WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is proposing changes to its salmon protection strategy to make it easier to log Northwest forests.
Aquatic Conservation Strategy
A draft environmental impact statement released Wednesday would eliminate requirements that block timber sales and other projects unless officials can show they would not harm fish.
Under the revised plan, officials would merely have to show that projects done on public lands do not have long-term negative impacts on the overall watershed.
Officials say the changes are designed to help federal agencies meet timber harvest goals set by the Northwest Forest Plan, a 1994 compromise intended to preserve logging in a three-state region while protecting fish and wildlife habitat.
Administration officials complain that the plan has protected old-growth trees and related fish and wildlife, but has not provided a sustainable supply of timber. The plan's stated goal of 1 billion board feet per year on public lands in Washington, Oregon and northern California - enough to build about 75,000 average homes - is nearly triple current logging rates.
The Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which released the draft proposal Wednesday, said it would restore the original intent of the aquatic conservation strategy adopted in 1994.
"It's a pretty small change," said BLM spokesman Chris Strebig.
While timber sales are expected to go up, "it won't be an increase over what was already outlined in the Northwest Forest Plan," he said.
But environmental groups denounced the proposal as a way to boost logging at the expense of threatened and endangered salmon.
"This is about doing more timber sales. And in order to do that, they are going to reduce protections for salmon," said Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an advocacy group.
Heiken and other advocates predicted the proposal would result in a sharp increase in landslides, soil erosion and other environmental damage.
"I think this would be a massive erosion of the single most important landscape protections for salmon and steelhead on public lands" in the Northwest, said Chris Wood, a former Clinton administration official who now works for the conservation group Trout Unlimited.
Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said salmon and water quality would still be adequately protected under existing rules for timber sales.
As currently interpreted, the aquatic conservation strategy blocks even small project such as culvert replacement or road repairs because of their short-term impact, West said.
"That's crazy. It doesn't make common sense," he said. "Ironically, it is the Bush administration that is trying to implement the Clinton-Gore forest plan as envisioned by the scientists."
The Forest Service and BLM said they will accept comments on the proposal through July 10, with a final environmental impact statement expected in late summer.