WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Thursday asked Congress to exempt up to 10 million acres of federal forest land from environmental reviews and citizen appeals to speed logging and thinning projects aimed at reducing forest fires.
''The Healthy Forests Initiative will reduce catastrophic wildfire threats to communities and the environment,'' Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said in a letter to Congress.
The legislative language sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday added details to the proposal unveiled by President Bush last month. Elements of it could come up for a vote in the Senate as early as next week as part of the debate over a spending bill for the Interior Department. Many Democrats are expected to oppose it, but some, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have been negotiating with the Senate sponsors.
Environmentalists hotly criticized the plan, saying it would force the public out of decisions on the future of forests.
''The president made an attempt to sugarcoat the proposal, but this is anything but balanced,'' said Jay Watson, California representative of the Wilderness Society, a national environmental organization. ''It's truly dangerous. It effectively removes the public from having any kind of say on how the forests are managed.''
But Mark E. Rey, the undersecretary of Agriculture with jurisdiction over forest policy, asked that the critics stop ''howling'' and participate in the administration's effort to find a new way to thwart fires in just 5% of the 190 million acres of federal forests that face a high risk of burning.
''We ought to be able to figure out how to trust one another without worrying about whether they can sue us,'' he said.
Both sides agree that decades of fire suppression and selective logging of the largest trees in the national forests have left many stands crowded with trees of varying sizes, making them fodder for super-hot fires.
The Bush administration says its plan would empower the U.S. Forest Service to thin out these trees, preventing the catastrophic fires that have grown in frequency and scale in the last decade. But environmentalists accuse the administration of using the issue of fire prevention as a guise to enable timber companies to increase their logging on public lands.
''This is using a real disaster facing people as a smokescreen for the biggest handout to the timber industry that I have seen in 20 years,'' said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). ''I personally am going to do everything that I can to stop this from going forward.''
One of the biggest changes proposed would exempt thinning projects in fire-prone forests from the National Environmental Protection Act, which requires the government to review its proposed actions for their impact on the environment. This law gives the public a chance to comment on big timber sales and salvage projects, which remove trees after a fire.
Public comments "should result in better decisions that more carefully take into account effects on wildlife and old growth and recreation and the environment,'' said Tom Waldo, staff attorney for Earthjustice, an Oakland-based environmental law group.
The Bush administration proposal ''eliminates the single most important environmental law that applies to logging projects,'' he added.
The law also removes the administrative appeals process that the environmental groups, Forest Service employees and others use to challenge timber sales that they feel violate laws or threaten wildlife.
Environmentalists said that these proposals would only increase the already heated controversy over timber sales in the West, where those who want the forests for recreation and wilderness fight those whose livelihoods depend on timber harvests.
''If you're going to build consensus and bring people together, you don't waive laws; that's guaranteed to be divisive and polarizing,'' Watson said.
But the proposed law would also make it harder for individuals or groups to sue the Forest Service over a sale by requiring that suits be filed within 60 days. In addition, it abolishes the ability to get a court order blocking the sale while a lawsuit is decided.
Rey said the suggested changes are intended to force resolution of the cases ''while there is still something on the ground to be saved.''
As it now stands, Rey said, court cases take so long that environmental groups know that merely filing a suit and gaining a temporary injunction can effectively block the timber sale.
Environmentalists also said that the broad wording of the legislation would give the administration authority to exempt far more than 10 million acres from these key environmental protections.
One clause would waive environmental review for fuel reduction projects in areas affected by disease and insect activity.
''Forest areas affected by insect activity--that's basically any tree made of wood,'' said Keith Hammond of the California Wilderness Coalition.
Times staff writer Bettina Boxall in Los Angeles contributed to this report.