WASHINGTON - As President Bush, with much fanfare, signed legislation yesterday aimed at speeding fire-prevention efforts in federal forests, his administration quietly adopted a rule that will expedite timber-thinning projects by removing a safeguard for endangered species.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Forest Service and other federal agencies are required to seek confirmation from the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service before taking any action that might adversely affect any endangered plant or animal.
The new policy, which does not require congressional approval, authorizes biologists for the Forest Service or other land management agency to make the call that no endangered species would be adversely affected, exempting them from consulting with the agencies whose main mandate is protecting rare plants and animals.
The administration stressed that the policy would not reduce the level of protection for rare animals and plants.
"All of these land-management agencies have biologists who have been trained to assess the likely impact of their actions on listed species," said Steve Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "By issuing these regulations, we are tapping into their expertise and accelerating review of much-needed forest health projects."
But environmentalists said the policy removes a key check and balance.
"The conflict of interest is that the agency whose top job is to do the logging will make this decision, rather than the agency whose top job is to protect threatened or endangered species," said Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm.
With this policy and the rest of its "healthy forests" initiative, Hayden said, "The administration has used the emotional issue of wildfire to get the kind of weakening of environmental law and limiting of public involvement that they have wanted."
Cabinet members and lawmakers looked on yesterday morning as Bush signed into law the legislative components of his initiative, which is designed to limit environmental and judicial reviews of thinning projects in national forests in order to reduce the risk of wildfires such as the ones that recently devastated Southern California.
"This law will not prevent every fire, but it is an important step forward, a vital step to make sure we do our duty to protect our nation's forests," Bush said at a signing ceremony at the Department of Agriculture.
The bill authorizes $760 million a year for forest-thinning projects, a $340 million increase, and targets at least half of the money for thinning projects to the regions closest to populated areas.
Bush proposed his initiative in August 2002, during a visit to a fire-ravaged forest in Oregon, and it was passed by the House in May. The recent California fires, which killed 24 people, burned about 740,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,500 structures, provided the impetus to the Senate's passage of the bill in late October and approval of the final legislation by a House-Senate conference committee last month.
Bush could benefit politically by this legislation, which could create additional logging jobs; in 2000, he lost Oregon by less than half a percentage point and Washington by less than 6 percentage points.
Environmental groups contend that the legislation will enable timber companies to log healthy trees and will not do enough to reduce the fire danger to homes.
"There's a real danger that the president's pen might as well be a chainsaw," said Amy Mall, a forest specialist with Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental organization.
But Rep. Richard Pombo, a California Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, called the measure an environmental protection bill. "The 70 million acres of land classified by the U.S. Forest Service as `at extreme risk' of catastrophic fire represent one of the single greatest threats to our environment today," he said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.