From: Matthew Daly, Associated Press Writer
Published December 22, 2004 12:00 AM

The Forest Service on Wednesday Announced Long-Waited Changes to Rules Governing the National Forest Management Act, the Basic Law that Governs the Nation's 155 National Forests

WASHINGTON-Managers of the nation's 155 national forests will have more leeway to approve logging and other commercial projects with less formal environmental review under a new Bush administration plan, The Associated Press has learned.

The long-awaited plan will overhaul application of the landmark 1976 National Forest Management Act, which sets the basic rules for management of nation's 191 million acres of forests and grasslands and protects forest wildlife.

Forest Service officials scheduled a Wednesday conference call to announce the changes, which will be published in the Federal Register next week. The Associated Press obtained highlights of the plan.

The rules would leave intact some of the most contentious proposals from an earlier version released last year. Like that version, the final 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.

Such analyses, which outline the impact of a proposed activity on plant and animal life, can take years to complete. The new rules envision a more flexible approach that could be completed in months.

Forest Service officials say the new rules are designed to make forest planning more responsive to changing conditions by eliminating unnecessary paperwork and relying on assessments by local and regional managers.

"We really have a process that takes way too long _ that really isn't as responsive to the system as it should be," said Sally Collins, associate chief of the Forest Service.

Collins said the new approach could cut costs by as much as 30 percent.

The new rules:

_Give regional forest managers more discretion to approve logging and other commercial projects within two or three years by streamlining environmental reviews that now take up to seven years.

_Relax a requirement to protect fish and wildlife in national forests so species do not become threatened or endangered. Instead, the rules direct forest managers to take into account the best available science to protect air, water, wildlife and other natural resources at a landscape level.

_Require independent audits of all forest plans, using a process known as Environmental Management Systems. The Forest Service says the system accounts for changing forest conditions, while emphasizing science and public involvement.

_Do not promote or discourage any particular forest use, such as recreation, grazing, timber harvest or mineral development. Decisions regarding such uses will be made on a forest-by-forest basis and will be informed by local conditions, science and public input, officials say.

Environmentalists say the new rules eliminate analyses required under the National Environment Policy Act, which mandates that federal agencies assess potential environmental effects of their actions and examine alternatives. The plan also would scrap wildlife protections established under President Reagan and limit public comment into forest management decisions, they say.

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