WASHINGTON — The Bush administration proposed Friday to let forest managers decide whether to ask wildlife agencies if a planned thinning or controlled burn might harm an endangered or threatened species.
The new procedure could shave months off the time it takes to initiate projects to reduce fire risks or clean forests after fires, officials said. The administration announced the proposal at the same time it unveiled an array of other changes aimed at removing bureaucratic and legal hurdles that it says delay fire-prevention projects.
Environmentalists warned that the proposal involving endangered species would remove an important check on the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. They and some Democrats in Congress said the administration was trying to increase logging in national forests by avoiding usual environmental reviews and making it harder for citizens and environmental groups to appeal its actions.
Administration officials said the changes would help them triple the acreage they are able to treat annually to avoid forest fires. Government agencies can now treat about 2.5 million acres with thinning projects and controlled burns.
They spend about $400 million a year and complain that more than one-third of it pays for preparing environmental analyses and surmounting procedural barriers such as public appeals and consultations with other agencies.
"We've got to get better at doing this faster and cheaper without losing the quality of the work," said Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture for natural resources and environment.
Under current rules, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service is consulted whenever a Forest Service or BLM project is expected to affect an imperiled animal or plant.
Under the new proposal, Forest Service and BLM officials could choose not to consult a wildlife agency if they decided that their project was "not likely to adversely affect" any endangered or threatened species.
"This will take what has been a meaningful check and balance by wildlife agencies and turn it into a rubber stamp by the Forest Service," said Martin Hayden, a lawyer for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm.
Hayden predicted that under the proposal, consultations with the wildlife agencies on endangered species would be rare.
Environmentalists said the consultations by the wildlife agencies help protect imperiled species.
When the Forest Service was planning a recent salvage sale after a fire in Northern California's Tahoe National Forest, Fish and Wildlife biologists required the Forest Service to preserve a stand of trees that bald eagles might use for nests and several dead trees that the eagles used for perching and hunting, according to Jay Watson, director of the Wilderness Society's fire program.
"Those additional measures probably would not have been part of the project had Fish and Wildlife, the experts, not been consulted," he said.
But Rey defended the policy shift, saying that the current procedure delayed projects unnecessarily for many months.
The new procedure is still subject to change following a public comment period.
The other changes announced Friday -- in the form of final rules that will take effect without further modification -- will allow agencies to conduct thinning projects over as many as 1,000 acres and controlled burns of up to 4,500 acres without the environmental reviews now required.
Under the new rules, individuals and environmental groups will have less time to appeal projects and the Agriculture secretary or undersecretary for natural resources can exempt a project from appeals. Also, the government will be able to move ahead on a logging project that is under appeal if it can prove that the value of the timber would be reduced during a delay.