GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Hoping to break a legal logjam that has stymied logging as well as ecosystem restoration, the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday it was revising its planning rules to find common ground between industry and conservation groups to avoid lawsuits that stall projects.
The old rules sought to mitigate environmental damage after it was caused by logging, grazing, mining and other natural resource development.
But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said from Washington, D.C., that it's in everyone's best interest to have forests that stay healthy amid climate change and economic demands.
"Rather than responding to the political pressure of the time, it would be much better to say to the scientists, 'What is the best way to make this forest the most resilient it can be,"' Vilsack told The Associated Press.
The proposed change would seek protection for clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, ecosystems and sacred sites of Indian tribes while allowing logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, biomass fuels and outdoor recreation.
The 155 national forests and grasslands cover 193 million acres in 42 states and Puerto Rico. Balance between industry and conservation in those areas has been tough to find since the existing rules went into effect in 1982.
One revision of the rules by the Clinton administration and two by the Bush administration were thrown out by federal courts.
Lawsuits to protect habitat for threatened and endangered species have cut national forest logging levels to a quarter of their peak. Meanwhile, the timber industry continues to clamor for more logs, and conservation groups keep challenging timber sales, drilling and mining projects.
"We have to get away from focusing on our own narrow niche of what we want the world to be and recognize that we have to share the world with other folks who have interests that need to be recognized." Vilsack said.
The proposed rules incorporate public comments from more than 40 roundtables drawing more than 3,000 participants, and an Internet blog.
After a 90-day public comment period, the rules could become final by the end of the year.
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