Our publicly owned forests are being subverted

  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.

Under the guise of buzz words 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.

The 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.

These 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 public notice.

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 entirely.

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.

The 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 come.

Rep. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He is has been a member of the House Committee on Resources since 1999, assigned to the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

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