Transcript of Media Call: Secretary Vilsack; FS Chief Tidwell; Harris Sherman, FS Undersecretary of Natural Resources

Link to audio: Restoring the Nation's Forests though Science and Collaboartion

In a conference call with media last year, the Forest Service announced the Environmental Impacts (EIS) of the new Forest Planning Rule. This rule is intended to be used to guide the Forest Plan of each individual Forest, which are created locally. The theme of the call was restoring forests and watersheds, along with the economic value of recreation. The importance restoration was emphasized 15 times; watershed 12 times and recreation 11 times.

USDA Secreatary Vilsack stated at the beginning of the call: "I think we all recognize that our forests are extraordinarily vital. They provide clean water, clean air; they are a job producer, they are also enormous recreational opportunities, and jobs that are associated with that, they obviously home to habitat, wildlife. They have a range of benefits for all Americans. We are proud to have publicly owned National Forest that consists of 193 million acres, which belong to every single citizen in this country."

If forest restoration is such a high priority why are they permitting hundreds of mines throughout the Western U.S.? Actual Inventory from individual Forest websites: 44 National Forest "reserves"are being permitted with 170 mining projects in the Western U.S. The Forest Service never turns down a mine--and they do not keep adequate records of the mining projects and permits.

The USDA and Forest officials are touting restoration instead of protection (in spite of their mission statement: "The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations." It would be hard to see how the devastation of mining projects fits into their mission and restoration focus.

They talk about restoration of watersheds even though in a Forest Service report, they report that once a watershed is destroyed that "Even with aggressive management, that momentum [of current damage rate] will not be overcome within the next 100 years under projected funding. Progress toward forest health restoration can be expected to proceed very slowly….These findings suggest that it will not be feasible to restore all degraded areas."

Source: U. S. Forest Service report: Water and the Forest Service, January, 2000,
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SO WHY DEGRADE MORE?? seems to be a logical question.

Topic: Restoring the National Forests through science and collaboration (January, 2012)

Vilsack: …….[intro--need to have a “made in America” economy, American farmers, etc.] Today we want to talk about an opportunity that our forested lands, particularly 193 million forest service lands can contribute to an economy that is built to last.

I think we all recognize that our forests are extraordinarily vital. They provide clean water, clean air; they are a job producer, they are also enormous recreational opportunities, and jobs that are associated with that, they obviously home to habitat, wildlife. They have a range of benefits for all Americans. We are proud to have publicly owned National Forest that consists of 193 million acres, which belong to every single citizen in this country.

Over the last 2 ½ years the Forest service has been working hard, and in a very transparent and collaborative way, to develop a new forest planning rule that will be used to govern the management of these individual forest.

Each forest has a management plan. It's developed with public input and it's designed to guide the management decisions, the use of the forest—the multiple uses of the forest. This Planning Rule we are working on will outline how management plans are to be written and what each plan must contain…. [problems with last rule, current 1982, etc]

In developing this new rule one of the Pole Stars was for the Forest Service to solicit input. There was a great number of meetings and outreach to groups and individuals prior to the formulation of the plan and after the plan was initially announced, we solicited literally over 300,000 comments. We engaged the public throughout many stages of the process and we also drew on specific expertise of folks who have particular interests in various aspects of the forest. Reached out to our sister agencies, and involved the tribes as well, in an effort to be transparent and collaborative.

Today we are releasing an environmental impact statement, which is a predicate to the establishment of the formal rule. This outline, I think, very specifically the direction that we intend to take with the forest planning rule. At least 30 days after the Environmental Impact Statement is published in the Federal Registry, we will then publish the final rule.

I want to talk a little bit about what is in the environmental impact statement and the direction of the planning rule. The first point I want to make is that the preferred alternative which is outlined in the EIS relies on “sound science.” I think it is important that as decisions are made in the future that they are driven by sound science. We also need to point out that we need to continue to collaborate with the public with a focus on restoring the ecological health of our watersheds. So a key component and a key driver of this plan is the need to restore, a restoration philosophy, if you will, that is focused on the health of forests.

And also is focused on the importance that water will play. We think water is of particular importance. Twenty percent of Americans drink water that comes from our National Forests. And we believe that this alternative provides special protections for water, specific protections for water, including repairing of impaired watersheds and protecting water quality. And we think that this focus on water makes this Planning Rule somewhat unique from prior efforts. So sound science is the key, restoration is the philosophy with a focus on the forest health and water.

We also think that we need to provide stronger protections for our lands, for protecting wildlife, reducing the time and cost necessary and required to develop Forest Plans in the future and focusing on a plan that will help sustain and increase jobs for income for Americans. That is one reason why we have focused on a collaborative all (lands?) approach to management. We see multiple uses for forests and we believe that a planning rule needs to take into consideration those multiple uses. And we also see this as working in concert with our private working lands and our (c s?) to ensure that our large-scale watersheds are well-maintained.

