benefits from Bush forest policy
says wildfires underscore need for change
Friday, February 28,
2003 Posted: 5:36 PM EST (2236 GMT)
(AP) -- In just six months President Bush has succeeded in redirecting the nation's forest
policy toward the liking of the timber industry.
Endangered species are getting less priority while environmental reviews
and public appeals are being reduced and in some cases eliminated, all part of the "Healthy Forests" initiative Bush outlined
last August for thinning overgrown woodlands prone to wildfires.
When Congress balked, Bush went around it with new regulations that could
be implemented without changing law. After the November election, when his fellow Republicans took control of the Senate and
increased their majority in the House, Congress checked off two more items on the administration's wish list.
All but one of five regulatory changes Bush sought are approaching the
finish line. Two shorten or skip environmental reviews, one limits public appeals and another requires various agencies to
coordinate their endangered species studies. A fifth, still in the works, would reduce time spent on endangered species reviews.
On Friday, the administration recommended that Congress create no more
wilderness areas in the 17 million-acre Tongass
National Forest in Alaska, the nation's largest. Ninety-two percent of Tongass already is off limits to timber production.
Earlier in February, Congress precluded environmentalists from going
to court to challenge that recommendation. Lawmakers also tucked into a giant spending bill language allowing logging companies
and other contractors to keep trees they harvest in exchange for reducing undergrowth, which helps start wildfires.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department's Bureau of Land
Management, which together manage more than 450 million acres of government land, can now issue 10-year contracts for that
work with no limits on the size of trees that can be cut.
Bush and his aides seized on several years of drought and massive wildfires
in the West to make their case for the changes. Last year, more than 7 million acres burned and the government spent more
than $1.5 billion fighting wildfires -- triple the amount originally budgeted.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said 2003 "is shaping up to be a difficult
year" and could be the worst fire season ever; the governors of Nebraska and Kansas each told her it is the driest year in
their states since the 1930s Dust Bowl.
To environmentalists, the administration's approach to forest management
is less about preventing wildfires than opening up more resource-rich federal land to timber and mining interests.
Jim Lyons, a Yale University forestry professor and former Agriculture
Department undersecretary who supervised the Forest Service in the Clinton administration, said the White House appears intent
on returning to the policy of the mid-1980s, when the Forest Service and the BLM had free rein to harvest timber.
"They're cutting the public out of the process, they're using trees to
generate revenue to do this forest health and treatment work they want to do, and they're eliminating any substantive environmental
review from the process," Lyons said.
In January, the Forest Service proposed excluding timber sales involving less than 250 acres and a half-mile of temporary
roads from environmental reviews. Again, the government said it was motivated by the need to reduce wildfire risks by removing
dead and dying trees.
Michael Klein, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association,
the timber industry's trade group, said the Bush administration's approach will help nudge the Forest Service toward better management of the nation's woodlands.
"It means just not sitting back and letting nature takes it course, but
taking an active hand," he said.
The administration now wants Congress, in the name of fire prevention,
to exempt up to 10 million more acres of national forests from environmental reviews and citizen appeals, eliminate administrative
appeals for Forest Service decisions and direct courts to give more weight to the risks of inaction when thinning projects
Separately, the administration is redrawing forest management plans to
vest more power with local federal officials and rewriting a Clinton-era regulation that bars most logging on 58.5 million
acres of non-wilderness land.
"We're making great progress getting the tools lined up ... but the real
test lies ahead," said Agriculture Department undersecretary Mark Rey. "The proof ... will be what things look like 10 to
15 years from now."