ON the brink of the Earth Summit in Brazil, President Bush has proposed a major step toward slowing the rapid razing of the world's forests.
Environmentalists who specialize in deforestation consider Mr. Bush's plan a significant one, even based only on the money involved.
The initiative will have more far-reaching impact if it succeeds in breaking the international stalemate blocking the way to an eventual treaty over forests.
The administration proposes adding $150 million a year to the $368.3 million it already spends supporting better forest management and conservation in the world's forests - especially tropical rainforests. Further it is proposing that the industrialized countries, including this new United States commitment, increase their contribution from $1.35 billion to $2.7 billion.
These proposed dollar amounts are high enough to be significant in saving some forests, by a couple of available estimates.
One estimate made last year by the International Tropical Timber Organization is that for the 18 timber-producing countries in its membership to achieve a balanced, sustainable use of their forests it would cost $1.5 billion a year until the year 2000.
Forests are important to the environment because they are vast banks of biological diversity, but also because they contain vast amounts of carbon - about 100 metric tons per acre in the tropics. Once released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it becomes the major greenhouse gas, suspected of trapping heat in the atmosphere and gradually warming the climate.
About half the world's tropical forests are gone, chiefly to agriculture, according the World Wildlife Fund figures. The rate of deforestation accelerated during the 1980s. According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, about 11.3 million hectares a year were cleared for farm or urban use in the early 1980s. In 1991, they estimated the rate at about 17 million hectares, a 50 percent increase.
Bush is hewing to a middle road as he approaches the summit in Rio de Janeiro this week.
He disappointed environmentalists this spring by refusing to attend the summit until the major treaty under consideration - a climate-change treaty that would have limited carbon dioxide emissions - was heavily watered down. On May 29, the administration indicated it would not sign an agreement in Rio on biodiversity for fear it would lead to expansion of the Endangered Species Act and weaken US patent protections.
Some suggest that the Bush administration is willing to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere from third-world forests but not from American smokestacks and tailpipes.
But the Bush administration argues that the original climate- change treaty was an unrealistic statement that few countries were seriously prepared to follow through. The biodiversity agreement, similarly, was strong rhetoric with little concrete action behind it.
The forest initiative is a more effective way of protecting biodiversity, a senior administration official said June 1. "This is a concrete way of essentially managing and conserving and maintaining forests where, in fact, the vast majority of the species live. This is not rhetoric. This is actual reality."
The nations represented in Rio this week are negotiating the principles that might lead to a treaty designed to protect forests better. Timber-producing countries, led by Malaysia, have hung up the discussions over concerns about national sovereignty, financial commitment from wealthy countries, and balancing consideration of energy consumption by wealthy countries.
"The test of this [proposal] is whether this unlocks those negotiations," says Rafe Pomerance, senior analyst at the World Resources Institute.
"Yes, the money is a sizable chunk," says John Ryan of Worldwatch. "In the big picture, it's a palliative to make up for not taking more important actions."