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Forests for all? New federal rule aims to please

Siskiyou Project via AP file

National forest uses include logging like this work in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest. Trying to balance resource use and resource protection has been controversial.

It's no easy task figuring out how to balance forest and wildlife protection with logging, drilling and offroading on the nation's 155 national forests, but the Obama administration on Thursday unveiled a rule it says will do just that. An era of collaboration and less litigation was promised with the rule managing forests, but some initial reaction by interested parties -- which range from environmentalists to loggers to offroaders -- was not promising.

"Our preferred alternative will safeguard our natural resources and provide a roadmap for getting work done on the ground that will restore our forests while providing job opportunities for local communities," U.S. Agriculture Department chief Tom Vilsack vowed in a statement.

The rule essentially revises the existing framework for how each forest's managers must proceed with a given issue -- be it a request to log, a request to protect some species or even a request to open part of a forest to offroad vehicles.

The U.S. Forest Service, which is part of USDA, last year issued a draft of the rule for public review. That process generated more than 300,000 comments that Vilsack said were weighed and, in some cases, incorporated into the final rule. 

Unlike national parks, which protect resources, national forests were created to balance resource protection with resource use but that still hasn't prevented decades of legal battles.

"We expect to see much less litigation because of the increased collaborative effort" in deciding what happens in each forest, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told reporters.

Officials noted that several changes were made to the draft, including adding emphasis on "sound science" and, according to Tidwell, "beefed up protection of water resources."

Tidwell said the rule would also streamline how each national forest is managed, which will free up "more time, more money to get the restoration done" across the 193 million acres of forest.

The Natural Resources Defense Council had a mixed initial take on the rule. "It is much more meaningful about getting local officials to apply the best available science," NRDC forest analyst Niel Lawrence told msnbc.com, and there's "significant improvement in public participation."

But the environmental group is also "very concerned" because the rule removes a provision ensuring that wildlife will have viable populations distributed across the forests where they are now found, Lawrence said. "It jettisons the single most important conservation protection" on U.S. forests over the last 30 years, he added.

The NRDC intends to lobby the administration and if that doesn't work a lawsuit is "perfectly possible," Lawrence said.

A timber industry group, for its part, told msnbc.com that it needed a day or two to review the rule. But, in a statement issued right after the rule, the American Forest Resource Council voiced concern. "We are very concerned about whether the agency took the comments we made on the draft rule to heart and made changes needed to avoid the mistakes of the past," said council President Tom Partin.

The BlueRibbon Coalition, a group representing offroad interests, also said it was still reviewing the rule.

In Congress, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Washington state Republican Doc Hastings, said the concerns he'd raised earlier "fell on deaf ears."

"These new Obama regulations introduce excessive layers of bureaucracy that will cost jobs, hinder proper forest management, increase litigation and add burdensome costs for Americans," he said in a statement.

Last November, Hastings' committee hosted a hearing where critics piled on against the draft rule.

"First, the proposed planning rule will increase the complexity, cost, and time for the Forest Service to complete forest plans," testified Scott Horngren on behalf of the American Forest Resource Council. "Second, of greater concern, is that the planning rule will make the projects that implement the plans more vulnerable to lawsuits than they are today."

The last time the planning rules were updated was in 1982. Several attempts to revise it have been thrown out by federal courts. In 2009, a Bush administration plan was struck down. Environmentalists had fought the rule, saying it rolled back key forest protections.

The Obama administration decided not to challenge that ruling and instead come up with new rules.

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