WASHINGTON - The Bush administration wants Congress to approve its plan for "charter forests," a pilot program that would establish a new category of federal forest that would be managed locally.
Some Democrats and conservationists worry it's another attempt to circumvent environmental protections. They already are upset that the Bush administration is revising several key Clinton-era forest policies, including the "roadless rule" protecting more than 58 million acres from most logging and road construction.
The plan, included in the president's budget proposal released this week, is similar to charter schools, which typically operate outside of regular education bureaucracies. Though the proposal is vague, the budget said certain national forests or portions of them could become separate entities that report to local trusts for oversight, rather than to the U.S. Forest Service.
Mark Rey, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said he wants to use one or two national forests as case studies to see if the government can remove "procedural bottlenecks" that occur in day-to-day management and emphasize local involvement in decision-making.
Rey said the goal is not to increase any particular activity, such as logging or recreation, but to reduce management costs on tasks such as drafting complex environmental documents required under federal regulations.
"Our goal is to try to reorder that so that we are getting better on-the-ground accomplishments," he said. "In some cases, that will mean selling less timber. In other cases, that may mean selling more timber, but that is not the fundamental objective."
For decades, proposals to shift control of federal lands to state and local entities have been floated, but haven't picked up enough steam to be successful.
Conservationists are eager to hear the particulars of the most recent proposal from Rey, who they point out is a former timber industry lobbyist and worked for two conservative Western Republicans Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho and Frank Murkowski of Alaska.
"Some interest is going to dominate that local management and given Undersecretary Rey's rich history, I have a sneaking suspicion what interest that might be," said Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice. "The big question is, will charter forests become a magnet for clear-cuts?"
Chris Wood, watershed programs director for Trout Unlimited, said he's concerned the administration is trying to shift management problems rather than fix them. He wants to be sure that the balance between local needs and national interests is maintained.
"At best, you could say this is a punt," Wood said. "At worst, you could say it is an underhanded attempt to devolve public lands to local controls."
Congress will have to approve the charter forest concept. Senate Energy and Natural Resources forests subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said he favors eliminating red tape, but the plan will get close scrutiny.
"I am not going to support anything that is a glide past environmental laws and public involvement," he said.
Added Rep. Peter DeFazio, another Oregon Democrat: "I think this is some kind of pie-in-the-sky proposal."
Both legislators wanted to see more details.