Erin Kelly and Elizabeth Bewley, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is crafting a new plan to manage the nation's 155 national forests, including four in North Carolina and Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee, for the next 15 to 20 years.
At stake is the future of 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that are the nation's single largest source of drinking water and home to more than 15,000 species of plants and wildlife.
The U.S. Forest Service says the new plan, due by year's end, is urgently needed to replace the forest planning rule written in 1982 during the Reagan administration. That rule, which emphasized using the forests for logging, does not reflect the latest science on climate change and how best to protect wildlife and water, the Forest Service says.
Forest plans are intended to provide a framework for the managers of individual forests and grasslands in the National Forest System to use in revising their own land-management plans, which they are supposed to do every 15 years.
The rule was never intended to last nearly three decades - about twice as long as expected. President Bill Clinton attempted to replace it in 2000, but his proposal was scrapped when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. Efforts by the Bush administration to draw up its own plan were derailed when the proposals were challenged by environmentalists and thrown out by federal courts.
As President Barack Obama's administration takes up the contentious issue, it is under intense scrutiny from competing interest groups that hope to shape the plan to their liking. Neither environmentalists nor business interests are happy with the first draft of the new rule. Conservation groups say it lacks adequate protection for wildlife and water and gives individual forest managers too much discretion in how to carry out the plan. Business groups say some of its provisions to protect species could end up kicking timber companies, ranchers and others off the land.
The first draft of the Forest Service plan focuses for the first time on how to strengthen the health of forests in the face of climate change and includes enhanced protections for water resources and watersheds, updated provisions for sustainable recreation, and a requirement that the land be managed for such multiple uses as mining, logging, energy production, outdoor recreation and wilderness protection.
The final plan, which does not require congressional approval, is expected to be published in November.
"We believe this is one of the most important conservation policies the Obama administration will undertake," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration and executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. "This is land that belongs to all of us as Americans."
The country's national forests attract more than 170 million people a year who hike, camp, hunt, fish, go boating or whitewater rafting, ride horses, ski, and drive snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. Visitors spend an estimated $13 billion a year in communities surrounding the national forests, supporting more than 224,000 jobs.
In North Carolina last year, about 5.5 million visitors flocked to the peaks and waterfalls at Nantahala and Pisgah national forests and another 3.2 million were drawn to the streams at Uwharrie National Forest and the wetlands at Croatan National Forest. The state's national forests span 1.3 million acres - of which Nantahala and Pisgah account for roughly half - and employ 200 permanent workers.
Cherokee National Forest, which runs along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, attracted 1.8 million visitors in 2010.
Almost 3 million Americans have forest-related jobs in such fields as forest management, outdoor recreation and the forest products industry, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Environmentalists say the current rule has not proved to be strong enough to protect the watershed that carries drinking water to 124 million Americans.
Clark said about three-quarters of the forest watersheds are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be "impaired," meaning that federal water-quality standards are not being met. According to the Forest Service, the biggest causes of water-quality impairment include excessive sediment loads, habitat destruction near waterways and contamination from mercury and other metals.
Environmentalists applaud the proposed planning rule's increased protections for water resources and watersheds, stronger requirements to provide habitat for diverse animal and plant species, and a plan to address the impact of climate change, which Western North Carolina Nature Center Director Chris Gentile calls the "faceless enemy" of forests.
"If we start to see climate change, then some of the animals that have adapted to the environment suddenly can't make it anymore - especially in a fragile environment like a mountain ecosystem," he said.
But some environmentalists say the plan undermines those goals by giving too much power to individual forest managers to decide how - or even if - to protect wildlife and water.
In Western North Carolina, that means managers could choose whether to maintain healthy populations of cerulean warblers, gray bats, pygmy salamanders and other animals designated as endangered or species of concern.
Gentile said he would like the new forest rule to simplify the process of designating new wilderness areas, where logging, mining and other resource extractions are banned. Congress is considering a new wilderness area in Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest, but a new wilderness area has not been created in North Carolina since the 1980s.
He also would like to see the forest rule create "habitat corridors" to provide for migration of animals and prevent national parks and forests from becoming "isolated islands."
"Looking at ways to protect the spine of the Western Appalachians all the way up to Maine, that's important because of seasonality and migration of wildlife," he said, adding that such corridors would protect animals whose homes are hit by blights or forest fires.
The timber, cattle and sheep industries complain that the proposed protections for wildlife are too broad and unclear because they require the Forest Service to "maintain viable populations of species of conservation concern," which could lead to restrictions on grazing and logging.
In 2010, about 2 billion board feet of timber was harvested from national forests, down from about 12 billion in 1980. About 24 million board feet were harvested from North Carolina's national forests, yielding about $1.2 million in revenue.
The proposed new rule does not specify how much logging would be allowed.
Environmental litigation and complicated bureaucratic rules already have significantly reduced logging in North Carolina's forests by roughly 80 percent over the past 20 years, said Steve Henson, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council.
"It's been mainly caused by litigation that's actually been out West, not here in the East, but it's impacted all the forests," he said. "Certainly what we'd like to see is much more logging in this area than what we've seen in the last decade."
Logging and grazing can strengthen a forest's health by reducing wildfire risk in some cases, he said.
Henson said it may be years before the proposed planning rules take effect, since lawsuits are likely to follow new regulations.
"Nobody knows what planning regulations to use, because it's been litigated so much," he said. "It's going to continue to keep us in a perpetual planning cycle that doesn't get anything done on the ground."
The debate between environmentalists and logging advocates mirrors a split in Congress, where lawmakers have sent dueling letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling for him to heed their calls for changes in the final forest rule.
A letter organized by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and signed by 59 House members asks Vilsack to start over. "Please do not lose this opportunity to produce a planning rule that is truly simple, understandable, flexible and (defensible) in court," the letter says.
A letter drafted by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and signed by 66 members of Congress, urges Vilsack to go further in protecting water and wildlife. "The course set by these sweeping new rules will determine the future of our national forests for generations to come," it says. "It is essential that we get this right."