Relaxed Forest Rules Revive West's Timber Wars ; Supporters See Federal Move Granting Greater Flexibility. Critics Predict More Logging

Article excerpt

Forest rules issued this week by the Bush administration are just the latest chapter in a decades-long debate over how to manage millions of acres of public land.

As environmental sensitivities have sharpened in recent years, the public appetite for paper products and two-by-fours has been tempered - somewhat, at least - by a growing appreciation of the value of wildlands for their own sake. This shift is reflected politically in environmental laws and regulations, tugged back and forth in Congress and the courts as both sides assert their definition of "balance."

In essence the new rules are meant to loosen the regulatory hand, giving the Forest Service, which manages some 192 million acres across the country, more flexibility while speeding up a process that critics say has become a bureaucratic and legal bog. "The new rule will improve the way we work with the public by making forest planning more open, understandable, and timely," says Forest Service associate chief Sally Collins.

Not so, say environmentalists. "This is all about opening more and more forested lands to unsustainable logging with no regard for environmental impact," says Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

It's likely to be years before the answer to that debate is known. And in fact this latest development reflects several related arguments that have raged since the infamous Northern Spotted Owl became officially endangered in the 1980s, prompting the "timber wars" here in the Pacific Northwest. These include:

* The extent to which regional and individual federal forest managers can be trusted to do the right thing in balancing environmental protection and timber production. That's an evolving story as "timber beasts" within the Forest Service lose relative influence, and biologists, hydrologists, and other habitat scientists are more closely listened to. Part of the issue here is that local forest managers frequently are pressured by politicians to "get out the cut" in order to boost the local economy.

* Whether or not vast areas need protection in order to stem the decline of key "indicator species" that scientists say are the best gauge of forest health.

* How to mitigate fire danger and manage burned areas, which typically includes thinning trees beforehand and "salvage logging" charred timber afterward.

* The administration (and Forest Service) urge to lessen the "analysis paralysis" they say prevents proper forest management versus activists' efforts to slow if not prevent virtually all timber sales - efforts that typically involve lawsuits. …