U.S. Rewrites Rules Governing Forests

A key wildlife mandate will be dropped and environmental requirements eased.

By Bettina Boxall and Lisa Getter

Los Angeles Times

December 23, 2004

A key wildlife protection that has governed federal forest management for more than two decades will be dropped under new regulations announced Wednesday by the Bush administration, and requirements for public involvement in planning for the country's 192 million acres of national forest will be dramatically altered.

U.S. Forest Service officials said the changes, contained in an administrative rewrite of national forest rules expected to take effect next week, would free them from wasteful and time-consuming paperwork and give them the latitude to more quickly respond to evolving forest conditions and scientific research.

"The new rule will improve the way we work with the public by making forest planning more open, understandable and timely," said Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins. "It will enable Forest Service experts to respond more rapidly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats, such as invasive species."

But environmentalists and former Clinton administration officials said the new rules in effect diminish public participation in the management of public lands and give forest managers more leeway to open them to increased logging and gas and oil development.

"This is the most dramatic change in national forest management policy since passage of the [1976] National Forest Management Act," said Jim Lyons, who oversaw the Forest Service as Agriculture undersecretary during the Clinton administration. "It is really a clandestine effort in my mind to subvert much of what the national forests stand for."

The 160-page document outlining the new rules contains two major revisions to forest planning regulations. The first drops the 25-year-old requirement that managers prepare environmental impact statements — a cornerstone of public involvement in environmental decisions — when they develop or revise management plans for individual national forests.

The new rule directs forest managers to involve the public in the planning process but leaves the "methods and timing of public involvement opportunities" up to forest officials.

Management plans are a forest's basic zoning document, outlining which activities are allowed on every acre of the land — from recreation to oil and gas drilling, road building and logging.

The second change drops a mandate, adopted during the Reagan administration in 1982, that fish and wildlife habitat in national forests be managed to maintain "viable populations of existing native and desired nonnative vertebrate species." Instead, managers will be directed to provide "ecological conditions to support diversity of native plant and animal species."

The viability clause is widely considered the Forest Service's most important wildlife protection — and has been a key point of contention with logging interests. It was cited in environmental lawsuits that forced drastic reductions in timber harvests to protect the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

"I'm very fearful that we've just lost the foundation for the protection of old-growth forests and wildlife that has protected the national forests for the last 20 years," said Mike Anderson, senior resources analyst for the Wilderness Society.

Forest Service officials denied that the new approach would weaken wildlife protections.

"We tried to bring the best, newest scientific thinking as to how to protect species, and we think we've got that in the rule," Collins said. "We're going to be able to protect species better with this approach. The accountability that people have been clamoring for so long has never been stronger."

The new rules also mandate that all forests adopt an "environmental management system" — used more commonly to manage private-sector land — and conduct periodic independent audits of whether they are meeting their management goals.

By eliminating the requirement for environmental impact statements — bulky documents that outline the environmental consequences of proposed actions and call for extensive public comment — Forest Service officials said they will shave years off the preparation of new forest plans.

"The problem with [the current system is that] it's a lot of wasted motion that takes a lot of time," said Fred Norbury, associate deputy chief of the national forest system.

"The [environmental impact statement] model is based on a 1950s model of how you relate to the public. It creates documents that don't get used or don't get read and are rapidly obsolete," he said.

Environmental impact statements would still be required for individual projects, such as large logging operations or oil and gas drilling.

But environmentalists pointed out that previous rule changes and legislation under the Bush administration have exempted more and more projects from environmental review.

"Their justification is that the public can comment on individual projects, but they've already issued policies that cut out public comment on many projects. All the pieces fit together," said Amy Mall, forest policy specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Representatives of the timber industry and several Western politicians applauded the rule changes, saying they were overdue.

Michael Goergen, executive vice president of the Society of American Foresters, said the "rules could be the difference in getting managers out from behind their desks and into the forest." Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) called the new regulations "a great Christmas present for our national forests and the people who depend on them."

"This new rule involves the public from start to finish, but no one has to worry about dying of old age in the interim. In too many Western states, forest planning became so convoluted under the old rule that the process was taking 10 to 15 years to complete. That's an absurd tangle of pointless red tape," Domenici said.

But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco called the new regulations "an insult to every American who cares about our national forests" and maintained they would "increase the exploitation of our natural resources by private companies without ensuring the survival of the forests for future generations."

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, is a former lobbyist for the timber industry, which threw its political support overwhelmingly toward Republicans in the last election cycle, donating more than $1.7 million to GOP candidates and party committees and just $380,000 to Democrats, according to data compiled by Dwight L. Morris & Associates, a Virginia firm that tracks campaign contributions.

Contributors identifying themselves as working for the timber industry gave $268,552 to the Republican National Committee and another $163,321 to President Bush, records show.

Three of Bush's elite fundraisers were also top timber executives: W. Henson Moore, chief of the American Forest and Paper Assn., the industry's trade group; Otis B. Ingram III, president of a Georgia lumber company; and Peter Secchia, chairman of Universal Forest Products.

Among the first donors to Bush's 2005 inaugural committee was International Paper Co., which donated $100,000 to help pay for the festivities.

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From Oregon to Mexico

California's 18 national forests run the length of the state, covering 20 million acres, or a fifth of the state's land mass.

National forests in California

* Angeles

* Cleveland

* Eldorado

* Inyo

* Klamath

* Lake Tahoe Basin

* Lassen

* Los Padres

* Mendocino

* Modoc

* Plumas

* San Bernardino

* Sequoia

* Shasta-Trinity

* Sierra

* Six Rivers

* Stanislaus

* Tahoe