Democrats, Greens Aim to Overturn Bush Forest Plan
WASHINGTON − Democrats and environmental groups Monday expressed hope that changes in the Bush administration Cabinet could moderate a White House plan to open some 60 million acres of federal forests to logging.
A proposed rule by the U.S. Agriculture Department to give state governors more control over nearly a third of federal forests has come under intense criticism by opponents who contend it is nothing more than a favor to timber companies.
The deadline for public comments on the plan ended Monday. So far, opponents have sent more than 1.7 million comments to the U.S. Forest Service, according to environmental groups.
"With the president reaching out and seeing that in the West his candidacy was very contested, this was one of the reasons," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, told reporters on a teleconference. We hope "a new secretary of agriculture would use this issue to bring people together," he said.
Agriculture Department Secretary Ann Veneman resigned Monday after four years leading the department that oversees the U.S. Forest Service. It was not clear how soon a successor would be named.
Last July, Veneman proposed a forest roadbuilding rule that opponents said reversed a 2001 plan developed by the former Clinton administration.
The Clinton plan aimed to limit road construction, logging and oil mining in 58.5 million acres of federal forest deemed worthy of special protections to save endangered species or local habitats from irreversible damage.
The Bush administration measure would effectively exempt states from federal restrictions on logging and road construction in environmentally sensitive areas, unless a governor asked for specific lands to be protected.
If the new agriculture secretary is unwilling to make changes, opponents said they may file a lawsuit to block the plan from moving forward. The roadless plan has been subjected to nearly a dozen lawsuits since its adoption, many from western states who opposed the earlier Clinton proposal.
The Forest Service must review public comments and has not set a date for finalizing its rule, a spokesman said.
Richardson and eight other Democratic governors, mostly from the Midwest and eastern U.S., sent a letter to the USDA that expressed their opposition to the current forest plan.
"The latest proposal is nothing less than an outright repeal of the rule," said William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. "It replaces what Americans have supported for years," he said.