WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Obama administration plan to protect wildlife and water in U.S. national forests drew fire on Monday from environmental advocates who contend the new rule needs stronger scientific standards.
As it stands now, the proposed Forest Planning Rule gives too much discretion to individual managers of the 155 forests and grasslands that cover 193 million acres (78 million hectares) of public territory, a former U.S. wildlife official said in a telephone briefing.
"Our forests are in real trouble," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
Clark and other environmental activists noted that national forests are a source of drinking water for some 124 million people, and cited a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that said these areas sustain 223,000 jobs in rural areas and contribute $14.5 billion a year to the U.S. economy.
While Clark praised the planned rule for its ambitious goals, including restoring areas that have been damaged by logging and mining and making national forests more resilient to forest fires, bark beetles and shifting climate zones, she raised alarm about the lack of specific scientific guidance.
She noted that President Barack Obama has pledged to uphold science in public policy.
Martin Heinrich, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from New Mexico, said the proposed rule rolls back long-standing protections for water and wildlife.
"There's widespread concern among conservationists and forest managers that the rule doesn't have clear standards to ensure how it will translate well on the ground," Clark said. "The rule promises but doesn't clearly outline how to deliver protections for wildlife, water and wilderness."
Without clear science-based standards, she said, individual forest managers could be more susceptible to political and commercial pressures. Mining, logging and energy development take place in some national forest areas.
A 90-day period of public comment on the proposed rule ended on Monday; the rule is expected to go into effect by year's end. That deadline prompted a flurry of communiques to the Obama administration.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham