WASHINGTON – Environmentalists sued the Bush administration in federal court Thursday, challenging new rules for managing the nation’s 192 million acres of national forests.
Under the rules, issued in December, managers of the nation’s 155 national forests have more discretion to approve logging and other commercial projects without lengthy environmental reviews.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claims the new rules water down protection of wildlife and the environment “to the point where they are virtually meaningless.”
The lawsuit, filed by San Francisco-based Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups, said the new rules fail to include important environmental protection measures mandated by Congress under the landmark 1976 National Forest Management Act.
The new rules reverse more than 20 years of protection for wildlife and other resources without any scientific basis for doing so, the lawsuit claims, and remove requirements to use measurable standards to protect wildlife.
“The new Bush forest rules aren’t rules at all – they’re more like suggestions. They turn forest management to mush, mocking the intent of Congress and undermining public participation in the process,” said Trent Orr, an attorney with Earthjustice.
“Agencies need leadership and clear guidance, not this wink and a nod that encourages the exploitation of the public’s resources,” Orr said.
Forest Service officials declined to comment Thursday.
But they said in announcing the long-awaited rules change Dec. 22 that it allows forest managers to respond more quickly to changing conditions, such as wildfires, and emerging threats such as invasive species.
The complex forest management rules were last updated in the 1970s, and officials long have complained that detailed analyses required under the law take up to seven years to complete. Under the new rule, forest plan revisions could be completed within two to three years, officials said.
The new plan gives regional forest managers more discretion to approve logging, drilling and mining operations without having to conduct formal scientific investigations known as environmental impact statements.
The new approach could cut costs by as much as 30 percent, said Sally Collins, associate Forest Service chief. She also noted the new rules require independent audits of all forest plans.
“We really have a process that takes way too long, that really isn’t as responsive … as it should be,” Collins said.
But environmentalists say the plan eliminates analyses required under the National Environment Policy Act, scraps wildlife protections established under President Reagan and limits public input into forest management decisions.
“The nation’s forests and the people who own them deserve better than this,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We are hopeful the courts will send these rules back to the industry lobbyists who wrote them, stamped ‘illegal.’ “
The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said the new rules are “a lot more responsive” than the previous rules, which they called cumbersome and counterproductive.
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