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. …