Obama’s next big opportunity: Court decision gives president chance to shape future of forests

Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Courtesy USFS.

Thanks to a court victory last month that tossed out misguided ideas for how the U.S. should manage its forests, President Obama now has a golden opportunity to replace them with his administration’s principles.

The result could be a mandate for the Forest Service to make decisions about managing forests based on the 21st century imperatives of global warming and clean drinking water.

The court decision returns the rule of law to the question of how we manage our forests,” said Michael Francis, the National Forest Program director for The Wilderness Society.

“The old Bush-era guidelines were slanted to benefit the interests of people who only wanted to strip our forests of their natural resources regardless of the consequences for the environment. Now it’s up to the Obama administration to replace them with far-sighted thinking that’s based on science and conservation,” Francis said.

At issue is what happens now that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has vacated attempts to weaken rules governing management of America’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. These rules announced last year repealed key protections for national forests mandated under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).

The court found that the U.S. Forest Service violated the National Environment Policy Act, a law signed in 1970 that requires the federal agencies to consider environmental damage that could be caused by decisions about managing forests, and the Endangered Species Act.

For the Obama administration to capitalize on this window of opportunity, it must first instruct the Department of Justice not to appeal the court ruling. A wide variety of conservation organizations including The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and Vermont Natural Resources Council are already encouraging the president to do that.

The conservation community hopes Obama will quickly begin the process to develop modern-day forest management guidelines. Meanwhile, the community is calling for the administration to follow a much more forest-friendly rule put in place in 1982 — rules that conservationists see as but an interim set of guidelines.

“The 1982 regulations were written before scientists reached a consensus about the threats of global warming,” says Cecilia Clavet, a forest policy analyst with The Wilderness Society. “We’re calling on the Obama administration to develop a forward thinking vision for how we manage our forests that helps defend them against increasing temperature and the strains placed on our supplies of clean drinking water.”

photo: Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Courtesy USFS.