Smokescreen: Fire, Forests and the Bush Administration's "Healthy Forest" Plan for Increased Logging

Article excerpt

IN AUGUST 2002, THE LARGEST FIRE IN THE NATION that year skittered and leaped across a steep and rocky landscape, through a unique ecosystem and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the southeast corner of Oregon. On the ground, the Biscuit fire left a pastiche of char and green in the mountains just east of the Pacific, a land sparsely populated with a mix of traditional loggers and miners along with hippies, activists and back-to-the-landers.

The Biscuit fire earned lots of time on the television airwaves, but its ecological impact was far less severe than its roaring flames and news commentators suggested. "About 20 percent of the area within the fire perimeter was completely unburned," says Tim Ingalsbee, director of the Western Fire Ecology Center. "It was a beautiful, very natural mosaic, well within the area's historic range of variability. That's why folks have dubbed the Biscuit fire the gentle giant."

But the Bush administration saw opportunity in the fire. As the 500,000-acre fire was dying, President Bush came to the area to survey the damage and offer assurances.

"We've got to change [forest] policy, starting with setting priorities, right off the bat, about getting after those areas that are dangerous--dangerous to communities, dangerous to habitat, dangerous to recreational areas," Bush said. "There are some high priority areas that we need to declare emergencies and get to thinning now, before it's too late."

With the ashes still warm, Bush presented the centerpiece of his policy for public forests, the Healthy Forest Initiative. He told the fire-weary citizenry that his plan would:

* Speed up logging in the name of fire prevention;

* Minimize or eliminate environmental analyses of such projects' effects on wildlife or the landscape;

* Eliminate procedural safeguards that provide a check against logging promotion by the Forest Service--in other words, the right of citizens to sue if a proposed action violates environmental laws.

A year later, fires raging in southern California helped Bush push portions of the Healthy Forests Initiative through Congress. That legislation--now being hammered into its final form by lawmakers trying to reconcile House and Senate versions--is only a small piece of a comprehensive effort to rewrite rules that for decades have allowed citizens to slow or halt unsustainable logging that endangers species and water quality.

"This fire bill is an historic thing," Ingalsbee says. "It's going to permanently change public lands management.... This bill is attempting to paint a log truck red and call it a fire truck."

The administration's moves have little to do with preventing home-threatening blazes like those in California. But, say environmentalists, they do set the stage for large logging increases around the country if Bush gets a second term in the White House.

"The Bush administration is cutting the public out of management of our public lands, and putting timber production over other species and other values," explains Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice, which litigates for environmental groups.

CHANGING THE RULES

"The administration is systematically dismantling the framework that we've had in place for protecting forests and species and clean water put into place under presidents Nixon and Ford," Goldman says. "It's turning the clock way back. And it's hard even to think of how far back--it's really before Earth Day, before we had all the various responses to Earth Day and the laws that were enacted in the 1970s."

The Forest Service has been rewriting obscure but critical rules since Bush took office, says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

"There is a unifying theme to all of these rule changes," Stahl says. "And the unifying theme is to go back and look at the last 20 years of successful environmental litigation, parse each judge's opinion to determine exactly what word, phrase or sentence in the rules the judge relied upon, and then eliminate that word, phrase or sentence. …