IT WAS JUST a suggestion in one paragraph of President Bush's proposed 2003 budget, but it has already generated many pages of controversy.
The idea has become known as "charter forests" (analogous to charter schools): allowing segments of the national forests to be managed by private trusts in order to, as the budget proposal says, "overcome inertia and an excessive decisionmaking structure...[and] avoid the central bureaucracy and thereby reduce organization inefficiencies" in forest management.
Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist and now an undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture, is the administration's front man on this issue. Charter forests are already being condemned by environmental organizations as a giveaway to rapacious loggers who want to fell national forests. Rey notes that the enviros are criticizing a proposal that hasn't even been formalized in congressional legislation yet.
The Bush administration has itself to blame for the bad press, suggests Daniel Kemiss, who heads the Center for the American West at the University of Montana. He has long supported decentralized management ideas like charter forests. "It was a mistake for [Bush] to have brought this out as an administration proposal rather than developing bipartisan support [in Congress] for it first," Kemiss says. …