The U.S. Forest Service will have a new chief, these should be his top priorities

(© U.S. Forest Service)

On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service announced Randy Moore will be the next Chief of the agency, taking over for Vicki Christiansen, who is retiring next month. The Southern Environmental Law Center thanks Chief Christiansen for her leadership, and is looking forward to working with Chief Moore in his new role.

The Forest Service is facing extraordinary challenges and with so much to do, here are five urgent issues we believe Chief Moore should prioritize:

Store More Carbon

Helping prevent catastrophic climate change must be at the top of the incoming Chief’s to-do list. Climate change threatens our forests and all of the ways that we value and rely on them, from wildlife habitat and sustainable wood products to recreation and scenery. But forests are also an essential part of a climate change solution. The federal government is responsible for 30% of our nation’s forests, primarily through the Forest Service, and these areas include some of the world’s biggest existing carbon sinks.

By allowing forests that have been heavily logged in the past to recover, we can store more carbon and help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Chief Moore should prioritize setting a science-based goal to store carbon across the National Forest System.

Protect Our Remaining Old-Growth

The Forest Service urgently needs a clear policy that protects our remaining old-growth forests while restoring vitally important habitats that have been logged or degraded. Old-growth forests are essential for storing carbon, protecting wildlife and rare species, maintaining resilience to wildfire, and providing a baseline for study. However, the Forest Service is still logging 200- to 300-year-old forests all across the country, including in the Southeast.

It’s past time for a consistent strategy to identify and protect existing old-growth and accelerate the restoration of old-growth characteristics where possible.

Right-Size the Road System

The Forest Service is responsible for more than 370,000 miles of official roads — enough to stretch to the moon and halfway back. The agency has racked up a $3.5 billion maintenance backlog for those roads and, as they continue to sit in disrepair, they create ecological issues by causing sediment pollution and blocking fish passage. Despite decades of data showing the importance of maintaining roads, the Forest Service has not been able to make a dent in the problem, which will worsen as climate change spurs more frequent and intense storms, causing more washouts and road closures.

The Chief should set a measurable annual target for reducing the maintenance backlog and prohibit adding new roads or maintaining unneeded unless the National Forest is making progress toward protecting surrounding waterways.

Promote Accountability

The Forest Service and the Biden administration have set vitally important policy goals that aim to maintain and restore ecological integrity, protect communities from wildfire, and address the climate and biodiversity crises. Whether the Forest Service meets these nationwide objectives will depend on the cumulative effect of thousands of local decisions – decisions that are currently highly decentralized. Local perspectives are critical to responsible management of forests, but the agency lacks ways to hold local decisionmakers accountable to national objectives. While many local officials work very hard to restore ecological integrity, others undermine those efforts by cutting old-growth forests and rare habitats.

That needs to change. Local decisionmakers should be required to certify that each project-level decision advances the Forest Service’s national goals, and the Washington and Regional Offices must investigate whether those local decisions represent concrete progress.

Restore Respect for Public Knowledge and Input

The public has a right to know about Forest Service projects, what their environmental impacts will be, and how to raise concerns or offer alternatives to problematic proposals. Informed public input has always been instrumental in helping the Forest Service make decisions with better environmental and social outcomes.

Over the past several years, however, the Forest Service has increasingly avoided transparency around some of the agency’s most consequential decisions. The agency has created new loopholes that allow large-scale logging projects and road construction without environmental analysis or public input, and it is experimenting with new kinds of projects that would remove public input from on-the-ground decisions for years or even decades.

In the words of the Forest Service’s first Chief, “[p]ublic support of acts affecting public rights is absolutely required.” As a result, public land managers must “consult the public” and “find out in advance what [they] will stand for.” Chief Moore should not only recommit to listen to long-time stakeholders and partners, but should also take steps to bring in new voices that have historically been underrepresented.

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