President George W. Bush calls his forest policy the Healthy Forest Initiative. Environmentalists call the emphasis on forest health an excuse for more logging. Whatever its purpose, the new policy, currently winding its way through Congress, could have major impacts on Inland Northwest forests and rural communities.
The architect of the Healthy Forest Initiative is Mark Rey, Bush's forestry advisor, the undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and the environment and political overseer of the U.S. Forest Service. In January, Rey visited Republic, Wash., where he attended a meeting organized by Rep. George Nethercutt and local leaders to save Republic's only sawmill, which was near closing for lack of work. One of Rey's several promises was to "fast-track" new timber sales through the Colville National Forest's public review and appeal process.
"Fast-tracking" timber sales is now the focus of a bill introduced by representatives Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), with 70 co-sponsors including Nethercutt. As its name suggests, "The Healthy Forests Restoration Act" is a key part of the Bush forest policy. McInnis's staff reports summarize the bill's provisions and underlying philosophy.
* Analysis of Alternatives: "In order to accelerate the implementation of forest management work, the bill would require federal land managers to perform a full environmental analysis only on the proposed forest management action, and not on a litany of additional alternatives to the proposed action."
* Appeals: "The bill also directs the Forest Service to establish an alternative administrative objections process to the Forest Service's current conflict-oriented appeals process."
* Litigation: "Federal courts would be required to extend any preliminary injunctions every 45 days. Currently these preliminary holds can stay in place for months at a time without judicial attention, even as forest conditions worsen."
Quoting from the proposed bill itself, the courts "shall (1) consider the public interest in avoiding long-term harm to the ecosystem; and (2) give deference to any agency finding upon information in the administrative record, that the balance of harm and the public interest in avoiding the short-term effects of the agency action is outweighed by the public interest in avoiding long-term harm to the ecosystem."
Environmentalists are hostile to these changes. An online critique by the Wilderness Society and a conversation with Keith Coleman (a Republic resident and executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group, KRCG) revealed some key objections.
* The bill's vague geographic boundaries and biological standards for designating projects could be stretched to include most commercial timber sales, even those miles from communities. Permitted temporary roads in inventoried roadless areas could have many of the same ecological effects as permanent roads.
* Dropping analysis of alternatives eliminates what the Council on Environmental Quality calls "the heart of the environmental impact statement, serving to provide a clear basis for choice among options."
* Replacing statutory appeal rights with agency-defined procedures would allow the agencies to frustrate appellants by, for example, setting short deadlines or imposing fees.
* Provisions intended to limit judicial delay could snarl the legal system, considering the large numbers of projects and likely increases in lawsuits arising from elimination of the administrative appeals system.
* Finally, such critics say it would set a terrible precedent to require judges to defer to the administrative judgment that short-term risks were justified by long-term benefits, even if that conclusion were contrary to other evidence presented in court.
As Coleman puts it, "the better approach would be to focus on forest lands immediately adjacent to communities and residences. KRCG is working toward that goal as a member of the Colville Community Forestry Coalition. The coalition includes federal, state and county agencies, environmental groups and the timber industry."
Shelly Short, the northern district coordinator for Nethercutt, disagrees: "If we don't move forward, there will be catastrophic fires. Unlike smaller fires and controlled burns, these create temperatures that destroy soils, resulting in serious degradation of water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. It isn't enough for individual property owners to fireproof their own property. Fuels in the vicinity, on neighboring lands, must be reduced to allow homeowner efforts to succeed."
"The bill also reduces the ability of some individuals or groups to simply frustrate the process," Short continues, "while still following land use plans and complying with NEPA and other applicable laws."
While critics say the bill and the concern over fire is just the latest cover for increased logging, Short answers, "Not everyone accepts commercial harvest as a management tool. That is where we are going to disagree. Of course there is going to be commercial activity, but it is designed to reduce hazardous fuels."
And Short says limiting projects to lands near towns, as Coleman advocates, doesn't go far enough. "Structures are not the only thing at risk. Private tree farms are intermixed with National Forest lands. We must also protect riparian areas, endangered species habitat and other resources. The bill addresses the need to prioritize where projects are placed, and priority would be given to those in the rural-urban interface. The bill should promote the kind of activities environmental groups in this region are interested in. I would envision groups [like the Colville Community Forestry Coalition] being very involved in the collaborative procedures the bill provides for project planning."
The President's Healthy Forest Initiative and the McInnis bill continue a longstanding debate among environmentalists, natural resource management agencies and natural resource industries. Neither measure would significantly change underlying laws governing logging on federal lands -- the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and so on.
At issue is the status of "citizen enforcement," the lawsuits and appeals environmentalists file pursuant to those laws. In 1993, with Democrats controlling the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, environmentalists gained statutory protection for their right to administratively appeal Forest Service decisions with passage of the Appeals Reform Act.
Today, with Republicans in charge, they face a narrowing of those rights, at least where logging arguably has the effect of reducing fire and disease risk.
Sources, including interview transcripts, can be viewed at www25.brinkster.com/thegull/mcinnis.htm. You can contact Robert Stokes at firstname.lastname@example.org.