Environmentalists wary of Bush's 'charter forests' proposal


The Associated Press

A plan outlined in President Bush's budget proposal to create "charter forests" out of public lands has irked some environmentalists who say it could be a scheme to evade laws governing timber sales.

The plan calls for taking some national forest land out of the hands of the U.S. Forest Service and turning it over to local trusts, which would be responsible for managing it, The News Tribune of Tacoma reported Sunday.

The Bush administration says the plan is designed to give greater control over the forests to those who live near them and not an attempt to subvert logging regulations. The budget also says the proposal should help "overcome inertia and an excessive-decision making structure" at the Forest Service.

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," said Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment. "It isn't all about logging. There is no subterfuge here."

The budget says the plan would emphasize local involvement and focus on such goals as ecological restoration and salvage logging to reduce fire hazards.

No other details are provided, however, and there is no indication which of the more than 190 million acres of national forests might be included.

Rey said initially it would be a limited trial program.

"We are interested in working with Congress to see if there are any merits to this," he said.

Rey is a former timber industry lobbyist who also worked for two of the West's most conservative senators, Republicans Larry Craig of Idaho and Frank Murkowski of Alaska.

Environmentalists said the charter forest proposal is similar to legislation Rey helped Craig draft several years ago.

Bill Arthur, who heads the Sierra Club's Northwest chapter in Seattle, said he fears the local trusts established by the proposal would be little more than fronts for the timber industry.

"The whole idea of parceling out the national forests flies in the face of why they were established in the first place," Arthur said. "Sure, local voices should be heard, but they should not dominate."

Daniel Kemmis, who heads the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a think tank at the University of Montana, said arguments for greater local control of natural resources are becoming more intense.

The motivation is the growing sense the current system of land management is dysfunctional, said Kemmis, a former Democratic speaker of the Montana House and author of a book on the subject, "The Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West." The book proposed giving the West regional control over federal land.

Environmentalists remain skeptical.

"We are supportive of local control and local input," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council. "But when you have a public board, there is always the question of who will be accountable."


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