Playing for keeps

December 31, 2004

ON THE NIMBLENESS scale, the federal bureaucracy is a lot like a battleship. It doesn't turn on a dime.

In fact, a president with sharply different views from the administration that preceded him can spend his whole first term trying to redirect or reverse federal policy and not make much headway.

An extra four years is a different matter, as President Bush is about to prove. Building on a regulatory framework the administration has been putting in place since it came to power in 2001, the president is indeed turning the battleship.

A most regrettable case in point is the sweeping new approach to managing the country's 155 national forests the administration announced just before Christmas.

Dumping three decades of environmental protection, the new policy gives equal weight to economic concerns and takes a more corporate approach to the flora and fauna. Scientific analysis and public comment are ditched in the interest of saving time and money.

Teddy Roosevelt, the visionary Republican president who put millions of acres of forest under national protection: Where are you when we need you?

Under new rules that take effect this week, forest managers will no longer be required to file an environmental impact analysis before approving plans that dictate how timber is auctioned off, campsites are located, grazing rights are parceled out and threatened species are protected. The time required to approve or change such management plans is expected to drop to two or three years from as long as 10.

Administration officials say the goal is to allow greater flexibility in dealing with the individual circumstances of each forest. But the effect is to remove restrictions designed to be cumbersome because they were intended to curtail logging and maintain the habitat of endangered woodland creatures.

Congress could vote to block or stall the changes. But opponents have tried that before without success. Odds of their future success will likely decrease with a new Congress that has more Republican and conservative members.

Environmentalists are expected to challenge the forest overhaul policy in court, and perhaps they'll be able to convince judges that the purpose of setting aside pristine land as national forest was to protect it for future generations - not to exploit its resources until there's almost nothing left.

But the courts can't and perhaps wouldn't be inclined to stop all the sweeping changes Mr. Bush is making through the bureaucracy to reverse environmental protections - not only in national forests, but in the water, in the air and on 28 million acres of land the Pentagon uses for military exercises.

As the battleship swings slowly around, Americans - especially Bush supporters - should pause to take a better look at where it's going. There's still time to let the White House know that course corrections are in order.

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