From: Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Published December 13, 2006 12:00 AM

Forest Service Says No More Environmental Analysis of Forest Plans

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Long-term management plans for national forests will no longer go through a formal environmental impact statement, the U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday.

The Forest Service said writing the 15-year plans has no effect on the environment, making the impact statements unnecessary. That conclusion was based on changes to forest planning rules made last year and a past U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says a plan is a statement of intent and does not cause anything to happen.

Individual projects, such as logging, were cut out of forest management plans in last year's rule changes. Those projects will still have to go through a formal analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, said Fred Norbury, associate deputy chief for the national forest system.

Norbury said cutting the environmental impact statement process out of the management plans should shorten the time to produce them to about three years, he said.

Plans now take five to seven years to write, at a cost of $5 million to $7 million.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the incoming House Resources Committee chairman, said the new rules are part of a continuing effort by the Bush administration to reduce wildlife and watershed protections and make it harder for the public to challenge illegal logging.

Conservation groups accused the Bush administration of trying to undercut NEPA, which requires agencies to take a hard look at environmental impacts of their projects and include the public in the decisions.

Tuesday's decision ignores "that forest plans make real decisions," Marty Haden, legislative director for Earthjustice, said from Washington, D.C. "Forest plans zone the forests _ what areas are open to or closed to logging, what areas are open to off-road vehicle use, what areas are open to back-country recreation, and lots of other issues."

Haden said a court challenge of the new forest planning rules was likely.

Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said he thought the new rule was overdue.

"Wasting time and money, especially court time, on a broad general plan is not in the public interest," West said.

NEPA has been a powerful law for conservation groups challenging Bush administration forest policy. A recent federal court ruling that overturned changes to rules banning most logging in inventoried roadless areas cited the lack of environmental impact statement as required by NEPA.

There are 125 national forests and national grasslands, all of which prepare 15-year management plans.

Until last year, they were a list of 15 years' worth of projects, and an environmental impact statement analyzing them. Then the Bush administration made the forest plans more broad-based, focusing on how to improve forest health and restore forests burned by wildfire, and took out the individual projects, Norbury said.

Source: Associated Press

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