WASHINGTON - The Forest Service made changes yesterday in the way it plans management of national forests, shortening the process by years while eliminating the primary tool used by environmentalists to challenge logging and mining in protected forests.
The action, which the Forest Service said would cut its planning process from 10 years to two years, drew cautious applause from timber industry spokesmen, who said they hope the change will speed approval for logging.
Conservation groups and ecology professors said the new policy takes too much of a piecemeal approach to forest planning and would allow the timber and mining industries to severely damage national forests.
The major change by the Forest Service was to eliminate the requirement for environmental impact statements in its overall planning for each of the 155 national forests.
Those statements assessed the cumulative impact of forest activities, such as logging, over 15 years. The statements were often used by environmental activists in court challenges to logging and mining.
The plans are the equivalent of zoning for forests and went into detail on what could and could not be done.
The new policy would replace the details with less specific goals and strategies that Forest Service officials said would be more flexible for handling unanticipated events such as wild fires.
The new planning system creates "a dynamic living document that allows us to respond rapidly to changing conditions," said Sally Collins, associate Forest Service chief.
Forest officials will still have to write environmental impact statements for individual actions - such as a sale of timber - but not for the broad general management plans for each national forest, agency leaders said.
That's a mistake because individual actions, such as timber sales, add up and don't get noticed except in large-scale planning, said Mike Francis, director of the Wilderness Society's National Forest Program.
Princeton University ecology professor David Wilcove, past North American president for the Society of Conservation Biology, said that by looking at individual actions, the Forest Service doesn't have to face the possibility of allowing environmental damage.
Wilcove compared the Forest Service plan to keeping an open bag of chocolate cookies around the house and snacking on one cookie every hour or so. That way, he said, you fool yourself into thinking you're not eating the whole bag.
Collins said that the new process would take into account cumulative effects. The Forest Service is adding a new auditing system that will be the equivalent of broadcasting each time a cookie is eaten, said Fred Norbury, the service's deputy associate chief.
Until now, forest plans also had limits on timber sales. The new process would eliminate that.
Collins said sales never neared the limits and that the limits encouraged the timber industry to cut more.
Chris West, vice president for the American Forest Research Council, which represents nearly 100 timber companies and forest landowners, lauded the plan as moving the Forest Service away from being mired in bureaucracy.
"We're going to have opportunities" for more timbering, West said. "What we have right now is gridlock."
Environmentalists also questioned the way the new plan treats a legal requirement for maintaining the diversity of species and populations in the nation's forests.
Previous management plans required the protection of viable populations of all species in national forests. The new plan requires only the protection of threatened and endangered species, and "species of concern" and "species of interest." Forest Service officials said the change is balanced by a new requirement that calls for plans to protect the ecosystem as a whole.
"The nuances of managing species are much more complex than we ever thought before," Collins said, adding that the new process still protects individual species.
Mike Leahy, an attorney for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, didn't buy it.
"They have eliminated the rule to maintain wildlife populations on each national forest," Leahy said. "The old rules had a number of hard and fast requirements in them that the forest managers could be held accountable to. The new rules have vague general guidelines that are not clear and not enforceable."
Environmental groups - calling the plan a Christmas present for the timber industry - also criticized the Forest Service's timing. An early version of the plan was announced just before Thanksgiving 2002. Another forest plan that allowed more logging and road-building in the remote Tongass National Forest was unveiled just before Christmas last year.