Forest.The Obama administration will defend the Clinton roadless rule that has been ping-ponging in the courts for nearly a decade, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in Seattle on Friday. If courts can’t resolve the forest-protection conflict, the administration will create its own roadless rule, he said.

Vilsack laid out a broad vision for the U.S. Forest Service, outlining for the first time his plan for the agency that manages national forests from within the Department of Agriculture. He promised strong conservation measures and an emphasis on restoring damaged forests, especially those left “overstocked and susceptible to catastrophic fire and disease” by a legacy of fire suppression.

He also spoke to the economic potential of forests in emerging carbon and bioenergy markets and their value as a water source as climate change brings increasingly severe droughts. He hinted at the value of new water markets for private land owners.

“The Forest Service must play a significant role in the development of new markets and ensuring their integrity,” he said, speaking near the old-growth forest at Seattle’s Seward Park. “Carbon and bioenergy aren’t the only new opportunity for landowners. Markets for water can also provide landowners with incentives to restore watersheds and manage forests for clean and abundant water supplies.”

Vilsack made an appeal, in a very Obama sort of way, to environmental leaders, asking them for help in moving past the “history of distrust” between conservationists, the Forest Service, and loggers. In short, he asked them to lay off the lawsuits against government plans.

“Certainly appeals and litigation have served as a useful backstop” against poor forest plans in the past, he said. “But given the scale of restoration that must occur, and the time in which we have to do it, a shared vision built on collaboration will help us move on from the timber wars of the past. Litigation and conflict should become less prevalent, because they will be less necessary.”

Patti Goldman, vice president for litigation at Earthjustice, said she was glad to see a clear departure from Bush administration land management.

“They’re moving into the future,” she said. “That’s a wise move.”

To be sure, the speech was more broad principles than specific plans; Vilsack said those would come in a new forest plan, a regulatory rule that won’t have to pass through Congress.

He also said the Forest Service must address the 80 percent of American forests that lie outside of national forests, under the control of states, tribal groups, businesses, and private landowners. 

“The threats facing our forests don’t recognize property boundaries,” he said. “So, in developing a shared vision around forests, we must also be willing to look across property boundaries. In other words, we must operate at a landscape scale by taking an ‘all-lands approach.’”

Vilsack didn’t mention specific measures, but Charlie Raines of the Sierra Club’s Cascade Chapter said ramping up funding for the Forest Legacy program would be an effective way to let forest owners make money off their land without developing it.