Forest rules issued this week by the Bush administration are just the latest chapter in a decades-long debate over how to manage millions of acres of public land.
As environmental sensitivities have sharpened in recent years, the public appetite for paper products and two-by-fours has been tempered - somewhat, at least - by a growing appreciation of the value of wildlands for their own sake. This shift is reflected politically in environmental laws and regulations, tugged back and forth in Congress and the courts as both sides assert their definition of "balance."
In essence the new rules are meant to loosen the regulatory hand, giving the Forest Service, which manages some 192 million acres across the country, more flexibility while speeding up a process that critics say has become a bureaucratic and legal bog. "The new rule will improve the way we work with the public by making forest planning more open, understandable, and timely," says Forest Service associate chief Sally Collins.
Not so, say environmentalists. "This is all about opening more and more forested lands to unsustainable logging with no regard for environmental impact," says Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
It's likely to be years before the answer to that debate is known. And in fact this latest development reflects several related arguments that have raged since the infamous Northern Spotted Owl became officially endangered in the 1980s, prompting the "timber wars" here in the Pacific Northwest. These include:
• The extent to which regional and individual federal forest managers can be trusted to do the right thing in balancing environmental protection and timber production. That's an evolving story as "timber beasts" within the Forest Service lose relative influence, and biologists, hydrologists, and other habitat scientists are more closely listened to. Part of the issue here is that local forest managers frequently are pressured by politicians to "get out the cut" in order to boost the local economy.
• Whether or not vast areas need protection in order to stem the decline of key "indicator species" that scientists say are the best gauge of forest health.
• How to mitigate fire danger and manage burned areas, which typically includes thinning trees beforehand and "salvage logging" charred timber afterward.
• The administration (and Forest Service) urge to lessen the "analysis paralysis" they say prevents proper forest management versus activists' efforts to slow if not prevent virtually all timber sales - efforts that typically involve lawsuits.
• The economics of forest management. Because of the cost of road building and other aspects of forest management, most timber sales are money losers for Uncle Sam. Still, they're often the economic lifeblood for rural communities.
The new rules are designed to speed up the planning process. They give local and regional forest managers more responsibility and accountability for developing plans, including protection of ecosystems. Sustainability will be the key, officials say, and independent audits will be required.
Forest Service officials say the rules will make it easier for them to respond to the impact of wildfires as well as such emerging threats as invasive plant species. "This rule applies the most current thinking in natural resource management," says Ms. Collins, who supervised the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon for 13 years.
Environmentalists say the new rule undermines wildlife protection and excludes the public from decisions about how to manage federal land. It is likely that the new rule will be challenged in court under such landmark laws as the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act.
"The White House is deliberately creating a legal controversy, knowing the rule will be struck down in court, so it can give Congress the justification to roll back the forest protection laws these new rules violate," says Amy Mall, senior forestry specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a backdoor ruse to cripple the law."
While Forest Service officials pledge to base decisions on "the best available science" in order to protect air, water, wildlife, and other important natural resources, activists see an administration pattern of orders and policies that indicate otherwise.
A year ago, the administration announced it would open 300,000 acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest to logging. White House officials have reversed a Clinton-era order to prevent road building in some 59 million acres of roadless national forest land. The administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative" emphasizes logging to deal with burned areas before they deteriorate. The administration also wants to lessen some of the restrictions on development required under the Endangered Species Act. Critics further note that President Bush has received large campaign contributions from timber industry executives and trade groups.