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Clear-cutting the forest regs

Bob Berwyn

Say you live in Eagle, adjacent to a peaceful parcel of national forest land zoned for wildlife habitat and recreation, where coyotes howl at the moon and chickadees twitter among moss-draped spruce and fir branches.You wake up one morning to the roar of a bulldozer cutting a path through the trees, followed closely by rumbling logging trucks. Before you have time to pull on your Sorels, the loggers have chewed their way through a dozen 100-year-old trees, and by the time you manage to place a phone call to the district ranger office of the Forest Service, the crews have clear-cut several acres. When you finally reach a ranger and ask him about the project, he tells you the forest supervisor quietly amended the forest plan six months ago at the request of the timber industry.That may sound a little far-fetched. But environmental groups say that, if the Forest Service adopts a new set of planning regulations unveiled by the Bush administration Nov. 27, regional foresters and forest supervisors could change a forest plan without considering public input or conducting an environmental study.The new rules appear to empower supervisors to approve logging, drilling and mining regardless of the forest plan’s guidelines for protecting wildlife. Many projects would still require some sort of site-specific analysis, but some types of work could proceed under categorical exclusions. Forest supervisors could change sections of forest plans dealing with motorized use and ski area expansions. The new rules could also ease the way for forest-thinning projects and even clear-cutting patches of high country forests to increase runoff.According to conservation groups, the revisions to the planning rules were made without public or scientific input, solely by political appointees, including Under Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry.Agency officials say the changes affecting all 190 million acres of national forest system lands across the country are aimed at cutting bureaucratic red tape and easing costly regulatory burdens. Forest Service deputy chief Sally Collins says the moves could save up to $300 million in planning costs during the next 10 years, making more money available for on-the-ground management. Additionally, Collins says the new regulations give local forest managers more leeway to consider local economic and social issues when making management decisions.”The proposed rule is designed to more effectively involve the public and to better harmonize the environmental, social and economic benefits of America’s greatest natural resource our forests and grasslands,” U.S. Forest Service associate chief Sally Collins said in a prepared statement announcing the proposed regulations.Critics of the current planning process say it’s too complicated, costly and time consuming. The new rules would eliminate “most of the procedural requirements and redundancies in the planning process, which could allow plans to be completed in a third of the time,” according to the proposal.Officials from the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), a timber industry organization, have long been critical of the current forest management plans.”For too long, federal land managers have been drowning in paperwork and red tape that have prevented them from being able to actively manage our imperiled federal forestlands,” AF&PA president and CEO W. Henson Moore said in a prepared statement last August.”The proposal will restore common sense to the forest management process,” said Michael Klein, a spokesman for the association, in an interview with the New York Times. “And I don’t think it will necessarily mean more tree removal.”But environmental groups are screaming bloody murder before the ink on the new regulations is dry, or more to the point, before the rules have even been published in the Federal Register, triggering a public comment period. Subsequently, top officials will evaluate the input and release a final rule. But legal challenges from the conservation community are certain.”This proposal eliminates the most meaningful requirements and substitutes agency discretion, reduces public involvement, all but eliminates scientific oversight, and is a clear abuse of the regulatory process for the benefit of the timber industry,” says Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen.”My reading of these regulations is that they’re essentially overturning the National Forest Management Act, which was passed in the first place in reaction to rampant clear-cut logging and environmental degradation,” says Steve Holmer, a Washington, D.C.-based activist with the American Lands Alliance. “It makes the whole forest planning process moot.”The proposed changes demote the priority the U.S. Forest Service places on ecological sustainability; eliminate required protections for wildlife; eliminate scientific oversight of agency actions and reduce mandatory standards for forest management regarding species viability and air and water quality. Requirements for monitoring project impacts would also be dropped, Holmer says.”Essentially, it’s a timber industry wish list,” adds Schlickeisen, whose group recently sued the Forest Service, claiming the Bush administration is illegally blocking a request made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) five months ago. The group is trying to obtain documents to determine what role the timber industry played in formulating the draft regulations.”Just as the administration is withholding documents on the Cheney Energy Task Force and its meetings with energy companies, they are withholding information about national forest regulation activities and meetings,” Schlickeisen says.Other national and local environmental groups chimed in, calling the proposed revisions yet another element of an all-out attack on environmental regulations by a pro-business, pro-industry administration.Officials like the White River National Forest’s Dan Hormaechea were not able to offer many details about the proposed new rule or its potential local effects. Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 4, Hormaechea said he’d only just downloaded a copy of the new rules.”It seems like the main emphasis is on time-saving and cost-saving, but we could achieve the same thing in different ways,” Hormaechea says.As far as placing a greater emphasis on economic and social sustainability, Hormaechea says that, on the White River forest, ecological sustainability is the basis for the other elements. “It seems to me you have to have sustainable ecosystems before you can have social and economic sustainability,” he says.Another proposed change in the rule that hasn’t garnered much attention yet could fundamentally change the appeals process. Hormaechea says the new system would be more like that used by the BLM, called an “objection” process.”It’s sitting down informally and trying to resolve issues, but I don’t know if the audience we deal with is ready for that,” Hormaechea says. “It could work if you have a lot of collaboration up front.”Beyond the informal session, the only other option would be legal action, he adds. “And we all know how much time and money that saves.”


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