The Bush administration issued comprehensive new rules yesterday for managing the national forests, jettisoning some environmental protections that date to Ronald Reagan's administration and putting in place the biggest change in forest-use policies in nearly three decades.
The regulations affect recreation, endangered-species protections and livestock grazing, among other things, on all 192 million acres of the country's 155 national forests. Sally Collins, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said the changes will replace a bureaucratic planning process with a more corporate management approach that will allow officials to respond to changing ecological and social conditions.
The new rules give economic activity equal priority with preserving the ecological health of the forests in making management decisions and in potentially liberalizing caps on how much timber can be taken from a forest. Forest Service officials estimated the changes will cut its planning costs by 30 percent and will allow managers to finish what amount to zoning requirements for forest users in two to three years, instead of the nine or 10 years they sometimes take now.
The government will no longer require that its managers prepare an environmental impact analysis with each forest's management plan, or use numerical counts to ensure there are "viable populations" of fish and wildlife. The changes will reduce the number of required scientific reports and ask federal officials to focus on a forest's overall health, rather than the fate of individual species, when evaluating how best to protect local plants and animals.
"We're really in a new world," Collins said in an interview. "You've got to have different plans for different places, and you've got to have more dynamic plans."
Critics such as Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a member of the House Resources Committee who tried twice unsuccessfully to block the proposed rules, said the changes will promote logging and other commercial exploitation of the national forests and relegate the public to the sidelines.
"With Bush's anti-environmental forest policy, you can't blame him for trying to hide behind other news, but not even Scrooge would unveil these regulations," Udall said. "These regulations, being offered two days before Christmas, cut the public out of the forest planning process, will inspire many more lawsuits and provide less protection for wildlife. It's a radical overhaul of forest policy."
Collins said the administration sought to update the rules to address new challenges, such as invasive species and forest fires, and to give the public input on how to manage the forests rather than commenting on individual projects.
The new rules would affect two national forests that encompass 1.6 million acres of Virginia land: the George Washington National Forest, 70 miles west of Washington, and the Jefferson National Forest in the southwestern part of the state. Jefferson National's officials just completed their management plan, and the George Washington forest is due to issue a new one in 2008.
Three presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have tried to change how the government drafts the 15-year management plans that dictate how federal officials auction off timber, locate campsites, allocate grazing rights and protect vulnerable species in each forest. Because the plans can take five to nine years to complete, some activists and timber industry representatives have complained they are out of date when they become final.
Just before leaving office, Clinton finalized a set of regulations that emphasized ecosystem health and wildlife protection over commercial exploitation; President Bush reversed those rules just before Thanksgiving 2002. The final regulations issued yesterday, which will take effect when they are published in the Federal Register next week, are nearly identical to a proposal the administration outlined two years ago.
Rick Cables, who oversees 11 national forests spanning 22 million acres in the Rocky Mountain region, said the regulations will save his deputies time so they can devote more attention to such issues as use of off-road vehicles and forest overgrowth.
"This planning rule just makes more efficient and effective use of our field people's time and energy," Cables said. "In doing that, it makes it easier for us to tackle the problems we have today."
Administration officials said they will balance this newfound flexibility with regular audits of forest management decisions, but environmentalists said only strict federal rules can guarantee a haven for animals that seek refuge in the forests.
One-quarter of U.S. species at risk of extinction -- including more than 25 species of trout and salmon -- live in national forests, according to the conservation group NatureServe. Large animals such as grizzly bears, wolves and elk depend on the forests' large, undisturbed swaths of land for habitat.
"The end result of all this is there will be more logging and less conservation of wildlife," said Mike Leahy, natural resources counsel for Defenders of Wildlife. "They're not going to provide enough land for these species to hang on."
National forests are also an increasingly popular tourist destination for tens of millions of Americans. The number of visitors to national forests doubled over the past eight years, said Chris Wood, a Clinton administration Forest Service official who is now vice president of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.
But timber industry officials want access to the land, and they said they need a less burdensome process so federal officials can make timely decisions on proposed timber auctions.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, called the new rules "a step in the right direction" that will allow forest managers to make "better, more informed and quicker decisions" about timber sales.
"This will get the Forest Service caring about the land and caring about the people, instead of caring about the process and serving the bureaucracy," said West, who represents lumber and paper companies as well as landowners in 13 western states.