SEATTLE - For every national forest, there's a local plan for how to manage it - and on Thursday, the top U.S. Department of Agriculture officials outlined changes to the planning process which will affect more than 9 million acres in Washington.
Now more than ever, the officials say, public lands are "multiple-use," which means balancing multiple priorities. Protecting watersheds and getting the forests in better overall health are at the top of the new list, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack - and so is recreation.
"The alternative that we are proposing will require that recreational use not only be sustainable, but be a central consideration in every forest plan."
Another goal of the new planning process, says Vilsack, is to preserve jobs in forest communities.
The agency received more than 300,000 comments on this forest planning rule, which goes into effect in March. Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst at The Wilderness Society, says many of the changes came from ideas generated in Washington and Oregon.
"The Northwest forests have really been pioneers for how to do good forest restoration, how to do successful collaboration with local communities and diverse interests. That's all reflected in this new planning rule."
A key part of the rule is the use of "best available science" in making decisions. Conservation groups say the new rule is a good framework, although they're concerned about the agency's ability to enforce it.
The USDA predicts the new rule will mean fewer lawsuits over logging, thanks to earlier cooperation in planning the sales. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell says the focus will be on local contracts for restoration and stewardship work.
"The byproducts, the outputs of that work, is that the saw timber and the biomass that's used for renewable energy - that they are a key component. Without that industry, there's no way we're going to be able to do the work that we need to do to restore these forests."
The guidelines haven't been updated since 1982, and several previous attempts didn't withstand court challenges.