An appeal to the Routt National Forest's forest plan was shot down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after U.S. Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck said the plan was not in compliance because of a lack of data.
In January, Dombeck said he agreed with elements of the appeal that said the Routt plan wasn't compliant, along with plans for the Arapaho-Roosevelt and Rio Grand national forests.
The appeals were filed by numerous environmental groups for all three forests in 1997 and 1998.
"Basically, they didn't collect enough data," said Jacob Smith, conservation director of the Center of Native Ecosystems Jacob Smith.
Smith said the plans didn't include population counts of all the species on the forest.
"The truth is, (Dombeck) said we weren't in compliance. We didn't prove that we were protecting the viability of the species," said Lynn Jackson, director of planning and information of the U.S Forest Service.
By law, the Forest Service must prove that it is protecting species habitat and Dombeck's position was that the only way to be 100 percent sure the habitat is being provided for is by getting population counts of all species in the forest, Jackson said. That means determining populations of every animal, plant and insect in
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman reversed Dombeck's decision in early April. She said the Forest Service needs to be reasonable about how much information it gathers, based on its ability and financial restraints, Jackson said.
"This 100 percent certainty is now being based on reasonableness," she said.
Preliminary analysis of species population and health shows everything to be OK, Jackson said. But without collecting more specific data, it's hard to be 100 percent sure, she said.
Smith said if the Forest Service doesn't know the population of all the species in the forests and if those numbers are declining or stable, it doesn't know if good habitats are being provided.
Also, without those numbers, there is no proof that logging, road building or mining would or wouldn't have an affect on animal populations in the whole forest, Smith said.
Andy Cadenhead, of Routt/Medicine Bow National Forest, said the appeal brought up a good point. If the Forest Service is responsible to maintain a viable population of species in the forest, there needs to be population counts.
However, Cadenhead said it isn't as easy as it sounds.
"It's certainly not realistic to go out there and count every species," he said. "That's just out there."
Biologist have an idea of the numbers of some species in the forest, but putting an "X number of any species out there is impossible," Cadenhead said.
Science and technology is evolving to help address these types of issues, but it's not there yet, he said. By federal mandate, the Forest Service has to monitor the populations of endangered or threatened species. But it doesn't have to monitor populations of other animals, Jackson said.
However, Veneman's decision doesn't mean the end of studies on species' populations.
"There is no question about it, we can't quit. We need more," she said.
The Forest Service has regionally identified 44 plants and animals as "regional forester sensitive species," meaning they are potentially at risk, Jackson said.
More studies on a regional level will be done to get a better idea about the numbers of sensitive species and why they are declining, she said. For example, last February, Forest Service officials on the regional level put together the Species Conservation Assessment Team.
"It's designed to update information on the ecology and biology of species in the forest," Forest Service planning analyzer Chris Liggett said.
The team is broken up into six groups to identify species at risk, look at distribution of plants and aquatic life in the forest and then find connections with the new findings.
Though Liggett said the five-year project won't include exact population counts, it will help the Forest Service have a better understanding of how many species are out there and the health of those species.
"This work will undoubtedly result in future recommendations for future research," he said.
Veneman's decision puts an end to a long appeals process for this issue, which started in 1997. In July, lawyers from the Land and Water Fund, who represented the environmental groups in the appeals, threatened to sue the Forest Service because it hadn't responded to them.
By law, the Forest Service has to respond to the appeals in 160 days. Avoiding the lawsuit, Chief Dombeck made a decision on the appeals in January. Secretary Veneman has the right to review and reverse the chief's response and did so, said Bob Swinford, spokesman for the secretary of natural resources and environment in Washington D.C.
He said the reason the initial response took so long was because the number of appeals that were being dealt with in Washington. Twelve national forest revised forest plans between 1997 and 1998, generated about 1,200 appeals, he said.
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