Logging rules may be eased - Plan calls for less scientific study before cutting in national forests
The Bush administration plans to propose revising Clinton-era rules that required managers of 192 million acres of national forests to emphasize clean water, recreation and wildlife protections. Critics say the proposal would weaken the regulations to allow more logging.
If approved, the revisions could over time allow significant changes in the terms of the Northwest Forest Plan adopted in the Clinton administration to end squabbling in the Pacific Northwest over the fate of old-growth forests and the spotted owl.
The rules would govern how new forest-management plans are hammered out. Over the next few years, many national forests in the Northwest will revamp their marching orders, prescribing areas open to logging and off-road vehicles, for instance, and how far away from streams a timber or mining activity must take place. National forests make up about one-tenth of the nation's land base.
Conservationists called the proposal just the latest -- but potentially the most far-reaching -- in the Bush administration efforts to satisfy the timber industry. A timber industry representative stressed that the proposal is tentative, and the public will have plenty of opportunity to comment on it before it is finally adopted.
"The Clinton forest-planning rules changed dramatically the mission of the Forest Service from multiple use and balanced ecological, social and economic use (so that) the driving cause was ecosystem restoration and preservation," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based timber group.
"That was in direct conflict not only with the multiple use on which the Forest Service was built, but also the needs of communities."
David Bayles, executive director of the Pacific Rivers Council, said the pro-timber stance of the administration has been clear, so he was not surprised to hear that the proposal would benefit the industry.
"If you really want to produce clean water and recreation and fish and wildlife habitat along with timber, you can't let timber values dominate the forest," he argued.
In an Oct. 25 draft of the proposed rule change, obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Bush administration argued that the Clinton-era rules, which have since been suspended, are "neither straightforward nor easy to implement," and are expensive to boot. Those rules were suspended by the Bush administration for a year, and then put on hold indefinitely last spring.
The draft says the Clinton-era rules made provisions for extensive involvement of scientists in the planning process, but that would mean "unnecessarily detailed procedural requirements for scientific peer reviews, broad-scale assessments, monitoring and science advisory boards."
The Clinton rules also failed to recognize that there are limits on the availability of scientists to help with the planning, and on budgets to pay for them, the draft proposal says.
Conservationists say they see on the rule change the fingerprints of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist who now oversees the Forest Service.
For example, said Mike Anderson, a policy analyst with The Wilderness Society in Seattle, the Clinton rules said that Forest Service managers "must" provide ecological conditions likely to keep vertebrate species such as birds, bears and salamanders healthy throughout the forest.
The draft rule says the forest managers "should" provide those conditions. Changes like that, multiplied over 155 national forests under the control of an administration that has said the Northwest timber cut should be increased, would surely lead to more logging.
"Mark Rey knows the two or three phrases that need to change for logging to come back to dominate the national forests," Bayles said. "That's Mark Rey's expertise."
The proposal asks for comment on two provisions for preserving biological integrity in the forests.
"The feature they share in common is neither of them is particularly toothy when it comes to requiring the agency to maintain abundant levels of fish and wildlife," said Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited, who served as a senior aide to the Forest Service chief in the Clinton administration.
"It's a significant departure from the past and has fairly profound implications when you think about what the role of public lands are in conserving fish and wildlife, with public lands often providing a last refuge."
Rex Holloway, a Portland-based spokesman for the Forest Service, said he expected the changes to be proposed today, but he had not seen the details. The proposal's release has been delayed several times.
Holloway said that about a month ago he saw a list of facets of the rule that would change, and those that would not change substantially, and "a lot of the stuff is going to stay the same."
The draft proposal says the Clinton rules on maintaining ecologically sustainable forests were "needlessly complex and overly prescriptive" and lacked flexibility.
Perhaps the most profound change embodied in the Oct. 25 draft would be making the preparation of environmental impact statements for forest plans optional. Those provisions require extensive public involvement in the forest planning, and a rigorous review of alternatives.
However, recent high-level meetings in the administration may have changed that part of the proposal, said Anderson of The Wilderness Society.
In order for the proposed regulations to affect the Northwest Forest Plan, they would first have to be adopted, which can be a lengthy process. Then, under the new planning regulations, a separate move to change the plan would have to be launched.
Under the plan, which was adopted in 1994 to end the standoff over old growth and spotted owls, timber harvests have consistently fallen short of what the Clinton administration envisioned as part of the compromise. It reduced timber production 80 percent on national forests west of the Cascade Range.
In other recent moves affecting the national forests, the Bush administration:
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or email@example.com
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