We think that it is important that our forests be managed in a way that is resilient to climate change over time, and we think, as I said earlier, that this is extremely important to the ability to create jobs. This is how you build an economy made to last. By focusing on restoration, we think that we can reduce the threat of catastrophic fires. In western United States, we can address the bark beetle infestation and other pests that are causing some concerns and we believe we can absolutely improve health of watersheds.

At the same time we are doing all this, we are confident that we can produce jobs in the forest sector by supplying timber products to local mills. We know that that is important. We place a high priority on the recreational aspects of our forest. The reality is that our National Forests welcome over 170 million visits annually and have an impact in on the surrounding communities and our economy that is valued at at least thirteen billion dollars. The alternative that we are proposing will require that recreational use not only be sustainable, but be a central consideration in every Forest Plan.

Finally, we recognize the importance that the management plans have on the rural communities that are in and surrounded by forests. We know that these communities rely on the forests for jobs, for clean air and clean water, we believe that this framework will take their concerns into consideration. We also believe that this planning rule will make it a little easier in the future, if an amendment or change is required, we think it will take less time and less money to accomplish that change than under previous efforts. We are hopeful and confident that there is support for this rule and we can move forward to update our management plans to ensure that we use our forests in a proper way and that we restore them and make them in better condition for succeeding generations.….

Tidwell: I want to also stress that this preferred alternative reflects the over 300,000 comments we received and we factored what we heard into the development into this preferred alternative. And we also factored in our experience, our knowledge and experience from planning, and also what we have learned from our past efforts to be able to develop a planning rule that will really help guide how these forests and grasslands need to be managed in the future.

And the other thing that we heard loud and clear throughout all the public comments and the public meetings is that people want us to have a planning process that takes less time, that costs less, but at the same time provides the same, or higher, levels of protection for our forests, watersheds and wildlife habitat. And I feel that this preferred alternative does that and does it in a way that we feel we will be able to cut the time it has taken us to prepare plans in the past in half. We have averaged 5 to 7 years developing plans in the past and we feel with this new process we will be able to do that in three to four years….. more time and more money to do the restoration to get the recreational access that is so important to our communities to the public that uses these lands.

Undersecretary Sherman for Natural Resources and the Environment: I just want to say that we appreciate all the input of the stakeholders in this process. This is not the end of the process; there are another additional steps that we will be taking in the future to implement the planning rule. We will have to prepare directives where we will seek public comment. We will be setting up a Federal advisory committee to help us implement this program and we will begin work soon on individual Forest Plans where the public will be encouraged to participate with us.

Question from Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman:
We have a whole lot of collaborative process going on right now all over the state, it\'92s been quite success. Are these new rules going to give some deference to these locally organized collaboratives in driving future Forest Plans?

Vilsack: I think that our efforts on the Idaho roadless rule is an indication that we are very interested in working with states and areas that are interested in working in a collaborative process. We think that is the way to go. It's the reason we had the most transparent and the most collaborative process in the development of this forest planning rule and I don't anticipate that we will take a different tact as it comes to implementation, and the future uses of this rule and the management plans that will be developed. I think we will be looking for collaboration.

Rocky Barker: The issue that a lot of people have here is trying to get work done on the ground in a quick way once the environmentalists and the industry agree. I heard you talking about the rule, trying to speed up planning—are there things in here that say "gosh, we have a consensus, let's go."

Tidwell: The planning rule is about our Forest Plans and by speeding up that process so that we can revise these plans in a way that identifies the areas where we need to do the restoration. It will then support the project planning and build on the collaborative efforts so that we will be able to accelerate, not only doing the environmental analysis on the projects, but also the implementation. So this is one of the key things we really focused on in this preferred alternative is to reduce the process it takes in the planning effort, so that we can have basically more resources and more time to focus on that project where we are able to implement those projects, so that we can restore these forests and watersheds.

Sherman: Let me add one or two things to that. The new planning rule, the proposed rule, would allow for greater public input during the assessment phases, the revisions of these plans, and the monitoring that goes with it. It\'92s our very deep belief that collaboration here could make a tremendous difference in bringing people together. We anticipate that there will be fewer appeals. There will be less litigation because people are working together at an earlier point of time in the process.

Vilsack: And all of that is designed to make the most effective and most efficient use of the multiple uses of the forests.

Question from Robert Chaney, The Missoulian, Montanana
Forest restoration work and recreation work, both don't have as clearly established funding mechanism as logging, timber work. What sort of funding sources are you looking to have to fund restorations work that doesn't have a timber component to pay for it?

