As the nation remains preoccupied with the war against terrorism, President Bush has been carrying out a less visible assault on another front: our national forests. Most of the attacks over the last year have been below the radar — in arcane rules, stealth riders and misnamed legislation. In this many-fronted assault, big timber is the winner.
guise of buzzwords such as forest health, catastrophic-wildfire
prevention and streamlining, the administration’s initiatives
transform forest policy in ways that are staggering in their scope
as well as in their implications for democracy.
changes revamp laws fundamental to sound forest management,
including the National Forest Management Act, the Appeals Reform
Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Their cumulative
effect is to undermine or eliminate open decision-making, agency
accountability, resource protection and recourse in the courts. Add
to the mix a congressional rider that allows the agency to pay for
restoration work with the logging of large trees, as well as the
Healthy Forests Restoration Act that Congress stands poised to
pass, and a revolution has occurred.
It began in December
2002, when the administration proposed a forest-planning regulation
that renders public involvement virtually meaningless. The rule
ignores scientific involvement, eliminates fish and wildlife
protection, and fails to protect roadless areas. It skews the
planning process to favor logging, mining and off-road vehicle use.
It renders plan standards more discretionary, further reducing
agency accountability. Most shocking, the final rule, due out
imminently, exempts forest plans from environmental analysis and
eliminates the opportunity for the public to appeal the final plan.
The Forest Service assured critics that it would
undertake in-depth environmental studies when specific logging
projects were proposed. Not so.
In June 2003, the
administration abolished environmental review of logging done in
the name of "hazardous fuels reduction" on up to 1,000 acres of
land, as well as post-fire rehabilitation projects on up to 4,200
acres. One month later, the administration carved out more
loopholes for National Environmental Policy Act exemptions for
commercial logging, by setting acreage limits of 70 acres for
timber sales and 250 acres for salvage sales.
projects have few, if any, meaningful constraints. For example, the
projects must be "consistent" with local forest plans. Yet, under
the soon-to-be final planning regulations, forest plans can be
amended simply by changing the plan on an interim basis with no
Under the banner of hazardous fuels
reductions, large-scale, intensive commercial logging projects may
take place virtually anywhere in our forests, regardless of forest
type or tree size. In effect, these changes allow logging and
associated road building with no environmental analysis, no appeals
and limited public involvement.
Equally sweeping are
changes to the Appeals Reform Act. In 1992, Congress gave citizens
a statutory right of appeal after the Forest Service tried to
eliminate appeals on timber sales. Although billed as part of the
"Healthy Forests Initiative," changes to these regulations
significantly curtail rights to appeal a broad range of timber
sales and land management decisions — not just those
pertaining to fire risk. These changes remove the requirement that
projects stop during an appeal — making appeals meaningless.
The changes also give the agency broad discretion to consider only
public comments it considers "substantive." Finally, merely by
having the Agriculture secretary sign decision documents, the
changes also allow the agency to evade the appeals process
Congress is also pushing citizens out of the
picture. If the Healthy Forests Restoration Act compromise passed
by the Senate becomes law, it will reduce environmental review on
logging projects not already given a wholesale exemption, create a
new appeals process likely more narrow than even the amended one,
and severely restrict opportunities for public involvement or for
courts to review the legality of logging projects almost anywhere
on our publicly owned forests, including roadless areas and old
growth. If bug and disease control are the purported reasons for
logging, projects up to 1,000 acres will bypass all environmental
review and appeals.
With millions of dollars authorized
in the act for any hazardous-fuels project on public lands, logging
without laws can proceed throughout the backcountry.
synergistic effects of these radical rollbacks are breathtaking. I
predict that the assault will only foment more controversy and
stimulate more distrust of the Forest Service for years to
Rep. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, has been a member of
the House Committee on Resources since 1999, assigned to the
Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.