Some Democrats and conservationists worry it's an attempt to circumvent environmental protections. They already are upset that the Bush administration is revising Clinton-era forest policies, including the "roadless rule" protecting more than 58 million acres from most logging and road construction.
The new plan, included in the president's budget proposal, is similar to charter schools, which typically operate outside of regular education bureaucracies. Though the proposal is vague, the budget said certain national forests or portions of them could become separate entities that would be overseen by local trusts rather than the Forest Service.
Mark Rey, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said he wants to use one or two national forests as case studies to see if the government can remove "procedural bottlenecks" that occur in day-to-day management and emphasize local involvement in decision-making.
Rey said the goal is not to increase any particular activity, such as logging or recreation, but to reduce management costs on tasks such as drafting the complex environmental documents required under federal regulations.
"Our goal is to try to reorder that so that we are getting better on-the-ground accomplishments," he said. "In some cases, that will mean selling less timber. In other cases, that may mean selling more timber, but that is not the fundamental objective."
Conservationists are eager to hear the particulars of the most recent proposal from Rey, who, they point out, is a former timber industry lobbyist and worked for two conservative Western Republicans - Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho and Frank Murkowski of Alaska.
"Some interest is going to dominate that local management and, given Undersecretary Rey's rich history, I have a sneaking suspicion what interest that might be," said Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice. "The big question is: Will charter forests become a magnet for clear-cuts?"
Chris Wood, watershed programs director for Trout Unlimited, said he's concerned the administration is trying to shift management problems rather than fix them. He wants to be sure that the balance between local needs and national interests is maintained.
"At best, you could say this is a punt," Wood said. "At worst, you could say it is an underhanded attempt to devolve public lands to local controls."
Congress will have to approve the charter forest concept. Senate Energy and Natural Resources forests subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the plan will get close scrutiny.
"I am not going to support anything that is a glide past environmental laws and public involvement," he said.
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