Citizens show their love for forests: Will the Obama administration listen?

Cupsuptic Lake Forest Legacy Tract, Maine. Courtesy USFS.

It didn’t make much news in light of the Gulf Coast oil spill and thwarted terror plot in New York City, but citizens across the U.S. accomplished something important over the past six weeks: They got involved in a federal decision making process and told Obama administration they want greater protection for our national forests.

Speaking up at 33 regional public meetings from Atlanta, Ga., to Juneau, Alaska, wrapping up May 12 in Washington D.C., they called on the agency to apply sound science to the process, preserve supplies of clean drinking water, protect fish and wildlife and address climate change.

At the end of the day, the citizen involvement may go a long way toward changing the Forest Service’s priorities on developing a new national forest management planning rule that should be completed in 2011. The Forest Service has also announced its intention to host one more public meeting sometime this summer.

“What happens on our national forests affects everyone in the country, from the water we drink to the places we turn to for recreation,” said Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst with The Wilderness Society who has long been on the front lines of the forest management process.

“This public hearing process gave citizens the chance to urge the Forest Service to establish the strongest possible protection for water, trees and other natural resources needed by people and wildlife alike,” Anderson said.

Anderson added that the shift in thinking shouldn’t be a surprise because of the widespread love for the forests. More than 200 million people visit national forests and grasslands annually. These publicly owned lands produce clean water for millions of Americans, provide habitat for many of our most treasured and imperiled species, offer unparalleled recreational opportunities, and are key drivers of local economies by providing and supporting thousands of jobs and small businesses that together makeup a recreational economy worth over $110 billion nationwide.

Sierra Nevadas in California. Photo by Clinton Steeds, Flickr.Eighteen national forests are in California, making the forest planning rule exceptionally important there.

“California’s 20 million acres of national forests include gems like the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe, and the old growth forests in northwestern California,” said David Edelson, the regional director for the California/Nevada region of The Wilderness Society. “These are public lands, and the public has clearly spoken about how they want their lands to be managed.”

There’s an avalanche of that sentiment in Colorado, too.

San Juan National Forest in Colorado.“Coloradans love their national forests,” said Suzanne Jones, the Central Rockies regional director for The Wilderness Society who has a long history of involvement in the forest management process. “From supplying the water we drink to the treasured places we turn to for recreation, Colorado’s forests are the key to our great quality of life.

Some participants in the meetings noted that they represented a paradigm shift in what are often hotly contested discussions about America’s 155 national forests and grasslands – a change that The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club and many other conservation groups say the Obama administration should recognize as it spends the next year or more crafting the new rule.

“For years, forest policy pitted timber interests against environmental advocates,” said Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton. “But now the 'timber wars' feel long gone, and remarkably, there is little trace of this historic disagreement. Instead, the conversation has rightly centered on how to responsibly manage our national forests to protect values like clean water and wildlife in an era of climate change.”

Learn more: Visit the forest planning rule section of the Forest Service’s Web site for background information. Click on the Web site of a coalition of conservation organizations for additional resources and insight.

Cupsuptic Lake Forest Legacy Tract in Maine. Courtesy USFS.
Sierra Nevadas in California. Photo by Clinton Steeds, Flickr.
San Juan National Forest in Colorado.