Panel: Ecology First in Forest Management

Ecological goals, not economic interests, should take priority in managing the national forests and grasslands that cover more than 8% of the United States, according to an independent scientific panel in a report released Monday.

The committee, chaired by forester Norm K. Johnson of Oregon State University in Corvallis, was convoked by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in December 1997 to provide new guidelines for the Forest Service, a federal agency that has been at the center of a heated debate for decades. The service has a congressional mandate to manage the forests for "multiple use," serving industry, recreation, and conservation all at once. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires it to develop detailed guidelines, using public participation, for managing national forests. But little is clear about what should be done when interests collide. As a result, the service has been the subject of countless protests and lawsuits by environmental groups and the timber industry.

The panel's report concludes that "sustainability" should guide forest management, so that economic uses and recreation are all conducted within the forest's ecological limits. It also provides a draft regulation to show how such a policy could be implemented. Committee members say they hope to end the conflicts and still keep the forests able to satisfy demands for timber, grazing, and recreation.

But the report is unlikely to settle the debate. Environmental groups, after reading the last draft of the report, criticized the committee's advice to loosen the protection of individual species somewhat and emphasize "ecological integrity," a measure for the viability of the whole ecosystem. The Wilderness Society, for instance, decries the committee's approach as a "weakening, rather than a strengthening, of existing regulatory safeguards for biodiversity." And a second blue-ribbon panel, convened by the Society of American Foresters, the leading professional body of silviculturists, will issue its own report on 4 April, saying that selecting sustainability--or anything else--as a single management goal will preclude some forest uses, and calling on Congress to make the crucial choices about how the lands should be managed.