Vilsack: Let me start. We have been working with Congress to create flexibility in our budget through an integrated resource effort, which Congress gave us permission to pilot in a number of regions. So with greater flexibility, I think it gives us opportunities.

Tidwell: I think that has been one of the key changes that we have been working on to make is to actually have our funding be in alignment with the work we are doing on the ground, that is to restore these forests. So with this integrated resource revenue restoration budget line item that we will be able to pilot starting this year, we do believe that that will prove out to be a more efficient process so that we have the funds available to do the restoration for watershed, for wildlife, to do recreation projects. Through this one fund code, we will have the funding available to be able to take a look at what\'92s needed to restore these landscapes, instead of looking at a more piece mill approach by looking at just what needs to be done for wildlife, or what needs to be done for recreation, or what needs to be done watershed, to take a more integrated approach.

Sherman: Let me add to that. We are actively building partnerships around this country to do good work in restoration and we are really looking to local communities to partner with the Forest Service across the country on really meaningful landscape-scale restoration. Congress this year has allocated some forty million dollars to the collaborative Landscape Restoration Act program, which is essentially being matched by local communities on a competitive basis. These types of partnerships are making a tremendous difference. And we are hoping that this will increase the amount of restoration work being done.

Vilsack: Underscoring the two points that the Chief and the Undersecretary made, which is, when you are dealing with reduced budgets in a constrained fiscal environment that we are in, it\'92s important and necessary for us to have flexibility to be able to tailor the resources we have to be able to use them most effectively and then it's also important for us to have the capacity to work with the private non-profit sector to leverage those resources effectively, which is what the partnership is about. So these are two very important strategies and we think given the ability to prove to Congress that the flexibility will work effectively and that Forest Service has been working extremely hard to create creative and innovative partnerships to extend their resources.

Question from Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post:
Some outside groups, particularly environmentalist groups, have questioned whether there is too much delegation to local forest managers. They have argued that the Forest Service should be more proscriptive in how it handles whether it is species protection, water protection, and other things. Could you talk a little about that procedure, and maybe the reasons why there might be more delegation to local managers in comparison to other plans.

Vilsack: First of all, there are 155 forests and they are not all alike. I think it is extremely difficult to develop an approach that would be universal to all 155 forested areas. I think it is important to recognize the unique nature of each forest, and that requires some flexibility and some acknowledgement of that uniqueness, and an appreciation for the local input on that uniqueness.

Secondly, for this Rule, as the Chief and the Undersecretary mentioned this earlier, we really did pay very close attention to the comments and opinions expressed by folks in the 300,000 comments that we received and one of the underlying messages was that science really does need to drive these decisions and so I think with that guidepost, adding additional flexibility at a local level is the best of both worlds. You\'92ve got science dictating what needs to be done and you\'92ve got local folks being able to understand and appreciate, perhaps better, the individual characteristics and qualities of a particular forest.

Sherman: I might also add that the preferred alternative, while it does give a certain amount of discretion to the local or the responsible officer, the preferred alternative includes a wide variety of mandatory requirements for issues that must be considered and addressed in these local plans. So these local plans must include standards and guidelines to maintain or restore ecological conditions with watersheds and eco-systems. It must address a series of stressors of the environment. How do we deal with invasive species, or wildfire? How do we protect our water resources, our air resources, our soil resources? So there is a wide variety of mandatory requirements that must be addressed in this rule.

And in addition to that, we do have a national review, oversight, to make sure we have consistency and effectiveness in our rules. We are setting up a Federal Advisory Committee, which will give us on a national basis, the ability to see how we are implementing these rules. And last, and I think importantly, there is an objection process throughout this Forest Plan, so if a party feels aggrieved or feel like their issues have not been considered, we do have a process for bringing this to the responsible officials attention, having a higher reviewing officer review the issue at stake. So I think we have struck a very good balance between a certain amount of regional discretion with national oversight.

Question from Phil Taylor, Greenwire:
I was wondering if you could give us a rundown of what you feel are the most significant changes that have taken place in this planning rule since the draft was announced back in February.

Vilsack: I think it is particularly focused and more definitive comments relating to science.

Tidwell: Yes, that was one of the things that we heard, a lot of comments on the draft about how we would ensure that we are using science. So we did make some changes in there to make it very clear that we would be using the best available science, along with our expertise, to be able to factor that into our decisions.

We also strengthened the requirements when it comes to recreation. It is one of the things we heard throughout this public involvement process that we used, that people wanted to see that recreation was a key part of multiple use, and so we made some changes there to make sure that we would address the benefits and the needs to have sustainable recreation. We also\'97to deal with water and the importance of watersheds to make sure that the plan components would ensure we are addressing the needs to restore our watersheds and to provide particular attention to riparian areas along lakes and streams. So those are a few of the changes that we made.

