A key wildlife protection that has governed federal forest management for more than two decades will be dropped, the Bush administration announced yesterday, and requirements for public involvement in planning for the United States' 192 million acres of national forest will be sharply altered.
U.S. Forest Service officials said the changes, contained in an administrative rewrite of national forest rules expected to take effect next week, will free them from wasteful and time-consuming paper work and give them the latitude to more quickly respond to evolving forest conditions and scientific research.
"The new rule will improve the way we work with the public by making forest planning more open, understandable and timely," said Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins. ''It will enable Forest Service experts to respond more rapidly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats, such as invasive species."
Environmentalists and former Clinton administration officials said the new rules effectively diminish public participation in the management of public lands and give forest managers more leeway to open them to increased logging and gas and oil development.
"This is the most dramatic change in national forest management policy since passage of the National Forest Management Act," in 1976, said Jim Lyons, who oversaw the U.S. Forest Service as agriculture undersecretary during the Clinton administration. "It is really a clandestine effort in my mind to subvert much of what the national forests stand for."
The 160-page document outlining the new rules contains two major revisions in forest planning regulations. The first drops the 25-year-old requirement that managers prepare environmental impact statements - a cornerstone of public involvement in environmental decisions - when they develop or revise management plans for individual national forests.
The new rule directs forest managers to involve the public in planning but leaves the ''methods and timing of public involvement opportunities" up to forest officials.
Management plans are a forest's basic zoning document, outlining which activities are allowed on every acre of the land, including recreation, oil and gas drilling, road building and logging.
The second change drops a mandate, adopted during the Reagan administration in 1982, that fish and wildlife habitat in national forests be managed to maintain ''viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species." Instead managers would be directed to provide ''ecological conditions to support diversity of native plant and animal species."
The viability clause is widely considered the Forest Service's key wildlife protection and has been a key point of contention with logging interests. It was cited in environmental lawsuits that forced drastic reductions in timber harvests to protect the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.
"I'm very fearful that we've just lost the foundation for the protection of old-growth forests and wildlife that has protected the national forests for the last 20 years," said Mike Anderson, senior resources analyst for the Wilderness Society.
Forest Service officials denied that the new approach would lead to weaker wildlife protections. ''We tried to bring the best, newest scientific thinking as to how to protect species and we think we've got that in the rule," Collins said. ''We're going to be able to protect species better with this approach. The accountability that people have been clamoring for so long has never been stronger."
The new rule also requires that all forests adopt an "environmental management system" - used more commonly to manage private sector land - and to conduct periodic independent audits of whether they are meeting their management goals.
By eliminating the requirement for environmental impact statements - bulky documents that outline the environmental consequences of proposed actions and call for extensive public comment - Forest Service officials said they will shave years off the preparation of new forest plans.
"The problem with [the current system is that] it's a lot of wasted motion that takes a lot of time," said Fred Norbury, associate deputy chief of the national forest system. The environmental impact statement model "is based on 1950s model of how you relate to the public. It creates documents that don't get used or don't get read and are rapidly obsolete."
Environmental impact statements would still be required for individual projects such as large logging operations or oil and gas drilling. But environmentalists pointed out that previous rule changes and legislation under the Bush administration have exempted more and more projects from environmental review.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspapers.