- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Managers of the nation’s 155 national forests will have more discretion to approve logging and other commercial projects without lengthy environmental reviews under a new Bush administration initiative.

The long-awaited rules, announced yesterday, overhaul application of the landmark 1976 National Forest Management Act, which sets guidelines for managing 191 million acres of national forests and grasslands and protecting wildlife there.

Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins said the new rules will allow forest managers to respond more quickly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats such as invasive species.

The complex forest-management rules were last updated in the 1970s, and officials long have complained that detailed analyses required under the law take up to seven years to complete. Under the new rule, forest-plan revisions could be completed within two to three years, officials said.

Environmentalists reacted with skepticism, saying the administration is catering to the timber and paper industries and weakening standards for protecting endangered or threatened species.

“We can’t imagine it’s going to be satisfactory for replacement of the wildlife safeguards and public involvement that the public has enjoyed for the last 25 years,” said Mike Anderson of the Wilderness Society.

The plan includes some of the most contentious parts of an earlier proposal. Like that version, the final plan gives regional forest managers more discretion to approve logging, drilling and mining operations without having to conduct formal scientific investigations known as environmental impact statements.

Such analyses outline the impact of a proposed activity on plant and animal life and can take years to complete. The new rules envision a more flexible approach that could be completed in months.

Forest Service officials say the idea is to make forest planning more responsive to changing conditions by eliminating unnecessary paperwork and relying on assessments by local and regional managers rather than one-size-fits-all federal requirements.

“We really have a process that takes way too long — that really isn’t as responsive to the system as it should be,” Miss Collins said.

She said the new approach could cut costs by as much as 30 percent. She also noted the new rules require independent audits of all forest plans.

The audits, to be conducted, in some cases, by private firms and, in others, by federal employees, are based on a concept known as “environmental management systems,” Miss Collins said. Such standards are frequently used by the timber industry as a way to address environmental issues and ensure compliance with the law, she said.

Asked whether the Forest Service employees or private firms dependent on government contracts could conduct truly independent audits, Miss Collins said yes.

“The audit unit is independent from the unit that is doing that work,” she said. “That has to be viewed as an absolutely objective process.”

But environmentalists said there is no evidence a corporate model will ensure accountability for managers of public lands.

“It sounds like they are keeping on track with putting the logging interests in the driver’s seat while shoving wildlife and the public to the back of the bus,” said Marty Hayden, legislative director of the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice.

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