Forest Thinning Rules Fuel Wildfire Controversy

By J.R. Pegg

June 3, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration announced controversial new rules Friday to expedite forest thinning projects in order to reduce the risk of wildfire on public lands. The rules reduce the federal government's responsibility for studying the environmental impact of forest thinning projects and limit the timing and scope of appeals to challenge these projects.

Environmentalists are outraged by the new regulations, which they describe as little more than a giveaway to the timber industry, but Bush administration officials say the changes reflect "common sense" forest management.

The new rules do not undermine environmental protection, said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, they "reduce the layers of unnecessary red tape and procedural delay that prevent agency experts from acting quickly."

The regulations are part of a broad policy to reform the management of the nation's forests for wildfire that the administration calls its "Healthy Forests" initiative. They provide the Forest Service and the Interior Department categorical exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for hazardous fuel reduction projects of up to 1,000 acres.

Hazardous fuel reduction projects include the thinning of underbrush and clearing trees. Encouraging the private sector to take on these projects, by allowing companies to sell the timber and underbrush they remove, is also part of the administration's initiative.

Controlled burn projects of up to 4,500 acres are also granted categorical exclusions from NEPA, which requires the federal government to consider the environmental impact of it actions, weigh alternatives and inform the public of its assessments and decisions.

These categorical exclusions will allow the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to act more quickly and more efficiently in their management of public lands for fire, Bush administration officials say, as will the revamping of the appeals process. firetree

Some seven million acres burned last year, the second worst wildfire season in fifty years. (Photo by Kari Brown courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
The rule limits the scope and timing of appeals - a necessary change to fend off repeated challenges by environmental groups to forest management efforts, according to the administration.

The impact of appeals on forest management, in particular projects to reduce wildfire threats, has been at the center of the debate over wildfire policy. Environmentalists say the administration and its allies in Congress are creating a solution to a problem that does not exist.

"The Forest Service has spent the last two years lying to Congress and the media that appeals and litigation hamper efforts to reduce threats to homes, communities and forests," said Amy Mall, a forest and land specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They do not."

Mall and others point to several reports that cast doubt on the administration's claims, including a report released last month by the General Accounting Office that found 95 percent of 762 Forest Service fuels reduction projects it reviewed were ready for implementation within the standard 90 day review period.

The GAO determined that 97 percent of the 762 hazardous fuels reduction projects it reviewed were not challenged by a single lawsuit. In all, 23 projects were litigated in court and three out of every four Forest Service projects moved forward without any appeal.

But the Bush administration has remained steadfast in its belief that environmental review and the administrative appeals process get in the way of federal efforts to reduce the threat of wildfires.

"For too many years, bureaucratic tangles and bad forest policy have prevented foresters from keeping our woodlands healthy and safe," President George W. Bush said in a speech on May 20, "The cost to America has been high, in the loss of lives and property, and in the destruction of woodlands and wildlife."

The administration's urgency to reform wildfire management comes in the wake of one of the worst wildfire years in the past half century. Some seven million acres burned last year, more than twice the annual 10 year average. And experts believe as many as 190 million acres of public lands are at risk from fire because of severe drought conditions, insect infestation and poor forest management.

Bush administration officials say more than 2.2 million acres were treated last year and say they plan to treat some 2.8 million acres by the September 2003.

Critics say the Bush administration has not allocated enough funds for effective wildfire suppression and is less interested in reducing wildfire threats than in giving the nation's trees to the timber industry.

"This plan has nothing to do with forest fires and everything to do with money," said Robert Vandermark of the National Environmental Trust. "If the Bush administration really cared about protecting people's homes and communities, the President would cut the huge logging subsidies to the timber industry that creates unhealthy, fire-prone forests."

The administration's policies do not prioritize fuel reduction projects for high risk communities, environmentalists say, and will therefore do little to reduce the threat of wildfire to the communities the President says he wants to protect.

There is still a lack of funding for wildfire and forest management, critics contend, and the administration has done nothing to address the threat of wildfire on private lands.

Of the lands surrounding the communities considered most at risk from wildfire, 85 percent is in private hands.

Still, the Bush administration's wildfire policies have begun to gain traction in the Congress - last month the House passed a bill that advances similar relaxation of environmental review and administrative appeals for management of 20 million federal acres.

And the omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2003, passed in February, included a rider that expanded the administration's controversial forest stewardship program, which permits the Forest Service to allow private contractors hired to thin national forests to take whatever timber they want from the treated area. Bush

President Bush, joined here by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, believes red tape is the key obstacle to effective management of the nation's forests for wildfire. (Photo by Susan Sterner courtesy the White House)
Forest Service officials have touted the program as an effective way to get the private sector involved in forest thinning, but there are no limits to what kind or size of trees that can be removed and sold.

The language inserted into the spending bill expanded it into a full blown program for 10 years and adds the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It now covers some 450 million acres.

The new categorical exclusions and revamped appeals process will enter into effect after they are published in the Federal Register, likely to be this week.

Another rule change - proposed Friday by the administration - furthers the administration's reform of wildfire management.

Under the rule, which is open for public comment for the next 60 days, the administration plans to relax the Forest Service's obligation under the Endangered Species Act to consult with federal agencies on the impacts to endangered wildlife from hazardous fuel reduction and ecosystem restoration projects. The rule change affects the Interior Department and the Commerce Department, the federal departments with oversight of endangered and protected species.

Commerce Department Secretary Donald Evans says the new regulations will not compromise protection for wildlife, but will "empower on-the-ground resource experts to do what they do best."

Evans called the proposed regulation "another example of the administration's interagency, innovative approach" to protecting the nation's wildlife.

Critics say the proposal furthers the administration's goal of rolling back protection for endangered species.

The proposal removes an important check and balance provided by the wildlife agencies, said Marty Hayden, legislative director for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, and turns it "into a rubber stamp for the Forest Service."

Expanding the authority of the Forest Service makes little sense, added NRDC's Mall, given that the agency is in part responsible for the widespread threat of wildfire on the nation's forests and wild lands.

The aggressive suppression of wildfires throughout the past century allowed mass accumulation of undergrowth that is a key fuel for wildfires, and this has been compounded by areas that have been clear cut and replaced with closely spaced and highly flammable timber.

"Giving the U.S. Forest Service carte blanche to log wherever it sees fire risks is like putting the North Koreans in charge of nuclear safety," Mall said. "It is indefensible to defy science like this, to cut out the public, and to log the back woods instead of working in and around communities."

"This initiative is certainly not about protecting homes and communities from fire, because no one could ask for more latitude to do that than federal agencies already have," Mall said.