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Wildlife Protections Lost in New Forest Rules

Industry hails changes as being long overdue, but environmentalists charge the White House is doing the bidding of the timber companies.

November 28, 2002|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration Wednesday proposed removing wildlife protections in the national forest system as it moved to streamline 20-year-old rules that govern how much logging, grazing and mining can be approved.

The new rules would give forest managers new flexibility as they weigh competing uses of national forests. No longer would they be required to ensure the survival of native mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species when planning development."The Forest Service wants ... to spend its available resources doing real work on the land and not disproportionately on planning and analysis," said Sally Collins, associate chief of the Forest Service, the agency of the Agriculture Department that manages national forests.

Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the Forest Service in California, said no one need worry that any species would face new peril in the state's 18 national forests.

"We have a moral and a legal obligation to keep animals off of the threatened and endangered species list," Mathes said. "That has been the bottom line for a number of years and will continue to be the bottom line."

He said the proposal would not affect the changes underway to the Sierra Nevada Framework, which governs the management of 10 national forests in California. But it could influence individual plans for these forests over the next several years.

It could also have an effect on the planning processes underway at the four national forests in Southern California -- the Angeles, Los Padres, San Bernardino and Cleveland, Mathes said.

Timber and paper companies and their supporters in Congress praised the administration, saying it was re-injecting common sense into forest planning.

"The rule provides our on-the-ground Forest Service professionals the tools and flexibility they need to manage America's forests and grasslands and to protect the environment," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho).

But environmentalists charged that the administration was doing the bidding of timber companies, which want to increase logging in the national forests.

"They're not just undoing something the Clinton administration did, they are undoing two decades of national forest manage practice," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group.

Altogether, national forests and grasslands cover 191 million acres, an area larger than Texas. Unlike national parks, where most economic activities are forbidden, national forests were created in part to ensure a steady supply of timber.

In recent decades, public concern about widespread clear-cutting and its effect on wildlife has led to steady increases in environmental protections in the forests.

Within months of taking office, however, the Bush administration canceled a requirement, proposed by the Clinton administration, that forest planners for the first time elevate environmental concerns over all others in the national forests.

The forest announcement is the Bush administration's second major rollback of long-standing environmental protections since the Nov. 5 elections. On Friday, the administration relaxed a provision of the Clean Air Act. Critics charged that the administration was waiting until after voters had made their choices.

"This is part of an ongoing and systematic assault by the administration on our natural resources and environmental protections," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee.

Rahall and others accused the administration of releasing the news the day before Thanksgiving to try to minimize the number of Americans who hear about it. A New York Times poll this week showed that, despite President Bush's high popularity, a majority of Americans disapprove of his environmental policies.

The new regulations could take effect after a three-month public comment period. They would overhaul the implementation of the 1976 National Forest Management Act and modify the rules, adopted under the authority of that law in 1982 during the Reagan administration, designed to protect vertebrate species in the forests.

The act required the Forest Service to prepare plans every 15 years for managing each of the nation's 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. The plans determine which lands are targeted for mineral development, grazing or timber harvests and which are reserved for wildlife, recreation or wilderness.

Timber and paper companies said the proposal would help force the Forest Service to balance environmental concerns against economic and social interests.

"What we've seen is a great shift away from balance to giving ecological considerations priority," said Michael Klein, a spokesman for the American Forest & Paper Assn., a national trade group for forest products companies. "What was announced today is one more step toward restoring some of that balance."

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