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Friday, September 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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10 million acres at stake in Bush forest plan

Seattle Times staff reporters

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's plan to protect forests from wildfire would suspend decades-old public-review procedures and some environmental appeals on 10 million acres and curtail the ability of judges to halt controversial logging projects.

The administration's sweeping proposal, unveiled in detail yesterday, seeks to reduce thick underbrush and dense stands of trees in fire-prone forests, but it also would overhaul many of the nation's forest-management practices and limit the ability of environmental groups to raise challenges.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman delivered legislation to Congress that offers the first detailed look at the "Healthy Forests" proposal President Bush outlined last month during a trip to fire lines in Oregon.

"Our nation cannot afford to continue on a course that will result in more severe fire seasons like the one we are having this year," Veneman testified before the House Resources Committee.

But the proposal marks such a stark departure from the way federal land managers work now that critics were left breathless by its sweep.

"It's outrageous — far worse than we expected," said Mike Anderson with The Wilderness Society in Seattle. "This came as a bit of a shock."

He and others said the proposal reaches even further than the controversial 1995 Salvage Rider, a temporary lifting of logging restrictions environmentalists dubbed "logging without laws." That led to protests in the woods, roadblocks and sit-ins in congressional offices.

"It really is a remarkable achievement," said Chris Wood with the conservation group Trout Unlimited. "It took 25 years to build this network of environmental laws and protections and, in the span of 10 double-spaced pages, this would undo about half of them relative to public lands. It's breathtaking."

But Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who helped draft the proposal, said the problem of fire — which has ravaged more than 6.3 million acres of public and private lands this year and forced thousands to evacuate their homes — is so out of hand, it's time for new thinking.

"We've got 190 million acres of land that's at risk to catastrophic fires," he said. "If this idea is so horrible to even contemplate, then either people don't believe it's a serious problem, or the level of distrust is so great we're not willing to suspend our disbelief to see if we can bite off 5 percent of the problem."

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is working to push elements of the president's plan through Congress as an attachment to the interior spending bill, which the Senate is expected to consider next week.

But Josh Kardon, chief of staff for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources forests panel, said of the president's plan: "It's overreaching, and it will not pass."

On 10 million acres — an area roughly twice the size of Massachusetts — the president's proposal would focus on eliminating fire risk in forests near communities or watersheds, those diseased or suffering from insect activity, and those at risk for raging "reburns" after fires. Work would range from logging and prescribed burns to watershed restoration, removal of vegetation and road repair.

On those lands, the plan would:

• Exempt all projects, including logging, from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That law now requires agencies to hold long public-comment periods and do lengthy environmental assessments or impact statements before starting a forest project.

• Speed up reviews of endangered species, and establish a "collaborative" process — modeled after one crafted by Western governors — for choosing which projects get done and where. Once those decisions were made, they would be exempt from judicial review.

• Eliminate the existing Forest Service appeals process and regulations.

• Ban judges from issuing orders to temporarily halt work when lawsuits are filed. Those filing lawsuits can still ask a federal court for summary judgment, a higher legal barrier that requires both sides agree on the basic facts.

On the entire federal forest system, the president's plan would:

• Nationalize a pilot stewardship program that lets the government contract with private organizations to manage parcels of federal lands. The contractors — timber companies, nonprofit community groups and other interests — can keep as part of their profit the wood and materials they take.

• Repeal and later reconfigure the Forest Service's appeal process.

• Direct judges who hear lawsuits to look beyond short-term environmental impacts of a fire project and give more consideration to agency findings.

All the changes are geared toward getting workers into the woods more quickly and keeping them there without the delays associated with appeals and lawsuits, Rey said.

"I'm not under any illusion that we've got it exactly right," Rey said. But "I would hope people would give this a fair read ... and refrain from doing a media clear-cut."

But concerns were widespread on virtually every element of the proposal — even among some within the Forest Service.

"This is about whether the federal agencies are accountable to the public, or only their masters in D.C.," said Andy Stahl, with Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The lack of public input will make it difficult to design a collaborative process when it comes to selecting forestlands to log or clear.

"It's going to be tough," said Margaret Petersen, a Forest Service liaison for the National Fire Plan. "Every individual in America has the right to express opinions. Individuals who felt their issues weren't given weight aren't going to trust the process. We had that experience with the Salvage Rider. It didn't go well. Sometimes it's good to go slow."

Julia Doermann, a natural-resources staffer for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber who helped craft the governors' approach, said, "this is not at all what we envisioned."

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans already lost a fight earlier this year to nationalize the stewardship program, in part because environmentalists worried about oversight.

"Since barely a handful (of the pilot projects) have been completed, we are nowhere near being able to decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing," said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.

In addition, the new bill also would let the Interior and Agriculture departments keep profits from certain projects that remove trees from public lands — "thereby skirting that pesky requirement that receipts generated from the sale of public assets be returned to the treasury," said Wood of Trout Unlimited.

Oppenheimer also complained that definitions for which of the 10 million acres could be treated could include 90 percent of the federal forest lands.

"That definition basically applies to everything. If you have one bark beetle in the area, does that mean you can go in and log an entire stand?" he asked. "The definitions are so loosey goosey."

At yesterday's hearing, House Republicans considered their own forest legislation, which differs in content but not philosophy from the White House's proposal. "What I am doing here is expediting the process," said Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., chairman of the House Resources Committee forests panel. "It goes appeal after appeal after appeal."

Josh Penry, an aide to McInnis, said the panel wants to work quickly.

"From a political standpoint, we feel like there is a lot of momentum on which to capitalize," Penry said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com.

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