Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signaled his department’s intent to issue a new planning rule for America’s 193-million-acre National Forest System. The new rule, which has been years in the making, seeks to deliver stronger protections for forests, water and wildlife while supporting the economic vitality of rural communities.

On Jan. 26, the Forest Service posted online a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement ( for the National Forest System Land Management Planning Rule.

Almost 300,000 comments were received and reviewed on the proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement issued last February.

A notice of availability for the environmental impact statement was published in the Federal Register on Feb. 3. Secretary Vilsack plans to issue a record of decision selecting a final plan in March.

“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,” Vilsack said in a press release.

The preferred alternative emphasizes collaboration throughout the planning process and strengthens the role of public involvement and dialogue. It also would require the use of the best available scientific information to inform decisions.

Highlights of the preferred alternative are below.

“This approach requires plans to conserve and restore watersheds and habitats while strengthening community collaboration during the development and implementation of individual plans,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Under our preferred alternative, plan revisions would take less time, cost less money, and provide stronger protections for our lands and water.”

The planning rule was also a topic at a recent Forest Service Appropriations hearing. House subcommittee chair Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, addressed the subject in his opening remarks.

“I must mention the planning rule. Chief, I know you’ve been working hard on this, but I’m hearing a lot of concern about the new rule,” Simpson told Tidwell. “It was my hope that this rule would be practical and shorten the time and resources needed to complete a forest plan. If the rule ends up in court, which seems to be the pattern with every planning rule, we’re back to the drawing board and have wasted a great deal of time and money.”

The planning process framework outlined in the preferred alternative consists of a three-part cycle — assessment, plan revision or amendment and monitoring.

Highlights of new Forest Service planning regulations:

  • Plans must include components that seek to restore and maintain forests and grasslands.
  • Plans would include requirements to maintain or restore watersheds, water resources, water quality including clean drinking water, and the ecological integrity of riparian areas.
  • Plans would be required to provide habitat for plant and animal diversity and species conservation. These requirements are intended to keep common native species common, contribute to the recovery of threatened and endangered species, conserve proposed and candidate species, and protect species of conservation concern.
  • Plans would provide for multiple uses, including outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish.
  • Plans would be required to provide opportunities for sustainable recreation and to address opportunities to connect people with nature.
  • Opportunities for public involvement and collaboration would be required throughout all stages of the planning process. The preferred alternative would provide opportunities for tribal consultation and coordination with state and local governments and other federal agencies and include requirements for outreach to traditionally underrepresented communities.
  • Plans require the use of the best available scientific information to inform the planning process and documentation of how science was used in the plan.