MARYLAND RESIDENTS may have no national forests in their state, but they have 192 million acres of national forests. That America's national forests are a treasure belonging to all Americans seems to be a detail lost on the Bush administration and the U.S. Forest Service.
The administration has opened the magnificent temperate rain forest in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to more logging, road-building and development, despite hundreds of thousands of comments urging its protection as home to old-growth forests and a grizzly bear and salmon habitat.
It also has proposed leaving the disposition of all of our 60 million acres of wild forest -- roadless areas -- to state governors.
True to form, just two days before Christmas, the Forest Service issued its long-anticipated "revision" of the National Forest Management Act, the guiding document for the public's 192 million acres of national forest and grasslands.
With this latest holiday gift to the timber industry, it appears the only thing left is for the Forest Service to change its motto from "Caring for the Land and Serving People" to "Caring for the Land in Service of the Corporations."
The new rules eliminate the requirement that national forest plans be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and evaluated for their potential environmental impacts on wildlife and water supplies.
This cornerstone piece of federal legislation has been in the crosshairs of timber industry lobbyists for decades, and they have found a willing ally in this administration and this Forest Service to gut or circumvent it at every opportunity.
This latest revision to rules that have been in place for nearly three decades is no mere adjustment, update or clarification, but is a blow to the underpinnings of national forest management, and its effects will be felt for generations. Its impact will, in many cases, be irreversible. Once the forest is gone, the habitat for critical species destroyed and the sources for clean water degraded, it's very tough to go back.
The new regulations focus on a corporate model for decision-making widely used by the timber industry and showcased in the Senate testimony of the American Forest and Paper Association in 2000. Industry initiatives have formed the basis of the shift to streamline federal management at the expense of forest protection. At its core, this environmental management system puts economic considerations on at least an equal footing with forest protection or safeguarding wildlife habitat or water supplies.
The new regulations would eliminate existing requirements to ensure stable populations of animals whose habitat would be affected by management decisions and eliminate the requirement that decisions be based on sound science.
They propose, instead, that decisions only "take into account" the best available science, noting that science "is only one aspect of decision-making" and that "competing use demands" and other factors can override scientific input. The Jefferson National Forest took this tack in its latest plan revision with a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality, arguing that there was no need to monitor species to ensure their survival, just create a habitat that theoretically should support them.
These rules trade away procedures that force the federal agencies to meet certain objectives and standards for a vaguely defined and difficult-to-monitor system of procedural recommendations. Monitoring would be carried out by independent agencies, outsourcing this critical function to firms whose only charge would be to ensure that the process was adhered to instead of achieving concrete standards and objectives.
The Forest Service claims that these new regulations will facilitate greater public input. But this same Forest Service has ignored the public input overwhelmingly opposed to these new regulations when they were issued in draft form in 2002. This Forest Service has ignored the majority of Americans who have commented in favor of protecting wild forest areas over the last four years. This Forest Service has no intent of heeding the voice of the people when the wishes of the timber industry qualify as a competing-use demand.
Is all this mere regulatory detail important only to the policy-makers? Far from it.
These new regulations will fundamentally change the way the Forest Service makes decisions about how our public lands are managed and for what reasons, what determines successful management options and who will ultimately benefit from these decisions.
This policy was a Christmas gift to the American Forest and Paper Association, Weyerhaeuser and the other corporate timber barons. It's also a cynical back of the hand to all Americans of this generation or those that follow who expect our public lands to be there for all of us and for the protection of species that have nowhere else to go.
David Muhly is the Appalachian region representative of the Sierra Club.