Sherman: Others that I might mention are the national oversight provision that I was talking about was included in the preferred alternative. We are applying best practices to water quality. We are identifying priority watersheds that will need specific attention here in the future.

The Chief has mentioned our greater emphasis on riparian areas, we have emphasized landscape scale, all lands considerations, we have tried to be more practical and focused in our assessments that we will do. So we have narrowed the list of assessments that are required. And we have insisted also that plans must include the multiple uses that are appropriate for that particular area. And we have beefed up—I think fairly substantiall—our protection of water resources and made certain adjustments to protection of wildlife resources as part of the preferred alternative.

Question from Felicity Barringer, New York Times:
I realize this is a management planning guideline that all forests will use for creating individual plans, but does your EIS have any estimate for what the annual timber harvest would be for the forest as a whole, and how would that, if it does, how would that change from what the annual timber harvest has been over the last five years, say.

Visack: We will have more to say about that in the next few weeks.

Sherman: The preferred alternative does provide that in each individual plan we will be setting forth what are the expected levels of production. It will talk about what the maximum levels would be and it will set forth basically a plan that sets forth how timber production will occur in a National Forest. And it will also identify where lands are not suitable or available for timber production.

Vilsack: I think it is very important to point out that we are very cognizant of the economic opportunities that are associated with the forests, not just timber, but also the energy opportunities and the recreational opportunities. And we want to make sure that we, in an effective and sustainable way, utilize as many of those opportunities as possible, because that is what is going to make an economy that is built to last, is making sure that we use these resources sufficiently, sustainably and most effectively.

Question from Jerry Hagstrom, Hagstrom Report
Is this report online anywhere? Secondly, I was recently approached by a new forestry group that has hired a law firm to lobby for an increase in the timber cut. What is the role of the timber industry in this process? Are they stakeholders you have been listening to? Where does all that fit in?

Vilsack: One of the things we have been working on is the stewardship contract arrangements that we have, recognizing that if we really are going to be focusing on restoration, if we really are going to be doing a better job of maintaining old growth that the stewardship contract arrangements that we have probably need to be a bit longer than they have been. We are continuing to work with Congress to ensure that we have the tools to be able to make the best and most sustainable use of our forests. So that's one thing that I would say.

I honestly am not sure what the timetable is for placing this in the Federal Registry or online, perhaps the Chief or Undersecretary knows the timeline.

Sherman: It's online now. If you go to the Forest Service website, you will be able to see the preferred alternative and the draft EIS.

Tidwell: I just wanted to add that the integrative wood products industry; it's essential that we maintain that industry in this country, so that we can do the restoration work that needs to occur on these National Forests. That's who we rely on. Ideally, to use our stewardship contracts so that those are the folks who are actually doing the work of restoring the forest. The by-products, the outputs of that work is the sawed timber and the biomass that is used for renewable energy that they are a key component. Without that industry, there's no way we are going to be able to do the work that we need to do to restore these forests.

Sherman: And I might also emphasize that the timber industry has been an active participant in this process. They have been at the table throughout the process and going forward, of course, as we go to individual Forest Plans, they will have the same opportunities as everybody else to be very actively involved in each and every phase of the development of the Forest Plans.

Vilsack: I think it's fair to say that this has been the most collaborative and the most transparent process that has been used to produce planning rule. We are obviously proud of that and we will continue to have that collaboration.

Question from Allan, Bloomberg
You undoubtedly recall that the National Association of State Foresters was worried that as the plan was drafted that there could be open the door to more litigation, not less, over the use of science and you have touched on that. I wonder if you could talk a little more about the accounting burdens that are put on your own planners to use the best science.

Tidwell: You know we heard that concern and it's one of the things that we made some changes between the draft and the final to make sure it was very clear that we want to, we need to, use the best available science to inform our decisions. And we will document how that science is used. It is one of the things that has caused some problems in the past, is that we didn't document how we used that. So we made if very clear in this preferred alternative that not only will we use the best available science to inform the decisions, but also the documentation will be required. And by doing that, we feel confident that we will be able to move forward\'97and be able to address any litigation concern there. But once again, overall, we expect to see much less litigation with this process because of the increased collaborative effort that will occur throughout the planning process.

Sherman: I would also like to emphasize that this is for the best available science. The word 'available' is an important word because we are not requiring our managers to go out and do new science, original science, as part of these plan formulations. So information that is readily available or is brought to our attention is the information that we clearly would use here.

FS Press Office: 202-205-1134