A proposed rewrite of the nation’s lead forest protection law largely reflects changes sought by the timber industry to accelerate logging - sometimes using nearly identical language, critics say.
“It’s a repeat of the last Congress when lawyers and lobbyists representing various corporations and industries were invited to rewrite the Clean Water Act and other health, safety and environmental laws,” said Kevin Kirchner, a lawyer at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on forests, has printed a draft proposal to rewrite the National Forest Management Act.
His plan would place new restrictions on citizen appeals and lawsuits intended to block logging. It also would scale back some requirements for environmental reviews and consultation with officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.
“I want to try to bring a dysfunctional agency into an effectively operating operation. I’m convinced that cannot happen without changes in public policy,” Craig said in an interview in January.
Criticism was expected, he said, from the conservationists who consider him beholden to the timber industry.
“Some of these groups, if I had presented them with 127 blank pages, we would have gotten the same reaction. They obviously have chosen to make a political statement,” Craig said.
Kirchner said most elements of the draft bill were laid out by the industry’s chief lawyer, Steven Quarles, representing the American Forest & Paper Association, during testimony last March before the House Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and lands.
Twenty-three of his 28 recommendations “appear in the Craig bill using virtually identical language,” Kirchner said, providing a point-by-point, side-by-side comparison.
The proposed changes would weaken environmental safeguards, limit public participation and judicial review and make logging the dominant use of the national forests, Kirchner said.
“Sen. Craig’s bill is a bald attempt to turn our national forests into tree farms. It should be called the ‘Logging Loophole Extension and Protection Act,”’ he said.
For example, in his testimony Quarles asked Congress to require that government resource management plans used to determine which parts of a forest are suitable for logging maintain - to the maximum extent feasible - communities economically dependent on national forest or BLM lands.
Craig’s proposal reads:
“In preparing, amending, revising or implementing a resource management plan, the secretary shall consider if, and explain whether, the plan maintains to the maximum extent feasible under the Act and other applicable law the stability of any community economically dependent on the resources of the federal lands to which the plan applies.”
Quarles also asked Congress to limit planning levels to two - one for multiple-use resource planning and the other for management activity planning.
Craig’s proposal reads:
“The secretaries shall conduct no more than two levels of planning for federal lands, comprised of (1) multiple use planning the form of resource management plans and (2) site or area specific planning for management activities.”
Kirchner says the language passed so easily from the industry testimony to the draft bill partly because the committee’s staff director, Mark Rey, is a former top industry lobbyist; he was executive director of the American Forest & Paper Association.
Rey rejects the charge. He said Quarles provided Congress with “pretty good substantive testimony with a lot of quality ideas.
“That is the kind of testimony we generally draw from when we draft legislation,” he said.
Several of Quarles’ comments represent a “developing consensus view,” Rey said. “That is why we have hearings - for people to give us their ideas so we can evaluate them to decide whether we like them or not.
“The fact we responded favorably to a developing consensus that there should be time limits and simplification of the planning process does not make this an industry bill,” he said.
Rey said the proposal does not include many of the industry’s top priorities, including mandating minimum logging levels on national forests and ending the requirement that the Forest Service maintain a viable population of every creature found in each individual national forest.
“The recommendations we did not take are the ones dealing with emphasizing timber production, which is of course what you would expect from the American Forest & Paper Association, but are not in this bill,” Rey said.
Furthermore, many of the changes backed by the timber industry also enjoy support among other groups, including the Western Governors Association, the White House office on technology and the Forest Service itself, he said.
“Good ideas often have many parents. Many of the best ones in this draft have multiple parentage,” he said.
Clinton administration officials have said little about Craig’s proposal, except that they oppose eliminating the requirement that Forest Service officials consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about possible impacts of logging.
“Right now, there is someone there to ensure that legal requirements for fish and wildlife protection are adhered to as well as others who recognize the need to balance commodity production with resource protection,” said James Lyons, agriculture undersecretary in charge of the Forest Service.
Chris West, vice president of the Northwest Forestry Association in Portland, said the law must be changed to prevent environmentalists from abusing citizen appeal procedures with frivolous complaints intended to delay and block logging.
“The system is broke and there needs to be some work to overhaul it so the professionals on the ground can make the decisions that are best for the resource and the land,” West said.
“There are just too many conflicts in the laws and regulations that don’t allow things to go ahead. Right now, for a whole host of reasons - the law, the courts, the administration - we’re in gridlock. While the environmentalists like gridlock, I don’t think it is in the public’s best interest,” he said.
Mike Francis, national forests director for The Wilderness Society, said he intends to seek middle ground with Craig but isn’t sure any exists.
“He seems to have pretty well accepted the industry’s complaints on face value and from our point of view, the industry’s complaints don’t have any validity,” Francis said.
“I don’t think there is any support out there except in the most radical elements of the timber industry for the draft Craig has released,” he said.
Tim Hermach, executive director of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore., said Craig is “publicly demonstrating his servitude to the timber industry.
“He is doing the bidding of an industry that says you mount a strong offensive, you fight for it brutally and you will get some portion of it you didn’t have any right to,” Hermach said. “If you want one, you fight for 10. And if you fight for the one brutally, you may get three.”
Craig said he has reached out to conservation groups and scheduled a series of workshops this spring to seek more input. But he said environmentalists have offered little constructive criticism.
“It’s amazing for one interest group to say another interest group doesn’t have a right to be part of the process,” Craig said.
“If the Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society want to criticize it, it’s probably because they don’t want to come to the table,” he said. “They don’t want to be part of the product. They are defending a status quo which most all critics have suggested is non-functional.”