While you were voting …

Bush administration races ahead with environmental policy changes

 

A little groggy after this year's mosh pit of an election season? Well, while you've been distracted by Barack Obama's crowd-drawing star power, Joe Biden's clean coal gaffes, John McCain's relentless robocalling, and Sarah Palin's $150,000 campaign wardrobe, the Bush administration has been busily ushering through some last-minute changes in environmental and public-lands policy that will be difficult for the next administration to undo.

The Endangered Species Act is at the center of this head-spinning regulatory rush. Back in August, the administration proposed tweaking the law to give federal agencies the discretion to opt out of independent biological oversight when considering new projects such as highways and electrical transmission lines. The proposal would also let the feds pass on considering individual projects' global warming impacts on species. Such changes usually take months or even years to accomplish, but by late October, the Interior Department had 15 staffers slamming through some 200,000 public comments (not including another 100,000 form letters) in a mere 32 hours — or about 7 comments per person per minute — according to the Associated Press. The following week, the draft environmental assessment of the change (which claims there will be no negative impact to species or habitat) appeared on the books with a comment period of just 10 days. By the time you read this, it will likely have ended. So will the 15-day comment period on another rule change that would strip Congress of the authority to extend emergency protections to threatened public lands. That authority was most recently invoked by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., in an attempt to shield lands bordering the Grand Canyon from uranium exploration and mining. The National Park Service even plans to release a rule change proposal this fall that will make it easier for park managers to open trails to mountain bikes.

Meanwhile in early October, Bush's Bureau of Land Management produced a controversial "whopper" in Oregon. No, really, that's what it's called. The final WOPR, or Western Oregon Plan Revision, would roughly double the amount of lumber that can be cut from 2.6 million acres of forested BLM land in western Oregon, including remnant old-growth stands that were off-limits under Clinton-era rules. The new plan predictably angered enviros — who say it amounts to a clear-cutting free-for-all and have already filed a lawsuit — as well as timber companies — who complain that it doesn't allow enough logging and will leave cash-strapped rural communities short. But with the economy in the tank and the housing bubble completely deflated, it may not matter much either way, at least in the short term. Demand for lumber has plummeted since 2005 thanks to declining housing construction, and the trade group Western Wood Products Association forecasts another 15 percent drop this year, and at least 3 percent more in 2009. Lumber-mill closures and temporary and permanent layoffs are proceeding apace, making headlines in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho throughout October.

Logging communities are getting something of a bailout to shore up their budgets and schools, though. That $700 billion financial rescue package Congress passed in early October included a four-year, $1.65 billion extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, a temporary law passed in 2000 to aid counties struggling with a downturn in timber revenues from federal lands. Rural counties in Oregon, which will receive the largest share, aren't betting on future extensions of the fund, though, and many plan to squirrel the money away: "We're not going to spend a nickel of it," Curry County Commissioner Marlyn Schafer told The Oregonian.

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