GRANTS PASS, Ore. - The Obama administration's proposed new rules for protecting clean water and wildlife on the United States' nearly 200 million acres of national forests goes against the president's pledge to let science be the guide, conservation groups and two former Clinton administration officials said Monday.
The administration made a "clear commitment" to make conservation policy based on sound science when it took office, said Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group.
"One of the things we are asking for today is simple: Use science to set clear standards," Danowitz said. "Make sure water and wildlife are protected for generations to come."
The comments came in a teleconference from Washington, D.C., making the end of a 90-day public comment period on new rules governing administration of the National Forest Management Act. The U.S. Forest Service expects to come out with final rules by the end of the year.
Also participating was Jamie Rappaport Clark, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director and now a Defenders of Wildlife executive. Clark said forest supervisors being given unprecedented discretion under the new rules need strong standards and guidelines to resist the political pressure they regularly face in making decisions on managing their lands.
Jim Furnish, a former deputy chief of the Forest Service, said the proposed rules tell local forest supervisors to consider science but leave them room to ignore the rules when making decisions on protecting clean water resources, fish and wildlife habitat, and endangered species.
The proposed rules represent another shift to the right on environmental issues for the Obama administration, which recently stood aside as Congress lifted Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the Rocky Mountains and took steps to ramp up domestic oil production by extending drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.
The 155 national forests and grasslands managed by the Forest Service cover 193 million acres in 42 states and Puerto Rico. They provide about 40 percent of the nation's clean water and threatened and endangered species habitat.
Balance between industry and conservation in those areas has been tough to find since the existing rules took effect in 1982. The existing rules were the basis for lawsuits that cut logging by more than 80 percent to protect salmon, the northern spotted owl and other fish and wildlife.
There was no immediate comment from the Obama administration, which came into office supporting protection of undeveloped areas of national forests known as roadless areas and payments to rural counties hurt by the loss of national forest logging revenues.
Earlier this year Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he wanted to break through the logjam of political conflict over forest management by using science to do what is best for the forests.
More than 400 scientists and a bipartisan group of congressmen wrote letters also urging Vilsack to include more specific protections for clean water and wildlife habitat in the rules.
"This policy is probably one of the most important conservation measures I think this administration will ever undertake," said U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.