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Greenwire: Thursday, December 23, 2004

(from our SEMA friends)

Bush Administration Overhauls Forest Management Rules
Allison A. Freeman, Greenwire reporter
The Bush administration released broad new rules yesterday for management of the nation's 191 million acres of national forests, revamping the 28-year-old management system to give regional forest managers more discretion to decide whether or not to approve logging, mining or other projects.

The rules, which will eliminate much of the current environmental review process, are some of the biggest changes to forest-use policies in nearly 30 years, changing how forest managers make decisions about endangered species, grazing and commercial projects.

The overhaul has been in the works since shortly after President Bush first came into office four years ago. Administration officials have said the rules are necessary to make forest planning more timely and cost effective -- streamlining a process that can take years, enhancing public participation and saving the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars.

Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins said yesterday that the rules would replace a laden bureaucracy with a system that more closely resembles a corporate management approach. The rules will give forest managers more flexibility to respond to scientific advancements and the ability to respond more quickly to threats from invasive species or wildfire, Collins said.

But environmentalists blasted the revisions for weakening environmental assessments and species protections, changing the public participation process and potentially opening the door to more logging and other activities the groups oppose.

"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 plan would alter rules that go back to the 1976 National Forest Management Act, which Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both tried to change. Changes made at the end of the Clinton administration put ecological sustainability above social and economic concerns and strengthened wildlife protections and opportunities for public input, revisions timber groups adamantly opposed.

But the Bush administration suspended the Clinton-era rule in the spring of 2001 and has worked on altering it ever since, first proposing changes to the regulations in December 2002 (Land Letter, Oct. 2, 2003).

Under the current system, Forest Service officials must develop forest management plans for each of the country's 155 national forests and 20 grasslands every 15 years. Agency officials said it takes five to seven years and millions of dollars to revise each of those plans. But the new rule will cut that down to a two to three year process, according to the agency, and could cut costs by as much as 30 percent.

The new rule directs forest managers to develop the plans more broadly, assessing their forests on a landscape level. Officials would no longer be required to manage for particular plants or wildlife but would be directed to aim for the over-arching goal of maintaining "healthy, diverse and resilient" ecosystems.

In making decisions about use of forests, the new rule directs managers to put social and economic considerations on par with ecological sustainability. It does not promote or discourage any particular use of the forest -- such as recreation, grazing or mineral development -- but allows those decisions to be informed by local conditions, according to the Forest Service.

But the plan would also eliminate long-standing requirements that forest managers prepare an environmental impact statement with each overall forest plan. Forest Service officials said the new plan does not completely scrap the environmental assessments but defers them, only requiring an EIS for a specific on-the-ground project that may arise as part of the larger plan.

But environmentalists said the plan would provide wide categorical exclusions that would effectively eliminate the reviews -- which are required as part of the National Environmental Policy Act -- and shut out public comment. Further, the plan would throw out many of the current protections for particular species, including numerical counts to ensure populations stay at a certain level, which concerned wildlife groups.

The plan employs an "environmental management system" approach, which follows a model widely used by the private sector ranging from the timber industry to electronics companies. Officials would develop an overall management plan for each forest or grassland and periodically update it, as new science and discoveries are made. The plans would then be subject to independent audits by private firms or federal employees.

Environmentalists were skeptical yesterday about leaving so many decisions on the local level, saying federal guarantees for plants and wildlife are needed to ensure sustainability.

"The Bush administration would leave scientific review of logging projects to the discretion of local forest managers, making conservation optional rather than required," said Robert Vandermark of the Heritage Forests Campaign.

The rule received divided response yesterday from Capitol Hill, with Republicans applauding the administration for working to expedite the forest management process and Democrats criticizing changes to environmental protection and public input.

"For nearly 30 years we have been evolving toward more common sense, more sustainable management of our nation's 191 million acres of national forests," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), ranking member of the Agriculture Committee. "The Bush administration's new plan threatens to derail decades of progress in that direction by backing away from long-standing, bipartisan commitments to non-timber resources like wildlife, public involvement and scientific review."

"This is a great Christmas present for our national forests and the people who depend on them," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) "This new rule involves the public from start to finish, but no one has to worry about dying of old age in the interim."

The rules will go into effect after they are published in the Federal Register later this month.

Click here to view the rule.

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