest system.

“We need a planning rule that has less process and costs less, with the same or higher level of protections,” Tidwell said in a prepared statement.    

The Forest Service is expected to finalize the rules by the end of winter, according to spokesman Joe Walsh, but what isn’t certain is what effect they will have on local agencies.    

The federal rules, which have remained virtually unchanged since 1982, allow Forest Service employees and the public to know what kind of developments or conservation efforts are planned, according to Stanislaus National Forest spokesman Jerry Snyder.    

“The Stanislaus National Forest is due for a new forest plan, but we can’t go forward with that until (federal regulators) establish new forest rules,” Snyder said.   

 Snyder said it could take up to five years before a plan for future management of the forest will be put in place. The forest will look at a wide variety of changes that include establishing new guidelines for timber harvesting and the clearing of vegetation.    

The Forest Service received roughly 300,000 comments from people interested in shaping the new policies, according to an agency press release. Walsh said the comments ran the gamut from banning all motorized vehicles in parks to limiting horse traffic.    

“What started as a very strong proposed rule will now be even better thanks to the hundreds of thousands of constructive comments we received from people and groups across the country,” Tidwell said. “We firmly believe the final rule will deliver an efficient planning process that will reduce costs, facilitate the restoration and management of our forests and watersheds, safeguard natural resources and help deliver a sustainable flow of benefits to the American people.”    

He said the new rule will cut the time required to revise plans for individual forests, which could save time and money. The proposed rule would encourage local agencies to conserve and restore watersheds and habitats, as well as strengthen community engagement in individual forest policies.    

Mike Albrecht, a director with TuCARE, which represents forest logging and cattle-grazing business interests,  said the Forest Service should take a balanced approach to future projects on public lands, which take economic interests into account as well as conservation.    

“I would like to see something that emphasizes the multiple-use aspect of our natural resources,” he said.    

He said the Stanislaus National Forest is overgrown and is in desperate need of thinning of trees and vegetation to prevent out-of-control wildfires. Additionally, the timber that is harvested can help reduce lumber imports and put Americans back to work, Albrecht said.   

“By thinning the forest we can produce products we need while protecting our forest from catastrophic fires,” he said.    

The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Tourism on public lands contributes $14.5 billion to the U.S. economy each year.