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After thirty years of tinkering, a new rule for managing our national forests will be officially issued this month. It will direct regional foresters to use science and more monitoring to improve conditions, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in an interview Thursday. The rule will replace a 1982 rule that was written to protect forests but failed to prevent widespread damage from intensifying wildfires, insect epidemics, climate change and human population growth.

The congressionally required rule sets a framework for regional plans that govern all activities on national forests — from tree-cutting to oil-and-gas drilling to hiking on trails. The Reagan-era rule "focused on restricting activities," Tidwell said.

Under the new rule, regional foresters past focus on wildlife "management indicator species" as a basis for assessing forest health will be replaced with a focus on broad habitat needs for a diversity of species.

Legal challenges and politics repeatedly have frustrated prior attempts to revise the 1982 rule. Federal courts since 2000 have rejected multiple attempted revisions, including a Bush administration rule in 2009. Meanwhile, the regional plans governing 68 of 127 forests and grasslands failed to have the required updates. The new rule is expected to prompt updating of those plans through a speedier process of assessment, revision and monitoring.

Colorado contains 13.8 million acres of national forest, much of it fragmented by roads. Traditional uses such as timber-harvesting have declined. New uses such as motorized off-road vehicle recreation are on the rise. Forest plans still must balance multiple uses. But more trees may be cut under the new rule to deal with the ravaging of millions of acres of western forests by pine beetles.

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