The departments of Agriculture, Interior and Commerce announced they have signed agreements to implement new regulations announced in December that will expedite fuels reduction and other forest health projects while ensuring the protection of threatened and endangered species.
Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with either Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or Commerce’s NOAA Fisheries whenever they authorize, fund or carry out an action that may affect a listed species or its designated critical habitat. The new regulations will improve the process by allowing trained biologists within these federal agencies to make the initial determination of whether there is likely to be an adverse effect.
“The long-term solution to decreasing the impact of catastrophic wildfires is to more effectively reduce hazardous fuel levels and return forests and rangelands to healthier conditions,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. “By improving the health of our forests, we can improve wildlife habitat.”
The agreements announced today provide a mechanism for training USDA biologists to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor implementation of the regulations.
“The agreements we are announcing are the final step in implementing these new regulations that will allow land managers to better protect communities and wildlife habitat from catastrophic fires,” Interior Secretary Gale Norton said. “At the same time, they will free our endangered species biologists from routine and often duplicative informal consultations and allow them to focus on proposed actions that are likely to have a more significant impact on listed species.”
"We've worked closely with USDA and DOI to make sure this new process will help eliminate the chances of harming threatened or endangered species,” said Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans. “This proposed approach will allow our agencies to focus resources on those consultations that will have the greatest benefit for the species."
The types of projects involved may include prescribed fire, mechanical fuels treatments, emergency stabilization, burned area rehabilitation, road maintenance and operation activities, ecosystem restoration and culvert replacement actions.
While the new regulations will accelerate reviews, they do not change any standards used for determining whether an action will have an adverse impact on a listed species. Listed species will receive the same level of protection.
The expedited review is critical to restoring forests to health and preventing catastrophic fires. An estimated 190 million acres, an area twice the size of California, of federal forests and rangelands in the United States face high risk of catastrophic fire. Years of natural fuels buildup, coupled with drought conditions, insect infestation and disease make forests and rangelands in many areas throughout the country vulnerable to intense and environmentally destructive fires. Many ponderosa pine forests are 15 times denser than they were a century ago. Where 25 to 35 trees once grew on each acre of forest, now more than 500 trees are crowded together in unhealthy conditions.
In August 2002, President Bush announced the Healthy Forests Initiative pledge to care for America’s forests and rangelands, reduce the risk of catastrophic fire to communities, help save the lives of firefighters and citizens and protect threatened and endangered species while upholding environmental standards and encouraging early public input during review and planning processes. The National Fire Plan is intended to reduce risk to communities and natural resources from wildland fires through rehabilitation, restoration and maintenance of fire-adapted ecosystems, and by the reduction of accumulated fuels or highly combustible fuels.