The U.S. Forest Service chief is inviting the public to flood his office with comments on proposed changes in the rules for logging, recreation and other activities on national forests.
“All in all, I think we are on the right track. I’m asking for your help,” Jack Ward Thomas said in videotape played at briefings this week in 17 cities nationwide.
The agency spent between $2,500 and $3,000 on the tape - the first time it has made such an effort to inform people about proposed rule changes.
Thomas, a wildlife biologist from LaGrande, Ore., said he became all too aware of the merits and pitfalls of the National Forest Management Act while drawing up protection strategies for the threatened northern spotted owl.
“Sometimes our own planning regulations got in the way of doing the best thing for the public,” he said.
So the Agriculture Department, which oversees the agency, earlier this month proposed streamlining the rules - stressing restoration of damaged forest ecosystems but easing requirements for some environmental analysis and wildlife population counts.
The proposal has drawn criticism from all sides.
Industry officials say the new emphasis on maintaining sustainable ecosystems would undermine other laws directing national forests be managed for multiple uses, including timber production.
“This would change the whole purpose of the national forests,” said Anne Heissenbuttel, director of forest planning and policy for the American Forest & Paper Association.
Environmentalists said the proposed changes would result in less protection for fish and wildlife, easing a requirement to maintain a “viable population” of all vertebrates found in each of the forests.
“Instead of monitoring owl-population trends, you monitor old-growth acre trends. You will never know if your model is correct because you’ll never know if the number of the species is going up or down,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics based in Eugene, Ore.
Thomas defended the proposals on Capitol Hill this past week.
“We are looking for ways to reform regulatory processes without rolling back environmental protection,” he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on forests and public land management.
“While it is important to protect the purpose of these laws, we strongly support streamlining and simplifying processes, reducing administrative processes and stronger interagency coordination to implement these laws,” Thomas said.
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