Shut out of the forests

January 02, 2007

Citizen activists have been a bane to the Bush administration - particularly on environmental regulations.

They ask questions. They file lawsuits. They try to thwart nearly every administration attempt to cut the red tape surrounding use of the nation's natural resources and wind up adding greatly to the cost of these gambits.

So the administration has decided to simply eliminate the bothersome environmental reviews previously applied to management plans for the 193 million acres of national forest. If there's no requirement to consider the impact of activities such as mineral extraction or hazardous waste shipments, those effects can't be used to challenge the plans.

Such efficiency comes at too high a price. Shutting citizens out of planning for the national forests is not only anti-democratic but a dangerously short-term approach to managing a resource intended to remain intact indefinitely.

Newly empowered Democratic leaders in Congress should move quickly to reverse this regulatory outrage. But given the narrow margin in the Senate, it may well be up to the courts, once again, to protect the nation's heritage from the administration's shortsightedness.

The Forest Service contends that the simple crafting of a forest management plan has no environmental impact and that specific projects conducted under the plan - clearing trees, installing transmission lines, building roads - would be subject to citizen and environmental review.

But maybe not. The new rule also makes it easier to exclude projects from such reviews. In any case, careful management of a scarce resource can't be conducted only on a case-by-case basis.

And these resources are increasingly scarce. By the Forest Service's own reckoning, development consumes 6,000 acres of open space every day in the United States. Ten million acres of forest were lost between 1982 and 1997. Another 26 million more acres of forest land - about the size of Tennessee - is expected to disappear by 2030.

The consequences of this loss are not just sentimental. Open space and forests in particular play a critical role in cleaning the air and protecting drinking water supplies. Federal forest managers should be moving to acquire and protect more private open space - not facilitating the exploitation of public land that Americans believe has already been protected.

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