By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 12:26 AM
The Obama administration unveiled a proposal Thursday to give directors of national forests more discretion over managing endangered wildlife, reversing decades-old rules that left the sensitive decisions to officials in Washington.
U.S. Forest Service officials said the proposed rules also would expand the definition of protected wildlife to plants and better preserve clean water on some of the nation's most pristine lands.
But environmentalists said the 94-page proposal would water down strongly written wildlife protections adopted nearly 30 years ago by the Reagan administration.
"They give too much discretion to individual forest supervisors" without specific directions, said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. "We don't know that they're going to protect species or not. There is no question that this is a rollback to required protection to wildlife habitat."
In a briefing on the proposed rule, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke in broad terms about the proposal, saying it would provide ways to respond to threats such as plagues of pests that prey on trees, wildfire and climate change. Vilsack did not say specifically how the new plan improves on the original plan, which has been amended numerous times since its introduction in 1982.
Later, in a telephone interview, Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the National Forest System, said that by giving local officials more discretion, the proposal takes into account what the old plan does not - that forests in Alaska are different from those in Florida and should be governed by local science.
"This proposed rule addresses diversity requirements . . . strongly protects wildlife," Holtrop said, by extending protections from solely "vertebrate species to all plants and animals."
The Forest Service said that while planning the new rules it held 40 public meetings during which 3,000 participants logged more than 25,000 comments.
The service manages 155 national forests, 20 grasslands and a prairie that compose about 195 million acres rich in wildlife, timber, clear water, natural gas and other resources.
Managing the forests is "a balance in recognizing . . . that things are different in different places," Holtrop said. He said local officials will have directions on how to protect wetlands, for example, but he acknowledged that the proposed rule "is not being explicit at how wide these protective corridors need to be."
The public has until May 16 to comment on the rule. The Forest Service will develop a final rule by year's end, Holtrop said.
"We're confident this is a good rule," he said. "We're also confident that it can be improved . . . over the next 90 days."
At the Pew Environment Group, Jane Danowitz, director of U.S. public lands, expressed dissatisfaction. "Here we are talking about wanting to make sure some of the safeguards of the Reagan administration stay in place," Danowitz said.
"Clearly, in terms of wildlife protection, it is disappointing that they have been weakened under this proposal," she said, referring to the more decentralized decision-making.