U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday outlined a vision for managing the nation's forests that placed a high priority on restoration to protect water resources and combat climate change.
"Conserving our forests is not a luxury," but a necessity, the former Iowa governor said at Seward Park in Seattle in his first major address on the Forest Service.
Vilsack stressed the importance of forests and rural lands in supplying much of America's clean drinking water, sheltering wildlife and helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.
He said his vision for the agency begins with restoration, such as improving or decommissioning unnecessary roads and rehabilitating wetlands and streams.
"Restoration means managing forest lands first and foremost to protect our water resources, while making our forest more resilient to climate change," Vilsack said.
The administration's plan calls for the Forest Service to help develop "green jobs" that help restore forests while using them as "carbon sinks" to help offset global warming, Vilsack said. He noted emerging opportunities in woody biomass and carbon markets that could provide private landowners economic incentives to maintain forests.
Vilsack also announced Friday that the Forest Service would not appeal a June federal court ruling that struck down President Bush's 2008 forest planning rule. Environmentalists had fought the rule, saying it rolled back key forest protections.
Vilsack said the agency will develop a new forest planning rule to protect water, climate and wildlife.
He also reiterated the Obama administration's support for protecting roadless areas and said the agency will seek to lift a Wyoming federal court injunction that's blocked a 2001 rule that halted road construction and other development on about 58 million acres of remote national forests.
On Thursday, the Obama administration joined environmentalists to defend the so-called Roadless Rule, which was imposed by President Bill Clinton.
"The secretary's support for a national roadless policy, along with the administration's move to join conservationists in defending the roadless rule in court, marks an important step toward resolving the conflicts and patchwork approach that have hindered forest management for decades," said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. public lands program.
U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said Vilsack's speech was right on target, particularly in emphasizing better management of forests. Without forest thinning, fires will be more intense, Dicks said.
The Forest Service manages national forests and grasslands encompassing about 193 million acres -- an area equivalent to the size of Texas. Still, more than 80 percent of forests in the United States are outside the National Forest System.
Some conservation work has already begun, Vilsack said. The Forest Service has allocated about $1.5 billion through the economic stimulus law for conservation and forest health. More than 500 projects are aimed at creating jobs and promoting forest rehabilitation through projects such as removal of small trees and underbrush that serve as fuel for wildfires.
At least 30 projects will promote development of biofuels from trees, Vilsack said.