December 23, 2004
Administration Overhauls Rules for U.S. Forests
ASHINGTON, Dec. 22 - The Bush administration issued broad new rules Wednesday overhauling the guidelines for managing the nation's 155 national forests and making it easier for regional forest managers to decide whether to allow logging, drilling or off-road vehicles.
The long-awaited rules relax longstanding provisions on environmental reviews and the protection of wildlife on 191 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They also cut back on requirements for public participation in forest planning decisions.
Forest Service officials said the rules were intended to give local foresters more flexibility to respond to scientific advances and threats like intensifying wildfires and invasive species. They say the regulations will also speed up decisions, ending what some public and private foresters see as a legal and regulatory gridlock that has delayed forest plans for years because of litigation and requirements for time-consuming studies.
"You're trying to manage towards how we want the forest to look and be in the future," said Rick D. Cables, the Forest Service's regional forester for the Rocky Mountain region.
The rules give the nation's regional forest managers and the Forest Service increased autonomy to decide whether to allow logging roads or cellphone towers, mining activity or new ski areas.
Environmental groups said the new rules pared down protection for native animals and plants to the point of irrelevance. These protections were a hallmark of the 1976 National Forest Management Act.
"The new planning regulations offer little in the way of planning and nothing in the way of regulation," the conservation group Trout Unlimited said in a statement.
Martin Hayden, a lawyer with Earthjustice, a law firm affiliated with the Sierra Club, accused the administration of watering down protections "that are about fish and wildlife, that are about public participation, or about forcing the agency to do anything other than what the agency wants to do."
"What you are left with is things that are geared toward getting the sticks out," Ms. Hayden said.
The original 1976 law on forest management was intended to ensure that regional managers showed environmental sensitivity in decisions on how the national forests would be used. During the 1990's, the Clinton administration sought major revisions in the rules governing how the act was carried out. But the Clinton-era regulation was not completed in time to take effect before President Bush assumed office.
The new rules incorporate an approach that has gained favor in private industries from electronics to medical device manufacturing. The practice, used by companies like Apple Computer, allows businesses to set their own environmental goals and practices and then subjects them to an outside audit that judges their success.
These procedures are called environmental management systems. When the Forest Service started investigating these systems, said Fred Norbury, a deputy associate chief at the Forest Service, "what we discovered to our surprise is that the U.S. is a little behind the rest of the world and we in government are a little behind the curve."
In the case of the Forest Service, the supervisors of the individual forests and grasslands will shape forest management plans, and the effects of those will be subject to independent audits.
The auditors the Forest Service chooses could range from other Forest Service employees to outsiders, said Sally Collins, an associate chief at the Forest Service. She said the auditors could come from an environmental group or an industry group like timber "or a ski area, local citizens or a private contractor."
Forest supervisors are appointed by the Forest Service to manage national forests and report to regional managers. Some are more supportive of pro-timber policies, while others are more steeped in the environmental ethos.
One of the ways the new rules give forest supervisors more power is that they are allowed to approve plans more quickly for any particular forest use - ranging from recreation to logging to grazing - and to adjust plans with less oversight.
For instance, an existing requirement to keep all fish and wildlife species from becoming threatened or endangered is jettisoned. In its place is a requirement that managers consider the best available science to protect all natural resources when they are making decisions.
Michael D. Ferrucci, a partner in the Connecticut consulting firm Interforest and a former forest manager who now performs audits for private industry and state governments, said Wednesday: "I personally think the flexibility implied in this approach is terrific. It will help to unlock the power and creativity of a lot of good people."
He added: "Most environmentalists and most scientists who follow forestry understand that more flexibility is needed. But there is a risk of making some of the mistakes we made 20 and 25 years ago. The mistake we made was to be a little too narrowly focused on the timber side." In the 1980's, extensive logging took place in places like the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and Oregon's old growth forests.
But Chris Wood, the vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited, warned that the new approach would require a heavy financial commitment to ensure enough people could monitor the impact of regulations and alert managers to problems.
Amy Mall, a forestry specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said in a statement: "The rule is illegal. It rips the guts out of National Forest management plans. It doesn't ensure that the Forest Service provides the necessary resources to implement plans."
The final rule requires forest managers to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the cornerstone of the current environmental regulations on government and industry.
But an accompanying proposal - which is open to public comment for 60 days - gives managers new discretion on what kind of environmental review constitutes compliance.
Mr. Norbury of the Forest Service said that under this proposal, the forest supervisor would be making the call as to whether a particular plan must undergo a full environmental impact statement, a more modest review or no formal review.
In Congress, where partisan divisions over environmental protections have grown more acute in recent years, the new rules were greeted with enthusiasm by Republican leaders and anger by Democrats.
Representative Richard W. Pombo, the chairman of the Republican-controlled House Resources Committee, hailed the change, saying that currently "the process is so burdensome and time consuming that the plans are obsolete before they are finished."
But Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said, "The Bush administration's new plan threatens to derail decades of progress in that direction by backing away from longstanding, bipartisan commitments to nontimber resources like wildlife, public involvement and scientific review."