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White House Reinterpreting Law on Environmental Reviews

The administration seeks to end red tape on federal lands, but critics see a policy 'assault.'

November 03, 2002|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a series of efforts to limit the reach of the nation's bedrock environmental law, the Bush administration is working to prevent environmental impact statements from blocking or stalling energy production, logging and other controversial uses of federal lands and waters.

From oceans to deserts, the administration is making the case that the National Environmental Policy Act applies only to activities that could potentially cause major environmental damage.

The Bush administration argues that the 1969 law has become a bureaucratic obstacle to action because it has been interpreted as requiring environmental impact statements even when proposed actions would obviously have no major effect. It says its goal is to cut red tape, streamline decision making and get more done.

"What we're trying to do is return [the law] to its original vision as a tool that can help us make wise decisions," said Lynn Scarlett, an assistant Interior secretary.

But to Marty Hayden, legislative director of the environmental legal group Earthjustice, the administration is conducting "a systematic assault on our nation's premier environmental law."

One typical case involves plans for managing the nation's 192 million acres of national forests, grasslands and prairies. A draft proposal circulating within the administration would exempt all but major changes to national forest management plans from the thorough environmental reviews now required.

The document says the new process would "allow for new plans, amendments, or revisions to be categorically excluded from documentation" in environmental impact statements.

The management plans are important because they determine which lands are targeted for mineral development, grazing or timber harvests and which are preserved for wildlife, recreation or wilderness. Omitting environmental impact statements could swing some decisions in favor of commercial development.

If the Bush administration's draft proposal goes into effect, the U.S. Forest Service would still undertake lengthy environmental impact statements when proposed forest plans represented major changes from existing plans, according to Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service.

But comprehensive environmental reviews would become the exception rather than the rule.

"The idea is to do the level of environmental review that is justified proportionate to the decision that is being made," Rey said. For instance, the administration argues that it would not be a good use of time and money to launch a full environmental impact statement when officials are updating the forest plan for a smaller eastern forest without any significant changes to guidelines or standards, Rey said.

Environmentalists have a different take. "The administration appears intent on taking away the public's long-standing ability to have a say in how their public lands are managed," said Linda Lance, a vice president of the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group.

On average, forest plans take four to five years to develop and cost $4 million to $5 million. The administration cannot say exactly how much time and money is for the environmental analysis, but Agriculture Department spokesman Dick Smith said it accounted for more than half.

The changes being introduced by the Bush administration directly affect only the way the government does business, not the policies it pursues. But the procedures can influence the policies, regardless of who the president happens to be.

The Clinton administration, for example, was tripped up over its Northwestern forest plan, which governs 19 national forests in Oregon, Washington and Northern California within the range of northern spotted owl. The Forest Service suggested relaxing the width of the unlogged strip of forest that it was required to leave on either side of intermittent streams to act as a buffer against erosion.

The rule had been 100 feet; the Forest Service proposed 50 feet. Environmental groups and government scientists expressed concern that the plan would make streams dirtier and their banks less hospitable to wildlife. The final plan, finished in 1994, called for full-sized forested buffers of at least 100 feet.

On other fronts, the Bureau of Land Management, seeking to expand domestic energy production, has repeatedly forgone environmental impact statements for new projects, even when other federal agencies urge such assessments.

And the administration has proposed exempting from environmental impact statements 10 large projects aimed at diminishing fire risk in federal lands. It is seeking to speed up thinning and proscribed burns on some of the most fire-prone federal lands, thus lessening the risk of severe forest fires.

Environmentalists charge that the administration's real goal is to undertake large timber harvests without scrutiny.

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