While the Bush administration has focused its efforts to "streamline" environmental reviews on energy and transportation projects, the next big showdown will take place in the national forests. Tweaking the National Environmental Policy Act is already figuring prominently in Congress' efforts to turn some form of Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative - an emergency forest-thinning plan to reduce the risk of wildfires - into law (HCN, 8/19/02: Blame game sheds little light on fires). Attempts by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to eliminate NEPA analysis of thinning projects stalled out in the Senate, but Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., is pushing the issue in the House.
would establish "expedited environmental analysis procedures" for
hazardous fuels-reduction projects. Conservationists are concerned
about the bill's vague definition of the "wildland urban interface"
- where 70 percent of the funds will be spent. More significantly,
the bill cuts the time frame for challenging thinning projects by
more than half, and frees the Forest Service (and Department of
Interior agencies like the BLM and Park Service) from having to
consider a range of alternatives for any proposed project.
The bill was toned down significantly, thanks in
part to the efforts of House Resources Committee members George
Miller, D-Calif., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who worked to forge a
bipartisan compromise with McInnis. The Democrats dropped their
support of the bill just before it was sent to the House floor, but
they're still negotiating with McInnis to fine-tune the final
legislation. The full House will take up the bill when it returns
from election recess on Nov. 12.
Democrats' compromise effort did not win points with either the
Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society, which roundly criticized
their longtime allies Miller and DeFazio, as well as Dianne
Feinstein, D-Calif., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., for a similar
compromise effort in the Senate.
putting a hex on cooperation," says The Wilderness Society's Chris
Mehl, "(but) we think the underlying bill is so bad you should just
blow it up and start over."
Whatever the bill's
fate, the Bush administration is now poised to float a proposal for
much more sweeping rule changes. After a year and a half of review,
the Forest Service may seek to exempt from NEPA national forest
plans, which form the framework for all management decisions on
individual national forests. The agency may also scrap a
Clinton-era effort to give ecological sustainability a bigger role
in the forest planning process. A Forest Service spokeswoman says
that the formal unveiling of the draft rule - which will be subject
to a 90-day public comment period - is still "weeks