Forest Guardians has also sent the agency back to the drawing board on two projects proposed under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. In one case, the Cibola National Forest proposed logging and burning on 13,000 acres of sparsely populated backcountry. In the other, the Lincoln National Forest wanted to lift protections for the threatened Mexican spotted owl. In each case, Forest Guardians filed a "pre-decisional objection," established under the law as an alternative to appeals, and Forest Service higher-ups agreed that there were issues that needed to be addressed.

Environmentalists have also won out in the courts. Under the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Forest Service expanded the use of the "categorical exclusion" — a loophole allowed under the National Environmental Policy Act that allows agencies to undertake certain projects with minimal environmental review and no public comment. The agency also took away citizens’ rights to appeal these projects.

But last September, in a case brought by a California environmental group, U.S. District Judge James Singleton ruled that the administration had gone too far when it denied citizens the right to appeal categorical exclusion projects. All projects must be opened to public comment for 30 days, he said, and subject to appeal for 45 days (HCN, 10/31/05: Forest Service tries to teach greens a lesson). The Forest Service, which is appealing the ruling, says the decision delayed or foreclosed 723 projects, covering over 1 million acres.

"These projects under Healthy Forests are actually leading to more gridlock problems," says Bryan Bird, Southwest forests program director for Forest Guardians. It’s unfortunate, he adds, because in some cases, collaboration is working in spite of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. "It’s more creative, more natural and organic than what the Bush administration has tried to force on us."

On the cutting edge

Despite the acrimony over Healthy Forests, the Bush administration estimates that 15 million acres of federal land have been treated to reduce fuels since 2000. From the Idaho Panhandle to New Mexico, and from Washington to Southern California, citizens are working with federal agencies to protect their homes and communities from catastrophic wildfire. Thinning projects now dominate the Forest Service’s revenue base and mission, at least in the Northwest, says Rex Holloway, who retired in December as spokesman for the agency’s regional office.

But the majority of that work has been done with full environmental review and public input. It’s been done, in other words, under the old rules.

As evidence of the success of Healthy Forests, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture David Tenny points to the steady increase in acres treated nationwide, from 2.3 million acres in 2002 to 4.3 million acres last year. By focusing resources on forest health, "we have become much more successful at treating more acres," he says. "We give land managers a variety of tools, set expectations of what we want to accomplish, and let them decide what the most appropriate tools are."

But Tenny acknowledges that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act hasn’t "come online" yet, and that the upturn in forest treatment really dates to before the Healthy Forests Initiative. Agriculture Department spokesman Rick Alexander says the expanded NEPA authorities under the Healthy Forests Initiative and Act account for only 8 percent of the total forest treatment for 2005 and 2006.

The fact is that most forest fuel-reduction projects are not controversial at all. Very few have been challenged in court, as a 2003 Government Accountability Office report confirmed. Where controversy erupts, it is almost always over proposals to log large, live trees under the pretense of improving forest health.

"There are a lot of things we can all agree on," says Emily Platt, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Alliance. The Portland-based organization has formed a partnership with the Forest Service and logging companies and mills in Washington’s Lewis County to offer thinning sales on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (HCN, 9/27/04: Life After Old Growth).

The Pinchot Partnership produced its first tangible result last October, when a Woodland, Wash., logging contractor purchased 4.2 million board-feet of small-diameter trees for just over $1 million. The Smooth Juniper timber sale was an important victory, which came out of an agreement among all the parties to stop logging in roadless areas and old-growth stands. Instead, the partners agreed to make timber available to local mills through innovative thinning prescriptions, remove unneeded forest roads and conduct citizen monitoring.

The Smooth Juniper sale included full scientific review and public comment. It was not appealed.

Before the collaboration began, the Pinchot was "one of the most-appealed forests," Platt says. "There hasn’t been a single appeal on the (forest) in three years.

"We haven’t needed to change any of the laws," she adds. "And if the Forest Service is pursuing these common-ground projects, it’s not having to spend a lot of time and money on litigation."