The U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday it is lifting the decades-old requirement that national forests, such as the Tongass, conduct detailed and lengthy environmental reviews of their land management plans.
The decision, part of a sweeping revision of forest planning rules, frees the Tongass National Forest and the 154 other national forests from years of work documenting the future effects of their overall planning decisions.
Still, the national forests still must produce detailed reports - including environmental impact statements and environmental assessments - for all logging, mining and recreational projects.
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins said the rule changes provide greater flexibility and quicker turnaround on the 15-year-cycle land management plans.
The Tongass National Forest is currently reviewing its land management plan published in 1997. Tongass National Forest spokesman Dennis Neill said that the new rules will eliminate old planning requirements that were "incredibly complicated" and "nearly un-doable."
The 1997 Tongass plan prompted an ongoing lawsuit by environmental groups who said it overestimated the market demand for Tongass timber.
On the flip side, the logging industry criticized the plan for stifling Tongass timber sales.
The new rules, which incorporated a number of recommendations from the timber industry, will change the traditional interpretation of the 1976 National Forest Management Act, which set guidelines for managing national forests and grasslands and protecting plants and wildlife.
The rules will be published on the Federal Register and would take effect following a 60-day public comment period.
Among the numerous revisions:
The public cannot file administrative appeals of a forest land management plan once it is issued. Instead, all appeals must be filed before the plan is published in an "objection" process modeled on U.S. Bureau of Land Management rules.
Using a corporate-derived model for environmental analysis, independent audits will be conducted on all land management plans, either by private firms or federal employees.
Tongass activists decried the rules revision on Wednesday afternoon.
"It's unlawful," said Buck Lindekugel, staff attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "These guidelines are flatly in opposition to the rules originally set by Congress," he said.
Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, a timber group, said he was hopeful that the rule change will assist Southeast Alaska's struggling logging industry.
"They (the Tongass National Forest) aren't putting out enough timber to fill a thimble," Graham said.
Collins, the Forest Service's associate chief, said the rule change will allow forest managers to respond quicker to changing conditions like wildfires and new threats from invasive species because they will be updated every five years.
The Forest Service envisions future forest land management plans that are more like a "loose-leaf notebook" than a "static document," according to a question-and-answer document the agency provided to media outlets on Wednesday.
The Forest Service estimated that the five to seven years usually spent on preparing the plans will be whittled down to two to three years and would cut costs by as much as 30 percent.
The rules prompted varied reactions across the country on Wednesday, according to Associated Press reports.
Environmentalists reacted with skepticism, saying the administration was catering to the timber and paper industries and weakening standards for protecting endangered or threatened species.
"The president's forest regulations are an early Christmas gift to the timber industry masquerading as a government streamlining measure," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
"We can't imagine it's going to be satisfactory for replacement of the wildlife safeguards and public involvement that the public has enjoyed for the last 25 years," said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society.
Collins disputed that, saying the new rule directs forest managers to take into the best available science to deliver clean air and water and sustainable habitat for wildlife.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, called the new rules "a lot more responsive" than the current rules, which he called cumbersome and counterproductive.
House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., called the rules change long overdue.
"The process is so burdensome and time-consuming that the plans are obsolete before they are finished," Pombo said. "These Soviet-like methods have produced so many outdated plans and so much red tape that the agency has been incapable of responding to changing conditions in our forests, such as insect and disease outbreaks, hurricane and storm damage, and catastrophic wildfire."
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