Friday, December 24, 2004

Administration streamlines forest planning process

Sawtooth National Forest will be unaffected for now

Express Staff Writer

The Bush administration's new forest planning rule was expected to be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. Following publication, there is a 60-day comment period.

Written comments can be sent to: Forest Service Content Analysis Team, P.O. Box 22777, Salt Lake City, Utah 84122. E-mail comments Fax comments to (801) 517-1915.

In the final days before Christmas, the Bush administration announced a major overhaul of the way the nation's national forests build their planning blueprints.

Perhaps most significantly, the new rule will not require forests to conduct an environmental analysis under the nation's cornerstone environmental law, called the National Environmental Policy Act, in adoption of forest plans.

Critics are saying the new rules will make it easier for regional forest managers to decide whether to allow logging, drilling or off-road vehicles. Proponents say the rules will unshackle a burdensome, time consuming process.

The Bush administration announced the rules Wednesday, Dec. 22. On Thursday, Forest Service personnel, politicians and activists were difficult to pin down because of the holiday season, begging obvious questions about the timing of the announcement. The administration has been publicly criticized for announcing important public land and environmental policy initiatives on Friday afternoons when public and press scrutiny tends to wane.

Idaho Sen. Larry Craig characterized the rules and timing in a press release as a "wonderful Christmas gift" for Idahoans.

According to the administration, the new rules will provide an improved framework for individual forest planning blueprints, which help guide decisions on the nation's 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands.

The original 1976 National Forest Management Act on forest management was intended to ensure that regional managers showed environmental sensitivity in decisions on how the national forests would be used. For seven years in the 1990s, the Clinton administration sought revisions in the rules governing how the act was carried out, and they were finalized in 2000. The Bush administration never adopted those measures.

According to news reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post, green groups around the country quickly lashed out at the new rules, saying they whittle away protections for wildlife and plant species and give industry equal footing with resource protection. Such environmental protections were a hallmark of the 1976 law.

"The two most notable changes in the government's new approach are the diminishment of protections for imperiled fish and wildlife, and the potential for dramatically reducing requirements for environmental analysis and public comment on Forest Service timber, mining, grazing and off-road vehicle usage of national forests," said Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited's vice president for conservation programs, in a statement.

Forest planning regulations are essentially zoning requirements for public land. They govern activities ranging from timber harvest and road construction, off-road vehicle use, grazing, recreation and water development on national forests.

Wood called the planning documents the most significant expression of the government's responsibilities to manage public lands and waters in an ecologically sustainable manner for the American people.

Although the new rules could affect forest planning efforts for the Salmon-Challis and several north-Idaho forests, there will not be an immediate effect on the Sawtooth, Boise, Payette or Targhee-Caribou national forests, where forest plans were completed last year under the old rules, said Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Ruth Monahan.

Forest plans are typically updated every 10 to 15 years, she said.

"We're focused on implanting the current plan," she said.

But the Salmon-Challis National Forest shares boundaries with the Sawtooth National Forest, and when the Salmon-Challis begins its revisions, the two management districts will consult with each other. To that extent, the Sawtooth National Forest will have to work within the new rules.

"We'll be continuing to be connected with them through their planning process," Monahan said. "Managing those boundaries, in particular, will be important."

Of the nation's 175 national forests and national grasslands, 49 have begun revisions that are not yet completed and will be open to choose whether to continue under the former regulations or use the new rules. An additional 42 forests and grasslands are awaiting revision and must use the new rules.

While conservation groups issued statements indicating their outrage, the Forest Service issued a lengthy press release substantiating the changes.

"The new rule will improve the way we work with the public by making forest planning more open, understandable and timely," said Sally Collins, Forest Service associate chief in Washington, D.C. "It will enable Forest Service experts to respond more rapidly to changing conditions, such as wildfires and emerging threats, such as invasive species."

According to the press release, the agency will adopt an emergency management system for each forest and grassland. The emergency management system connects planning with implementation so plans can be dynamic and outcomes of project-level decisions can be assessed for continuous improvements.

The Forest Service is touting its use of the emergency management systems and stressing that they will require independent audits of the agency's work.

"This new review and oversight of agency performance will help the Forest Service more fully account for its management of more than 192 million acres of public land," according to the press release.

Wood said Trout Unlimited is deeply concerned by the proposal to exempt forest planning from the environmental analysis and public involvement requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act through categorical exclusions.

"While few would defend the bureaucracy and red tape inherent in existing forest plans, we are deeply concerned that this proposal continues a recent trend of the government shutting off avenues for public involvement in management of public lands and waters," he said. "The new planning regulations offer little in the way of planning and nothing in the way of regulation."

But Collins said the new proposal is merely the next logical step and replaces outdated methods with modern science and thinking.

"This rule applies the most current thinking in natural resources management," Collins said. "It takes a 21st Century approach to delivering the full range of values that Americans want for their quality of life: clean air and water, habitat for wildlife and sustainable uses that will be available for future generations to enjoy."

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