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Restoration and conservation: Those are the goals that will guide management of the U.S. forest system under the Obama administration, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in his first major policy address on the nation’s forests.

SEATTLE, August 14, 2009 – “It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America’s forestlands with an eye towards the future,” he told a crowd gathered at Seattle’s Seward Park.

“This will require a new approach that engages the American people and stakeholders in conserving and restoring both our national forests and our privately owned forests. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and landscapes that sustain us.”

The address was short on policy specifics but remarkable in the generally positive reception it got both from conservation groups and the timber industry, who often find very little to agree on.

Vilsack did let drop two important points: One, that the Forest Service won’t be appealing the recent federal court decision in Northern California striking down the national forest planning rules promulgated by the Bush administration — rules designed in part to foreclose protracted litigation over management plans for the nation’s 192 million acres of national forests.

The new rules, conservationists charged, relied too little on science and provided fewer guaranteed protections for wildlife. Vilsack also affirmed what the Justice Department had already quietly revealed a day earlier: that the government will uphold a 2001 ban on development in the nation’s last remaining roadless wilderness areas by appealing a Wyoming federal court decision striking down the ban. (A federal appeals court has already reinstated the roadless rule.)

“The fact that they’re not going to relive the past with respect to the fights … and that they’re going to go forward and do new [forest] planning rules, that’s a big announcement,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle who has litigated some of the biggest forest cases in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anyone from the Forest Service talk about more than just timber.”

Charlie Raines of the Sierra Club, who also caught Vilsack’s speech, said he was impressed with the secretary’s “all lands approach” connecting policy on public and private forest lands — 80% of U.S. forests lie outside the federal domain.

“Emerging markets for carbon and sustainable bioenergy will provide landowners with expanded economic incentives to maintain and restore forests. The Forest Service must play a significant role in the development of new markets and ensuring their integrity,” the secretary said. “Carbon and bioenergy aren’t the only new opportunity for landowners. Markets for water can also provide landowners with incentives to restore watersheds and manage forests for clean and abundant water supplies. These markets can also create jobs in rural [areas].”

Translation: “The Forest Service is going to put more emphasis on helping private forest land owners stay on their forests, rather than converting them to suburban sprawl,” Raines said.

The timber industry also sees that as a possible bridge between forest health and forest jobs.

“We’re encouraged by his recognition that maintaining our milling and logging infrastructure is going to be important in maintaining the health of the forests,” said Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council.

“He talked about a paradigm shift away from litigation, toward cooperation and collaboration, that will get us managing our forests actively,” she said.

Timber industry officials also are looking to the Forest Service to make good on thinning projects to reduce the threat of wildfires and disease. Vilsack made it clear that both issues will help shape future logging policy.

“There is no doubt that we are facing a health crisis in our forests. Climate change places them under increasing stress that exacerbates the threats of fire, disease and insects,” he said.

“Throughout the West — but in other parts of the country as well — a legacy of fire suppression has resulted in forests that are over-stocked and much more susceptible to catastrophic fire and disease. Restoring forest ecosystems, particularly in fire-adapted forests, will make forests more resilient to climate-induced stresses and will ensure that our forests continue to supply abundant, clean water.”

–Kim Murphy, U.S. Department of Agriculture

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