Bush Administration Finalizes Rules for National Forest Management
WASHINGTON Managers of the nation's 155 national forests will have more discretion to approve logging and other commercial projects without lengthy environmental reviews under a new Bush administration initiative.
The long-awaited rules, announced Wednesday, overhaul application of the landmark 1976 National Forest Management Act, which sets guidelines for managing 191 million acres of national forests and grasslands and protecting wildlife there.
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins said the new rules will allow forest managers to respond more quickly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats such as invasive species.
The complex forest management rules were last updated in the 1970s, and officials long have complained that detailed analyses required under the law take up to seven years to complete. Under the new rule, forest plan revisions could be completed within two to three years, officials said.
Environmentalists reacted with skepticism, saying the administration was catering to the timber and paper industries and weakening standards for protecting endangered or threatened species.
"The president's forest regulations are an early Christmas gift to the timber industry masquerading as a government streamlining measure," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
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.
Forest Service officials say the idea is to make forest planning more responsive to changing conditions by eliminating unnecessary paperwork and relying on assessments by local and regional managers rather than one-size-fits-all federal requirements.
"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.
"We can't imagine it's going to be satisfactory for replacement of the wildlife safeguards and public involvement that the public has enjoyed for the last 25 years," said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society.
The new approach could cut costs by as much as 30 percent, Collins said. She also noted the new rules require independent audits of all forest plans.
The audits, to be conducted in some cases by private firms and in others by federal employees, are based on standards frequently used by the timber industry to address environmental issues and ensure compliance with the law, Collins and others said.
Environmentalists said there is no evidence a corporate model will ensure accountability.
They also expressed concern that the plan relaxes a requirement to protect fish and wildlife in national forests so species do not become threatened or endangered. Instead, the rules assert an overarching goal to "maintain healthy, diverse and resilient" ecosystems and species native to forest lands.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said the new rules are "a lot more responsive" than the current rules, which he called cumbersome and counterproductive.
The rules take effect after they are published in the Federal Register, which is expected next week.
Source: Associated Press