Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help

Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help
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The National Forest Foundation has declared July 13-19 National Forest Week, a time to recognize and celebrate the many benefits of America’s more than 188 million acres of public lands from Alaska to Florida and California to Maine, including rugged backcountry; pristine rivers, mountains, and lakes; maritime woodlands; and more. These lands and waters managed by the U.S. Forest Service feature huge swaths of prime habitat — many without roads — for a wide range of wildlife and often have high spiritual and cultural significance for Indigenous communities. 

National forests also draw tens of millions of visitors annually to hunt, fish, camp, hike, mountain bike, and paddle, pursuits that help generate $13 billion in outdoor recreation spending and support 205,000 jobs yearly — part of the broader $887 billion annual national outdoor recreation economy.

In addition to providing critical habitat for plants and wildlife, our nation’s forests protect our health by helping to keep the air and water clean. Some 20 percent of freshwater in this country comes from national forests and grasslands alone. And our temperate boreal forests remove enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to reduce our annual net emissions by 11 percent

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Roughly every 15 years, each national forest undergoes a planning process that determines how it will be managed. Although the Forest Service makes these decisions, members of the public have an important role to play, sharing views on where they enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and engaging in spiritual and cultural activities — and recommending that these special areas be conserved.  

This public engagement can make an enormous difference. In its final revised plan for the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana, the Forest Service included strong protections for 62,751 acres that had been identified by agency scientists and the public as top priorities for connecting wildlife habitat. And in its final plan for Montana’s Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, the agency provided new protections for the wild characteristics of more than 335,000 acres after local communities recommended that these areas be preserved.  

The Forest Service has an opportunity to safeguard more outstanding places as it prepares final plans for several other national forests. For example, agency scientists identified portions of the Gila National Forest, in western New Mexico, as having “outstanding” wilderness characteristics. Unfortunately, the draft plan for the Gila does not recommend these areas for protection. 

Similarly, the draft plan comes up short in protecting the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries within the forest, which make up one of the largest undammed watersheds in the Lower 48 states. These rivers support endangered species as well as fishing and boating, all while ferrying clean water to farmers and cities in the region. A community-led proposal called for protecting more than 440 miles of these waterways as wild and scenic rivers. However, the draft plan recommends only about half that distance as wild and scenic. By following the advice provided by agency scientists and local residents and protecting these lands and waters in the Gila’s final plan, the Forest Service would give its staff on the ground better tools to safeguard the wild character and wildlife of these places and provide visitors opportunities for quiet recreation.

In its draft plan for Idaho’s Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, the Forest Service is considering decreasing existing protections for an area known as the Great Burn — a large roadless area that contains high-quality habitat for many wildlife species — in order to permit motorized recreation. Monitoring by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game found a decrease in mountain goat populations in the Great Burn that corresponded with unauthorized winter vehicle use. Department staff counted 47 mountain goats in a portion of the Great Burn in 2010, but only seven in 2017. As the Forest Service finalizes it plan for the Great Burn, it should incorporate the data from Idaho’s wildlife experts and protect this key mountain goat habitat.

Congress also has an important role. Lawmakers are considering a number of bills that would improve protections for some remarkable lands and rivers within the national forest system. 

The Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, introduced last year by Rep. Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerLobbying world State Democrat group teams up with federal lawmakers to elect down-ballot candidates Washington redistricting panel reaches late agreement on new lines MORE (D-Wash.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayGovernment watchdog faults HHS leadership for sustained public health crisis failures No. 3 Senate Democrat says Biden should tap Black woman for Supreme Court Biden's pledge to appoint Black woman back in spotlight amid Breyer retirement MORE (D-Wash.), would protect more than 125,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest as wilderness and preserve more than 464 miles of rivers as wild and scenic. This northwest corner of Washington state is renowned for its free-flowing rivers, ancient rainforests, and stunning scenery. 

The PUBLIC Lands Act, introduced in February by Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris discusses pandemic, migration during visit with new Honduran president Biden has done just three local interviews in first year in office Clyburn predicts Supreme Court contender J. Michelle Childs would get GOP votes MORE (D-Calif.), combines into one proposal three bills that have already passed the House of Representatives. It would designate more than 580 miles of rivers as wild and scenic and conserve more than a million acres across California, from the Angeles National Forest in the south to the Los Padres National Forest on the state’s central coast, to the Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity, Klamath, and Mendocino national forests in the northwest. The bill includes measures that would protect and ensure access to opportunities for outdoor recreation, restore habitat, and make forests in northwestern California more resilient to fire. 

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, introduced last year by Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSwing-state voters concerned about Build Back Better's impact on inflation: poll Senate Democrats urge Biden to get beefed-up child tax credit into spending deal These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (D-Colo.) and Rep. Joe NeguseJoseph (Joe) NeguseCO lawmakers ask DOJ to investigate police's knowledge about alleged shooter Biden addresses Coloradans after wildfires: 'Incredible courage and resolve' Overnight Energy & Environment — Virginia gears up for fight on Trump-era official MORE (D-Colo.), would permanently safeguard tens of thousands of acres of wilderness and recreation areas in the state’s White River, San Juan, and Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison national forests — areas that are exceedingly popular with outdoor recreation enthusiasts year-round.  

These bills reflect the desires of constituents who value the ecological, recreational, cultural, spiritual, educational, and economic benefits of our national forests and Congress should swiftly move them. At the same time, the public must do its part by speaking up about decisions that affect local forests, to ensure that the Forest Service holds true to its mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

Tom Wathen is a vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts, leading the work on land conservation projects that span the globe.