(CN) - Environmentalists say the federal government's new forest planning rules fail to protect species and habitat and put too much power in the hands of forest managers who have abused their discretion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, citing a need for efficiency and flexibility, unveiled new rules intended to replace regulations established in the 1980s for nearly 200 million federal acres.
The proposal, which the U.S. Forest Service released last week, would cover 193 million acres in 155 forests and 20 grasslands in the National Forest system. The Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Congressional passage of the National Forest Management Act in 1976 led to the Reagan administration's 1982 forest planning rules, which established measures to protect wildlife, water and trees.
Reagan's rule required the Forest Service to insure the continued existence of species in peril, wording that came to be known as the species viability standard.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton proposed sweeping changes to the rules.
President George W. Bush suspended Clinton's rules the year after he took office.
A 2002 Bush rule and subsequent amendment weakened wildlife protections. Among other things, the Bush rule killed the species viability standard, to promote logging.
Environmentalists challenged Bush's plans, and rulings from California Federal Courts in 2007 and 2009 rejected them largely on procedural grounds.
After President Barack Obama's administration announced its intention to develop a new plan, environmentalists expressed hope it would be at least as strong as Reagan's.
They were disappointed.
"The administration appears to be looking to do the bare minimum for wildlife," Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen said in a statement.
The group, which was party to the lawsuits resulting in the California rulings, wanted the species viability standard reinstated and clear requirements for species monitoring.
Instead, the new rule eliminates use of management indicator species, and failed to include the species viability standard.
Earthjustice criticized the rule for lacking specific guidelines to protect streams and watersheds.
Environmentalists across the board say the rule gives agency managers too much leeway.
Marc Fink, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity - also a party in both California lawsuits - said the new plan eschews the viability requirement for a longer process in which forest supervisors determine species of concern.
Fink added that a new pre-decision objection process reduces public involvement and is step in the wrong direction.
"We're concerned it would leave too much discretion to the forest service," Fink said in an interview.
The Obama administration has a mixed track record on environmental issues. Though relatively strong against pollution and on efforts to regulate greenhouse gases, endangered species have generally not seen greater protection under Obama.
Fink thinks the Obama administration simply did not make the forest plan a priority, and instead of clamping down to assure specific protections, gave way for the agency to seek greater autonomy.
The Forest Service said the new plan's flexible processes should reduce litigation. "We want to spend less time in the courts and more time in the forests," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a Feb. 10 press conference.
The Associated Press reported that lawsuits to protect habitat for threatened and endangered species in past decades have slashed logging in National Forests by three-quarters from its peak.
But it's false to assert that environmental litigation against logging projects is tying up taxpayer resources, Fink said.
"The data just doesn't back them up," Fink said, adding that only a small percentage of projects are litigated.
A Government Accountability Office report in 2010 found that only 2 percent of Forest Service fuel-reduction decisions end up in court. They are called "fuel-reduction" projects because their ostensible purpose is to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
But many environmentalists view that as a cover. They point out that if fuel reduction were truly the purpose, the projects would focus on brush and small trees, and not on mature trees that are valuable as timber.
Problems with the projects justified the challenges, Fink said, adding that legal victories have proven that the Forest Service historically abused its discretion.
"We need these meaningful sideboards and constraints so the public can act as watchdogs," Fink said.
Although the Forest Service's plan also emphasizes multiple uses, including recreation and resource use, preservation is intended to be its core.
"The heart of this planning rule is the requirement that we maintain and restore our forests," USDA Undersecretary Harris Sherman said at the press conference.
There are plenty of good intentions in the regulations, Fink said, including a mention of climate change for the first time.
"But when you chip away the nice-sounding language, get to the shalls and shall nots, there's not much left," Fink said.
The public comment period for the plan ends in May; a final rule is expected around the end of the year.
If the Forest Service does not improve its draft rule, a legal challenge is "highly likely," Fink said.