Forest Service Plans To Weaken Environmental Rules Irk Senate, House Democratic Leaders

Members Scold Administration For Backsliding on Protections; Draft Rules Would Reward Loggers at Expense of Forest Health

November 27, 2002
12:00 AM
Senate Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman and other Democratic leaders today chastised the U.S. Forest Service for seeking to undo many of the environmental safeguards which protect our national forests. "This proposal is another example of the Administration’s efforts to weaken our environmental laws,” Bingaman said. "Hoping that it will go unnoticed during Thanksgiving week, the Bush Administration is delivering a national forest policy turkey to the American people,” added Representative Nick Rahall, House Resources Committee Ranking Member. “This is a part of an ongoing and systematic assault by the Administration on our natural resources and environmental protections.” In a move that would topple 20-year-old safeguards put in place by President Reagan, the Forest Service today proposed a plan that would roll back environmental protections for our nation’s 191-million-acre national forest system. Among the regulations that would be undermined is one that protects fish and wildlife habitats. In a sharply worded letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, the Democrats pointed out that the draft planning rule, to be published in the Federal Register, fails in five critical areas: habitat protection, monitoring, environmental analysis, public participation and independent scientific review. "We do not understand why your agency has released a draft rule that eliminates any assurance of protection for fish and wildlife and their habitat," the Members wrote. "The two options in the draft rule establish no minimum standard for protecting species, no rigorous procedures for ecological studies, and, in fact, no solid protections for wildlife and environmental sustainability." In contrast, the current rule requires the Forest Service to protect enough habitat so that native species found in the planning area can continue to survive. These safeguards were adopted in 1982 after a presidential task force simplified the planning process. Under the regulations proposed today, even the minimum protections are removed. "And there is nothing to replace them – nothing but entirely discretionary tasks which Forest Service personnel may freely choose to ignore," Bingaman said. Today, national forests contain 25 percent of the species at risk of extinction in the United States, and contain more intact populations of these rare species than any other federal land system. Sen. Tom Harkin, Senate Agriculture Chairman, said, “I am disappointed with the Administration’s proposal for managing our national forests. This plan completely disregards policies that have been in place since the Reagan Administration. I strongly urge the Administration to craft a new policy which ensures that public interest is met and the national forests are protected for present and future generations.” Representative Jay Inslee, ranking member of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests, added, “The Administration’s draft rule constitutes another large rollback of America’s environmental protections. Americans understand that while the challenges to our forest health are becoming greater, this Administration’s stewardship of our forests is becoming increasingly weaker. I’m very troubled by this decision and a host of recent Forest Service actions that raise serious concerns about the Administration’s credibility when it comes to managing our forests’ health.” In 1982, President Reagan approved regulations for implementing environmental safeguards that require 1) the Forest Service to maintain viable populations of species in national forests, and 2) that those populations of species be well-distributed throughout the national forests in which they are present. Despite the implementation of these science-based regulations, logging and other business interests have tried for years to make changes to the forest planning rules. In 1997, the Forest Service recommended that the national forests be managed in an ecologically sustainable manner. After three years of development and public hearings, revised rules were adopted in 2000 to prevent crises in national forests by monitoring and protecting wildlife species so they do not become endangered. The Bush Administration suspended these rules and has been developing a new plan for more than a year, without independent scientific review. Currently, each national forest is required to have a forest plan to govern activities on the land. The proposed rules would eliminate or weaken several forest management requirements, including: ∙ eliminate the requirement to maintain species viability (which has been part of forest management planning since regulations were first adopted in 1979); ∙ allow the Forest Service, on a case-by-case basis, to do away with the requirement to prepare environmental impact statements when revising forest plans; ∙ eliminate the scientific review requirement for such forest plans; and ∙ reduce the public collaboration requirement that ensures that the public, tribes and other governments are involved in the forest planning process. “We sincerely hope that you will hear our concerns," the letter to Bosworth concludes, "and that we can work together on a bipartisan basis in managing these lands of great importance to all Americans.” # # #