by Les Blumenthal
December 23, 2004
Administration officials said the final rules will improve "performance and accountability" in a system that has become mired in lawsuits and environmental challenges. They would give forest managers more flexibility in developing their management plans, the officials said.
Environmental groups say the new rules closely track recommendations from the timber industry and will dismantle wildlife protections on 191 million acres of federal forests that have been in place since the Reagan administration.
Industry officials said that the changes were long overdue and that the current system was unworkable.
The new rule overhauls the 1976 National Forest Management Act, which required 15-year management plans for each of the 155 national forests. Those plans spell out in detail proposals for logging, mining, drilling, grazing and other activities, along with protection of wildlife.
Critics have said the forest plans take five to seven years to develop and are often out of date before they are finalized.
"The new rule will improve the way we work with the public by making forest planning more open, understandable and timely," said Sally Collins, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service. "It will enable Forest Service experts to respond more rapidly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats, such as invasive species."
Under the rules, the Forest Service will adopt an "environmental management system" for each forest that will offer a strategic guide for how the lands will be used.
Forest Service officials say the new system will allow forest managers more discretion in formulating their plans and eliminate burdensome nationwide standards. The new system could cut costs by as much as 30 percent by eliminating paperwork and reducing the length of time to prepare the plans from years to months, they said.
"This rule applies the most current thinking in natural resource management," Collins said.
Environmentalists said the new management system, which has been used widely in the corporate sector but never on public lands, will include few nationwide standards such as those that cover wildlife protection, and will allow the Forest Service to sidestep current requirements of the environmental impact statements.
"This is the single most significant change in forest policy the Bush administration has done yet," said Michael Anderson of The Wilderness Society in Seattle.
Anderson and other environmentalist said the new regulations also would do away with a Reagan-era requirement that viable populations of wildlife be maintained in the national forests. Instead of being a requirement, Anderson said it will now be a goal for forest managers.
"The viability requirement is second in importance to only the Endangered Species Act when it comes to wildlife protection," said Mike Leahy, a lawyer with Defenders of Wildlife.
The viability standard is also the foundation of the Northwest Forest Plan, which guides management of the old-growth forests of the Northwest, he said.
Under the new regulations, Leahy said, each forest manager can come up with "whatever standards they want," rather than having mandatory environmental standards across all national forests.
Many of the new rules closely track recommendations offered by the American Forest & Paper Association during testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May 2000, Leahy said. Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment who overseas the Forest Service, is a former timber industry lobbyist.
Industry officials said the new rules will give forest managers the authority they need to develop their plans without interference from federal bureaucrats.
"It's a proper attempt to get decision making back on the ground so the best science and the best information can be used on the project level," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore., which represents timber interests in 13 Western states.
West said the new system would save millions of dollars currently wasted on a "paper exercise" and speed up a planning process currently tangled in red tape.
"The Forest Service over the past couple of decades has instead of caring for the land and serving the people, has been caring for the process and serving the bureaucracy," West said.
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