Environmentalists Sue Bush Administration over New Forest Rules
WASHINGTON — Environmentalists sued the Bush administration on Thursday over new rules for managing the 192 million acres of national forests.
The rules issued in December give managers of the 155 national forests more discretion to approve logging and other commercial projects without lengthy environmental reviews.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claims the rules water down protection of wildlife and the environment "to the point where they are virtually meaningless."
The suit filed by San Francisco-based Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups said the rules fail to include important environmental protection measures mandated by Congress under a 1976 law, the National Forest Management Act.
The suit contends the rules reverse more than 20 years of protection for wildlife and other resources without any scientific basis for doing so and removes requirements to use measurable standards to protect wildlife.
"The new Bush forest rules aren't rules at all -- they're more like suggestions. They turn forest management to mush, mocking the intent of Congress and undermining public participation in the process," said Trent Orr, a lawyer with Earthjustice.
Forest Service officials declined comment Thursday.
But, in announcing the long-awaited rules, they said the changes allow forest managers to respond more quickly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats such as invasive species.
The rules were last updated in the 1970s. Officials long have complained that the analyses required under the law take up to seven years to complete. Under the new rules, forest plan revisions could be completed within two years to three years, officials said.
The new plan gives regional forest managers more discretion to approve logging, drilling and mining operations without having to conduct formal scientific investigations, known as environmental impact statements.
That approach could cut costs by as much as 30 percent, said Sally Collins, associate Forest Service chief. She also noted the new rules require independent audits of all forest plans.
"We really have a process that takes way too long, that really isn't as responsive ... as it should be," Collins said.
But environmentalists say the plan eliminates analyses required under the National Environment Policy Act, scraps wildlife protections established under President Reagan and limits public input into forest management decisions.
"The nation's forests and the people who own them deserve better than this," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said the new rules are "a lot more responsive" than the previous rules, which they called cumbersome and counterproductive.
Source: Associated Press