Published on Thursday, December 23, 2004 by Knight-Ridder
Forest Service's Plans Strip Out Environmental Protections, Critics Say
by Seth Borenstein
WASHINGTON - The Forest Service Wednesday changed the way it plans management of national forests, shortening the process by years but also eliminating the primary tool used by environmentalists to challenge logging and mining in protected forests.
The action, which the Forest Service said would cut its planning process from 10 years to two years, drew cautious applause from timber industry spokesmen, who hoped the change would speed approval for logging.
Conservation groups and ecology professors said the new policy takes too much of a piecemeal approach to forest planning and would allow the timber and mining industries to severely damage national forests.
The major change by the Forest Service was to eliminate the requirement for Environmental Impact Statements in its overall planning for each of America's 155 national forests. Those statements assessed the cumulative impact of all forest activities, such as logging, over 15 years. The statements were often used by environmental activists in court challenges to logging and mining.
The plans are the equivalent of zoning for forests and - until now - had been detailed on what could and could not be done.
But the new policy would replace the details with less specific goals and strategies that Forest Service officials said would be more flexible for handling unanticipated events such as wild fires.
The new planning system creates "a dynamic living document that allows us to respond rapidly to changing conditions," said associate forest service chief Sally Collins.
Forest officials will still have to write Environmental Impact Statements for individual actions - such as each sale of timber - but not for the broad general management plans for each national forest, agency leaders said.
That's a mistake because individual actions, such as timber sales, add up and don't get noticed except under large-scale planning, said Mike Francis, director of the Wilderness Society's National Forest Program.
Princeton University ecology professor David Wilcove, past North American president for the Society of Conservation Biology, said that by looking at individual actions, the forest service doesn't have to face the fact that it may be allowing large-scale environmental damage.
Wilcove compared the Forest Service plan to keeping an open bag of chocolate cookies around the house and snacking on one cookie every hour or so. This way you fool yourself into thinking you're not eating the whole bag, he said.
But Collins told Knight Ridder that the new process would take into account cumulative effects. In fact, the forest service is adding a new auditing system that will be the equivalent of broadcasting each time a cookie is eaten, said Fred Norbury, the service's deputy associate chief.
Until now, forest plans also had limits on timber sales. The new process would eliminate that.
Collins said actual sales never neared the limits and the limits simply encouraged the timber industry to cut more.
Chris West, vice president for the American Forest Research Council, which represents nearly 100 timber companies and forest landowners, lauded the plan as moving the Forest Service away from being mired in bureaucracy.
"We're going to have opportunities" for more timbering, West said. "What we have right now is gridlock."
Environmentalists also questioned how the new plan treats a legal requirement for maintaining the diversity of species and populations in the nation's forests.
Previous management plans required the protection of viable populations of all species in national forests. The new plan requires only the protection of threatened and endangered species, as well as "species of concern" and "species of interest." Forest Service officials said the change is balanced by a new requirement that calls for plans to protect the ecosystem as a whole.
"The nuances of managing species are much more complex than we ever thought before," Collins said, adding that the new process still protects individual species.
Mike Leahy, an attorney for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, didn't buy it.
"They have eliminated the rule to maintain wildlife populations on each national forest," Leahy said. "The old rules had a number of hard and fast requirements in them that the forest managers could be held accountable to. The new rules have vague general guidelines that are not clear and not enforceable."
Environmental groups - calling the plan a Christmas present for the timber industry - also criticized the Forest Service's timing. An early version of the plan was announced just before Thanksgiving 2002; another controversial forest plan that allowing more logging and road-building on the remote Tongass National Forest was unveiled just before Christmas last year.
That's totally accidental, Collins said.
"I would love to be doing this at a different time of year," she said. "It got done at this time of year. It got done this morning."
© Copyright 2004 Knight-Ridder