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.


McInnis' bill 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.


But the 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.


"I'm not 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 away."