- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

The White House is considering changes to an environmental law often used by green groups to block tree thinning in national forests vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

The administration wants to ease the red tape and speed up the regulatory process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires analysis and documentation of decisions leading to timber cuts, river dredging and livestock grazing.

"This is a 30-year-plus-old law, and a lot has changed in information technology and management," said one Bush administration official. It was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality has created a NEPA task force to improve technology and information management, as well as government and public collaboration, during the process that can take over three years for one project.

Environmentalists are skeptical of any review of NEPA and say it is another attempt to roll back protective measures concerning the environment.

"In less than two years, the Bush administration has aggressively undertaken just about every measure possible to roll back these laws in favor of polluting industries and at the expense of public health and the environment," said Mark Helm, spokesman for Friends of the Earth.

"What is abundantly clear is that George Bush can, without a doubt, claim the title as the most anti-environmental president the U.S. has ever endured."

The task force is not addressing changes to relieve what critics describe as "analysis paralysis" in federal agencies, including the Forest Service, where projects are studied to death but never implemented.

However, one official familiar with the task force signaled that those issues could soon come under scrutiny.

"It would not be accurate to say those issues won't be addressed at a later date, they are just not on our radar screen right now," the official said.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth told a congressional committee in June that they went through an 800-step process over three years to complete one project.

The Forest Service spends 40 percent of its time and 20 percent of its financial resources $250 million a year on planning and process activities, according to the National Association of Public Administration.

"It's become a never-ending analysis loop the agencies can't get out of, and many agencies have made careers out of it and lost sight that this is a document leading to a real live activity, and to do it," said Chris West, spokesman for the American Forest Resource Council.

"Our hope is to get past the analysis paralysis and get people back to what needs doing on the ground, instead of having people behind desks pushing paper."

The task force to modernize the act is made up of several federal agencies that are taking public comment until Aug. 23. A full report will issued by the end of the year.

Western lawmakers say a review of the law is long overdue and the scope should be expanded.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, hopes the review "will bring some sanity and common sense back to the process."

"I have no doubt that the Bush Administration will carefully scrutinize some of the more burdensome rules like the consultation process that have come to represent nothing but gridlock in the West," Mr. Craig said.

"Those same rules have become so complex for agencies that they shudder to make decisions on resource use on public lands. I am hopeful that they are assessing human impacts and other activities on the environment," he said.

The review is also the first step in containing the wildfire crisis in the West, said Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health.

"At its extreme the process is cumbersome and unwieldy; meaning it shouldn't take two to three years to get a fuels-reduction project, which would reduce the threat of wildfires to Western communities, through the NEPA process," Mr. McInnis said.

NEPA is one of the same laws bypassed in a measure by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to move a timber project forward in the Black Hills of South Dakota, also threatened by summer fires. However, a spokesman for the South Dakota Democrat defended the exclusion, saying the NEPA process was 95 percent near completion in that instance.

House and Senate lawmakers on both sides will attempt to pass legislation, after the August recess, offering similar exemptions in their home states threatened by fire.

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