Under the guise of controlling wildfires, the US Forest Service and Department of Interior today issued new regulations that in fact do little to protect communities but will instead threaten the nation's forests and erode public participation in decisions made on taxpayer-owned land.
"Today's announcement demonstrates that the Bush administration is continuing its misguided approach of weakening environmental protections and reducing opportunities for public participation instead of protecting communities at risk," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, U.S. PIRG Conservation Advocate.
The regulations were first proposed last December as part of the Administration's "Healthy Forest Initiative." The regulations exempt "hazardous fuels reduction projects" of up to 1,000 acres from any analysis of the environmental effects of the projects, limit public involvement in appealing Forest Service management decisions, and weaken protections for endangered species.
The Administration's plan also does not focus on protecting areas around homes and communities from wildfires, but rather allows the clearing of trees and other fire fuels from deep within forests away from human populations.
"This plan has nothing to do with forest fires and everything to do with money," said Robert Vandermark of the National Environmental Trust. "If the Bush Administration really cared about protecting people's homes and communities, the President would cut the huge logging subsidies to the timber industry that creates unhealthy, fire-prone forests,"
Coupled with legislation approved by the House of Representatives on May 20, the regulations threaten the safety of the nation's forests and take away people's rights to express their views about proposed Forest Service management projects. That legislation, authored by Rep. Scott McInnis, would exempt fuel projects from public involvement and administrative appeals, provide extremely short time frames for filing and completing lawsuits challenging fuels projects, and instruct federal courts to tip the balance of justice in favor of the Forest Service.
The Senate is expected to take up similar legislation in the coming weeks.
"The White House plan clears the way for the timber industry and its friends in government to loot public forests and pocket the proceeds, free from public input or environmental review," said Amy Mall, a forest and land specialist at NRDC. "Make no mistake -- this is not about healthy forests. It's about healthy profits for campaign contributors and healthy budgets for bureaucrats."
In response to weakening the Endangered Species Act, Marty Hayden, Legislative Director for Earthjustice said: "The Bush Administration has proposed to change an important check and balance provided by the wildlife agencies into a rubber stamp for the Forest Service."
The following is a summary of the new regulations to be announced today by the Forest Service and Department of Interior:
- Categorical Exclusion for Fuels Projects. These regulations would allow the Forest Service to plan and implement fuel reduction projects of up to 1,000 acres with no analysis of the environmental effects of the projects. The exemptions apply to projects in the National Forest System, including the remote backcountry.
- Public Participation and Administrative Appeals. These regulations limit appealable issues to those specifically raised in comments and waive automatic stays on projects during the public comment period if there will be an economic loss or loss of resource value.
- Endangered Species Act. The administration also continued their efforts to undermine the protection of threatened and endangered species through a proposal that seeks to give the Forest Service the ability to forego consulting federal wildlife agencies in the approval process for logging and other projects that may affect listed species.
For further information and comment, contact the following forest and fire experts:
Tiernan Sittenfeld, U.S. PIRG: 202-546-9707, ext. 311
Amy Mall, Natural Resources Defense Council: 415-777-0220
Annie Strickler, Sierra Club: 202-487-4493
Martin Hayden, Earthjustice: 202-667-4500, ext. 218
Lisa Dix, American Lands Alliance: 202-547-9105
Chris Mehl, The Wilderness Society: 406-5581-4992
Jennifer Coate, National Environmental Trust: 202-887-8800