WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has issued new rules for a looser, more corporate-style management of US forests, that critics say will lead to more logging and other economic activity, and weaken protection for dozens of already endangered species.
In essence the regulations - the most sweeping overhaul of forest management in almost three decades - will give local forest supervisors more freedom to react to events. These could range from fire problems and invasive new species, to requests for logging or recreation permits.
Supporters claim the new system will speed up decision-making, cut costs, and bring the US into line with much of the rest of the developed world. It will make sure that some of America's most beautiful wilderness areas are run by people on the spot who know them best, they argue, rather than by a cumbersome, remote bureaucracy.
But environmentalists are up in arms, complaining that the scheme is yet another example of the White House pandering to the demands of big business.
"This rips the guts out of National Forest management plans," a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defence Council said. "It doesn't ensure the necessary resources."
The 155 US national forests cover some 300,000 square miles. Largely concentrated in the Rocky Mountains and the West, they are currently governed by the 1976 National Forest Management Act. That measure put the priority on preserving the ecological health of forests and protecting endangered species.
It set the stage for confrontations like the decades-long controversy over the northern spotted owl, pitting conservationists against the lumber industry in the Pacific North West.
In recent years competing pressures on forests have if anything increased. Not only does the timber industry want greater access. The forests are a growing tourist attraction, with the number of visitors doubling in the last eight years.
On the other hand, a quarter of all US species facing extinction live in national forests, according to the NatureServe conservationist group.
The new rules basically extend to environmental management, a system that has gained favour in industry, and has the enthusiastic support of this Republican White House. Instead of conforming to rigid and centralised environmental rules, companies are encouraged to set their own standards.
The results are then judged by outside auditors. In this case the outside judges could be officials of the National Forest Service, or outside environmentalist or economic groups. But it is not clear what powers they would have, or even what standards would be enforced.
The new policy has predictably enraged environmentalists, not least because of the timing of the announcement, just two days before Christmas when Congress is not in session, and news coverage will be scant. Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed outrage too.
"These regulations cut the public out of the forest planning process,"
Congressman Tom Udall of New Mexico, a leading foe of White House environmental policy, declared. "They will just inspire lawsuits and provide less protection for wildlife."
Tom Harkin, senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture committee, said they threatened to "derail decades of progress" in preserving America's forests. Crucially, the current 15-year management plans for individual forests will no longer have to contain an environmental impact analysis, or provide numerical counts to prove "viable populations" of fish and wildlife species, as laid down in the 1976 act.
Instead, managers will merely have to take account of "the best available science to protect all natural resources" when making decisions.
In late 2000, the outgoing Clinton administration introduced tighter rules to protect wildlife and the ecosystems of national forests. But these were scrapped by President Bush two years later.
- THE INDEPENDENT