While most of us were settling in for the holidays, the Bush administration quietly announced U.S. Forest Service rule changes that amounted to an early Christmas present for the timber industry. (The Bush administration likes to release anti-environmental rule changes like this one just before a holiday, when fewer people are paying attention, effectively shortening the comment period.)

The rule changes, forwarded to the Federal Register on Dec. 22, would exempt national forest plans from environmental reporting requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), eliminate protections for fish and wildlife populations, dispense with scientific review, and vastly increase the decision-making power of local Forest Service officials.

The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) was passed in 1976 to help ensure the sustainability of our national forests. The act required the creation of forest management plans. These plans, which must be revised every 15 years, cover the management of the more than 192 million acres of national forest.

The new rule would exempt forest plans from filing Environmental Impact Statements under NEPA, claiming a categorical exclusion for whole forest plans because such plans “do not affect the human environment.”

The new rule would throw out specific NFMA requirements for maintaining “viable populations" of fish and wildlife, and replace this requirement with vague general language about maintaining “healthy, diverse, and resilient” ecosystems. What this would involve is left entirely to the discretion of local forest managers.

Instead of consulting with scientists and submitting forest plans to objective scientific review, managers are enjoined to take account of the “best available science”– a subjective “standard,” which in any case must only be “considered,” not necessarily followed.

"Independent audits" are supposed to keep the process honest. But the definition of "independent" includes certifying organizations that are supported by the timber industry.

The rule gets rid of specific standards and requirements for forest and species protection in favor of “desired condition descriptions,” touted as more flexible. The vague and general nature of the “desired conditions” would allow the Forest Service to do almost anything it wants with the national forests. Given the agency’s long history of partnership with extractive industry, “desired conditions” will often turn out to be “clearcuts, logging roads, and oil derricks.”


Tell the Forest Service:

• not to substitute vague guidelines for specific protection of wildlife populations;
• not to substitute bland assurances about the “best available science” for objective scientific review;
• not to substitute industry self-regulation for governmental and citizen oversight; and
• not to exempt the forest planning process from the environmental reporting requirements of NEPA.

The public comment period for the final rule is 60 days, beginning from its publication in the Federal Register, which should happen soon. Written comments may be sent to: Forest Service Content Analysis Team, P.O. Box 22777, Salt Lake City, Utah 84122. Email: planningce@fs.fed.us; fax: 801-517-1015.


Forests Forever:
Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection
John J. Berger

from Forests Forever Foundation
and the Center for American Places