WASHINGTON -- The Forest Service is considering scrapping a policy of the Clinton administration that requires giving ecological considerations priority over logging, recreation and other uses of the country's 155 national forests.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of an internal draft report detailing possible changes in management of national forests. Agency officials emphasized it is a draft and could face multiple revisions.
The goal is to write a "plain English rule" that can be used to make decisions that reflect local and national viewpoints, said Sally Collins, associate deputy chief of the 192-million-acre national forest system.
"We want to make sure we have the resources going to the ground, (rather than) spending it all on planning," Collins said Thursday. "There is a huge desire to make sure we make the right decisions."
Conservation groups say they're worried.
"This is taking the Forest Service back more than 20 years to time when timber was king of the national forests," said Mike Anderson, senior research analyst with the Wilderness Society.
The draft, dated Monday, gives environmentalists another reason to criticize President Bush, who already is under fire for an energy plan that includes expanded oil and gas drilling on public land and breaks a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
The Forest Service is working on revisions to what many conservationists consider the key element of President Clinton's environmental legacy: the "roadless rule" that bans road construction and most logging and mining on a third of all national forestland. The agency hopes to have the revisions completed by the end of the month.
The vast majority of roadless federal forests are in the West, including Alaska's Tongass and Chugach national forests. Clinton's order would have stopped all new road construction in the Chugach and all road construction in the Tongass, except for developments involving timber sales that were already proposed.
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles filed a lawsuit in January seeking to block the government from implementing the plan, arguing it violated public process provisions in numerous federal laws, including the National Forest Management Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The Clinton policy on forest management, issued in November, allowed restrictions on logging, skiing, hiking and other activities if managers believed the ecosystem could be permanently harmed. The order ended a previous requirement that managers give equal weight to ecosystem health and other activities.
The draft eliminates the priority given to ecosystem health. It also removes specific requirements for scientific review when officials make decisions about how to manage national forests, instead offering broad guidelines for managers to follow.
Environmentalists are particularly worried about what they see as an attempt to dramatically reduce public comment periods and undermine the Endangered Species Act. The draft says management plans "are not subject" to consultation from the agencies that protect endangered species.
Collins said the agency has no intention of limiting public comment but wants to provide a forest planning process that can be efficiently implemented by managers. She said the agency remains committed to the ecological health of national forests and to protecting endangered species.
She also said decisions on how to manage forests still will be based on science, although exactly how local officials seek that input might not be prescribed by the rules.
The timber industry is hopeful the final version of the rules will return the federal forests to a system that allows multiple uses.
"Clearly the Clinton administration had an agenda that they wanted to radically change the direction of the Forest Service," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council.
Not all conservation organizations approved of the way the Clinton administration revised the management rules. The Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of a dozen conservation groups, filed a federal lawsuit in February saying the rules gave the Forest Service too much authority.
The draft proposal is being circulated for comment within the Forest Service. The agency hopes to have a final proposal and begin taking public comment in August.
On the Net: Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us