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This page last updated February 08, 2009

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The National Forest Ecosystem Protection Act

Executive Summary

Environmentalists, hope to create large wild areas, where every species formerly living in that area could once again live and reproduce there in as close to natural conditions as possible. We have achieved that goal in the greater Yellowstone area and we are moving towards the goal elsewhere. It is now time to move towards this goal on a more consistent basis throughout the country.

The National Forest Ecosystem Protection Act will create a system of large wild areas in every region of the country. Each Ecosystem Protection Area will be based on a core existing large Wilderness Area and will be surrounded by a newly designated Primitive Area, both to be managed in a complementary manner. The Forest Service will manage the Primitive Areas, as areas where primitive recreation and habitat for wildlife will be the paramount considerations and all other multiple use activities will only be used to reinforce the paramount considerations.

The current draft selects forty-four of the most spectacular, wildest and most beautiful existing Wilderness Areas in the National Forests, as the core areas for the proposed Ecosystem Protection Areas. These are the biggest and the best of the best. The surrounding Primitive Areas will be managed for hiking, fishing, hunting, and nature appreciation and for the benefit of all forms of wildlife and plant species that now live or formerly lived in those areas.

The proposal recognizes the significant differences between the eastern, mid-western and southern portions of the country on the one hand and the west on the other hand. The west has large designated Wilderness Areas now. The eastern and central areas of the country have puny Wilderness Areas surrounded by National Forests which contain a bewildering pattern of Forest Service owned land and privately owned land. The eastern and central areas of the country also have many more roads and structures at greater densities than do the western National Forests. Conversely most Wilderness Areas in the western National Forests are grazed by livestock and are therefore not maintained at a similar level of quality for primitive recreation purposes, as are the eastern, southern and mid-western National Forest Wilderness Areas.

In the eastern areas of the country, and even more importantly in the central area of the country, large wild areas have to be created. In the west the existing large wild areas need to be improved.

This proposal remedies these unfortunate conditions by converting these eastern and western areas to a more park-like use. In the eastern, southern, and mid-western areas of the country, the act provides for the designation of the Ecosystem Protection Areas, for the purchase of private lands in the Primitive Areas surrounding the core Wilderness Areas, for the removal of unneeded roads in those Primitive Areas, and provides procedures for the future expansion of the existing Wilderness Areas.

The latter two procedures will take place as part of the Forest Service's normal planning process that occurs every fifteen years on each National Forest. That process provides for full public participation in the development of the policies. Furthermore any recommended expansion of the Wilderness Areas will be dependent on future Congressional action. The designation of the Ecosystem Protection Areas will be completed within three years of the enactment of the law, pursuant to the public participation requirements of the Forest Service Planning Act. That process will determine the size of the areas. The size of the named eastern, mid-western and southern Wilderness Areas is 1,300,000 acres. A preliminary estimate of the size of the not yet delineated eastern, mid-western and southern Ecosystem Protection Areas is 3,500,000 acres of which almost 700,000 acres would have to be purchased.

In the area east of the Rocky Mountains the greatest need in the creation and continued protection of large wild areas is the purchase of private land in areas previously designated by Congress as National Forests. The designated western National Forests (185 million acres) are much larger than those in the areas east of the Rocky Mountains (47 million acres). The western National Forests are also more than 90% federally owned. In contrast the National Forests east of the Rocky Mountains are much smaller than those in the west and they are only 55% federally owned. This proposal provides for the acquisition of those parts of the eastern National Forests, which surround the named core Wilderness Areas, already recognized by Congress as the largest and most beautiful Wilderness Areas in that part of the country. It also provides for the acquisition of 38,000 acres of in-holdings in the named western Wilderness Areas.

The western Ecosystem Protection Areas named in this act average size is over 800,000 acres. The areas east of the Rocky Mountains, with one notable exception, average just over 20,000 acres. This proposal is meant to more than double the size of the combined Wilderness Area and Primitive Area for each of these eastern Ecosystem Protection Areas and to bring each of these areas up to a minimum size of 50,000 acres. At this size each of the named areas will be large enough to provide wild lands for the preservation of secure breeding populations of most species of wildlife and plants that live in that area now or that formerly lived there and to provide very large wild lands for the enjoyment of the American public.

The eastern, mid-western and southern wild lands identified in this proposal are superior in quality to the western lands in that the paramount use in each case is primitive recreation, whereas in the west many parts of the named wilderness are used for commercial livestock grazing. Where grazing occurs, it has a significant negative impact on many native animal and plant species living in that area. Native species need a secure area to establish a breeding population for raising young, for winter protection and for living in general. Protection of the riparian areas in the west, and in these most pristine and natural areas of the west in particular, can best be provided by permanently removing livestock from these national treasures.

The bill provides for the elimination of commercial grazing on the 350 affected allotments, and payment of compensation to the affected permitee in the form of an Economic Transition Payment. There are about 200,000 Animal Unit Months of livestock grazing on the affected allotments. The proposal also provides an extended time period for phasing out grazing permits to allow affected ranchers to phase out or relocate their business with least disruption. An additional provision provides, at the ranchers request, a voluntary buyout of any BLM winter allotment associated with a summer allotment that is phased out by this proposal, to avoid economic hardship for permitees dependent on both allotments. A key additional feature of the proposal is to provide added funds through an Early-Out Payment for the early retirement of grazing by any of the 350 allotees at their option. The orderly procedures provided within the bill for removing grazing from the 2,300,000 affected acres, will allow the return of the land toward its natural state while allowing affected ranchers an opportunity to adjust their investments and earning capabilities in a reasonable manner.

The termination of grazing will apply to the whole area of any allotment even if it is partially off the wilderness. The Forest Service will manage newly livestock free area adjacent to the existing Wilderness Area within the Ecosystem Protection Area as a Primitive Area. There may be as much as 2,300,000 acres of grazing allotments outside Wilderness Areas in the eleven affected States. This area will become the new primitive area in those States. Primitive recreation and habitat for wildlife will be the paramount consideration and any other multiple use activity will only be authorized, if it does not detract from the paramount purpose of the primitive area. Each of these western Forest Service Ecosystem Protection Areas will then be managed to the same standard as the western National Parks and the same standard as all eastern, midwestern and southern Forest Service Wilderness Areas.

The proposal also contains provisions for State owned Ecosystem Protection Areas in States without a National Forest or National Grassland of at least 50,000 acres. Each of the nine affected states has expressed an interest in participating in this proposal. Eight of the nine have suggested one or more sites for a state owned and managed Ecosystem Protection Area in their state

A list of possible second round choices for Ecosystem Protection Areas has been developed for the remaining eight States and Puerto Rico.

The act also contains language compensating county governments for revenues lost as a result of this policy.

In summary the National Forest Ecosystem Protection Act designates forty-four major areas in thirty-three States for enhanced protection and expansion. The Primitive Areas surrounding the core Wilderness Areas will provide improved environmental protections and will guarantee the existence of large spectacular wild areas in every region of the United States.

Prepared by Habitat for Wildlife