The U.S. Forest Service has long been split by a deep-seated disagreement over how to break through the decades of gridlock that have resulted from environmental and industry lawsuits.
On one side are people like Clinton-era Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, who argue that to stem the flood of lawsuits, the agency needs to give the public ample ways to hold it accountable to environmental laws. "One of the tenets of democracy is that the public wants the right to question government decisions," says Dombeck, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Whether it's forest health, salvage logging or forest planning, the key is trust."
On the other side of the divide are those who believe detailed standards and regulations often get in the way, and that it is best to leave the decisions to the experts. Chief among these thinkers is current Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who has crusaded to crack what he calls "analysis paralysis."
With the recent release of new forest planning rules, Bosworth has taken this philosophy to new heights. The rules, finalized in December, are meant to streamline the process by which the agency updates forest plans, which provide a kind of driver's manual for each national forest.
The agency spends almost half of its time on planning efforts, rather than tackling looming threats such as catastrophic wildfire, off-road vehicles and invasive weeds, Bosworth told the Missoulian. The old regulations were designed to mitigate the effects of logging, he said, but the federal timber harvest has declined drastically: "We need a more nimble, flexible rule."
Despite the misgivings of environmentalists, Bosworth claimed the new planning regulations were not "driven by the politics of this administration ... This was developed by Forest Service people. This is what we wanted."
Even so, agency insiders say the new rules contain at least one surprise-and as with the Biscuit Fire salvage project, the surprise likely originated high in the food chain in the Bush administration.
"A wholly new creature"
The surprise, which forest planners say they only learned about last fall, two years into the process of rewriting the rules, came in the form of a corporate planning process called an "Environmental Management System" or "EMS." James Connaughton, head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, has championed the EMS system as a way to streamline the environmental review and public participation required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
"This is a wholly new creature for the Forest Service." says Mike Anderson with The Wilderness Society. "It's going to push them into an unknown additional amount of analysis and paperwork, but there's no evident benefit for the public."
Forest planners strike a more cheery tone, but acknowledge that they are wrestling with the new system. Margaret Hartzell, who heads the team that is revising forest plans for the Colville, Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests in northern Washington, explains that the EMS process is based on an international environmental standard called "ISO 14001." "The mantra is, 'plan, do ...'" She stops, starts again: "'Plan, do, check, act.'" She laughs. "I'm still struggling with this."
"There's a learning curve for us," says Hartzell, but the new process is designed to save the agency time and allow it to be quicker on its feet. "The notion is that a forest would not go through a big revision effort every 10 to 15 years," she says. "Every year, you would update the forest plan if you need to. The changes would be smaller, but more often."
Hartzell adds that the new process includes regular evaluations - and even independent, third-party audits. "It's a way to ensure that the forest continually improves," she says.
Even some environmentalists acknowledge that the EMS system could bring improvement. "Any time the Bush administration tries to take a tool from corporations and apply it to the public process, we get pretty suspicious," says Doug Heiken with the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "But (these systems) are pretty good for making sure these things get implemented."
"No standards, no requirements"
Critics also see the administration's fingerprints elsewhere on the new planning regulations. Gone are strict standards, put in place by the Reagan administration, that required public involvement, limited the size of clear-cuts, and protected wildlife and soil. "The fundamental theme of the Bush regs is 'No standards, no requirements,'" says Mike Leahy, a staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. "They give total discretion to local federal officials."
While the new regulations offer numerous possibilities for public participation, the specific requirements are largely gone. The old appeals process, which gave citizens 90 days to file complaints with agency higher-ups, has been replaced with a shorter, 30-day "objection" process. The Forest Service has also proposed allowing forest planners to shortcut the National Environmental Policy Act with "categorical exclusions" for forest plans. Instead, the NEPA process, which sometimes took upwards of seven years to complete for an entire forest plan, would only be done on a project-by-project basis, for individual timber sales or other projects.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new regulations is the elimination of the so-called "viability rule," which required national forests to protect species not covered by the Endangered Species Act. In the 1980s and '90s, judges issued a series of injunctions stopping logging until the agency brought forest plans into compliance with the rule. This led to the creation of the massive Northwest Forest Plan, the Sierra Nevada Framework, and rules that laid down sweeping protections across millions of acres of forest.
"This is the first step toward undoing the Northwest Forest Plan," says Andy Stahl with Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
While the new planning regulations remove many of environmentalists' legal handles, attorneys are finding new ones. The Defenders of Wildlife and The Wilderness Society have already filed a lawsuit arguing that the rules do not properly implement the National Forest Management Act, which requires specific protections for wildlife, soils and other resources.
Former Chief Dombeck expects more gridlock. " 'Analysis paralysis' is the result of the lack of trust," he says. "We're not going to develop regulations and get ourselves out of that. You build trust by your actions on the land."
Greg Hanscom is editor of High Country News.