Six months after returning to Central Oregon for a grilling by Sen. Ron Wyden, Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins, former supervisor of the Deschutes National Forest, finds herself in the hot seat over a proposal to streamline (or circumvent, in the critics’ views) environmental reviews for logging and other work on the national forests.
The day before Thanksgiving, with most of Congress home for the holidays between sessions, the Forest Service released its new “land resource and management planning rule” proposal. In its own announcement, the Forest Service called the rule (available for review at http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma) “a simpler, more responsive planning process.”
“The national forests and grasslands are for everyone,” Collins said in announcing the proposal, which brought the expected rounds of praise from the forest products industry and scorn and derision from the environmental community.
“The proposed rule is designed to more effectively involve the public and to better harmonize the environmental, social and economic benefits of Americans greatest natural resource – our forests and grasslands,” Collins said.
Forest Service officials said the proposed planning rule “retains the basic principles” from the rules that took effect two years ago, during the closing months of the Clinton administration, which the Bush administration later put on hold. But it also said, “The proposal provides forest managers with more flexibility to tailor analyses to the specific characteristics and challenges presented by their forests and grasslands.”
“It also eliminates most of the procedural requirements and redundancies in the planning process, which could allow plans to be completed in a third of the time,” the agency said, reporting that a study of planning costs projected the proposed rule would “ save roughly 30 percent from the 2000 rule.”
“These savings can be used to address critical areas, such as wildfire prevention, watershed restoration, and recreation facility maintenance,” Collins said. “The Forest Service wants to improve its planning processes to spend its available resources doing real work on the land, and not disproportionately on planning and analysis.”
The proposal applies to 192 million acres of public lands in 155 national forests and 20 grasslands in 44 states. The rule is slated to be published in the Federal Register in the next few weeks and will include a 90-day public comment period, followed by an expected 6-month process of crafting the final version of the regulations.
Enviros deride rules as Thanksgiving turkey
Holiday or no, the comments flew fast and furious within hours of the announcement.
“The timber industry has much to be thankful for” this Thanksgiving, read the headline on the news release from the Sierra Club (http://www.sierraclub.org), which claimed the industry “will enjoy a hearty feast of increased logging,” as the proposal would “make forest plans voluntary and eliminate opportunities for public participation.”
“These new forest rules reflect the Bush administration’s belief that only timber companies belong in America’s national forests,” said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director. “When the Bush administration rewrote the rules, they wrote the public out of the equation.”
“These sweeping changes in forest management rules reflect the Bush administration’s continued efforts to undermine forest protections and reward timber industry contributors,” the organization claimed.
The new forest rules proposal also came out just five days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a move to relax air pollution standards on older industrial plants that seek to modernize, part of what environmentalists claim is an effort to roll back decades of environmental protections.
Administration officials say the change in forest planning rules is aimed at speeding up an overly burdensome, time-consuming process, and that forest plan reviews would take about two years to conduct, compared with the seven years at present. They are aimed at giving forest officials more leeway in complying with a 1976 law mandating the preservation of diverse plant and animal species.
“A lot has changed in the last 30 years,” said Collins, whose associate chief position is similar to that of a private organization’s chief operating officer.
“This new rule cuts out a lot of red tape,” Collins said. “You shouldn’t need to have a Ph.D. to understand this process. Our planning process was intimidating for the average citizen.”
The proposed rule gives two options for the National Forest Management Act of 1976 requirement for diversity of plant and animal communities. But environmentalists said both options give local forest managers too much discretion.
Republican rule of Congress gives foes tougher task
Girding for a coming battle, environmentalists claimed the Bush administration proposal amounted to a repeal of key portions of 20-year-old regulations governing forest use.
Congress can play a role in such regulations, but as everyone involved knows, the mid-term election results mean that Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, starting in January, thus making it a much taller order to head off administration plans.
Nevertheless, eight Senate Democrats and six House Democrats fired off a letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, claiming the proposed rule “eliminates any assurance of protection for fish and wildlife and their habitat.”
At the May hearing in Redmond, Wyden decried the “excessive gobbledygook” in what Bosworth has called “analysis paralysis,” and asked Collins, “Isn’t the only way you are going to make any significant changes toward streamlining the process … is through federal legislation?”
“I think you are right,” Collins said. “I do think there’s a potential to expedite the process, if Congress will help.”
After the hearing (see earlier bend.com story, bendbugle.com/?p=5086), Collins noted a steady drop in forest funding was tied to a steep drop in Western Oregon timber sales.
“We’ve got to do something to get on top of the processes,” Collins told bend.com. “It’s not responsible to use dysfunctional analysis requirements, piled on top of (each other).”
But the proposal that resulted from such discussions has drawn support, and fire, from the expected quarters.
A spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association (http://www.afandpa.org), a trade group for the timber industry, said the rule changes would allow forest managers to cut the risk of catastrophic wildfires and “will restore common sense to the forest management process.” Michael Klein added, “I don’t think it will necessarily mean more tree removal.” (A few days earlier, the organization praised the Clean Air Act reforms as a “common sense update” that would eliminate red tape and simplify confusing, often contradictory regulations.)
But William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society (http://www.wilderness.org), called the proposed National Forest Management Regulation “one of the most egregious assaults our public lands have faced from the current administration.”
“Under this proposed rule, forest plans could be adopted and revised without preparing an environmental impact statement, leaving the American people with only minimum information about the environmental effects of Forest Service proposals,” Meadows claimed.
“But it not only takes away opportunity for strong citizen participation at the beginning of the planning process,” he said, “it also eliminates the opportunity for the public to appeal any final plan that the Forest Service institutes.”
Seeming to set the stage for a court fight, Meadows said the regulations “not only violates important principles of good forest stewardship, it also violates laws like the National Forest Management Act and National Environmental Policy Act, which require the Forest Service to protect wildlife habitat and water quality and to provide the public and scientists a meaningful role in the decision-making process.”
“The American people deserve better for their national forests’ stewardship,” The Wilderness Society leader concluded.
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, claimed the proposal was shaped by Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, who used to be vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association. But a Forest Service spokeswoman told The New York Times that while Rey was “in the chain of command,” the plan was devised mainly by Collins and Bosworth.
And so, the woman who Wyden praised in Redmond last spring as “really gutsy” (and mentioned as Bosworth’s possible successor as Forest Service chief) will be in the line of fire in the latest round of debate over the future of America’s national forests. Hopefully, Collins won’t need to don that yellow protective firefighter gear to survive the inevitable firestorm.