Clear-cutting public participation

Wed Mar. 16, 2005 6:33 PM EST

Under the leadership of Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist turned Undersecretary of Agriculture, the Forest Service has effectively rolled back the rules that have, for the last 25 years, formed the foundation of forest ecosystem management. The agency's vague new guidelines regarding the management of 192 million acres of national forest and grasslands are dually destructive. First, they hack away old ecological standards that: limit the extent of clearcutting; mandate 100-foot buffer zones to protect riparian areas; and require that the Forest Service maintain habitats that support "viable populations" of species. As well, the new regulations will now only "consider" rather than rely on the best available science to determine what counts as appropriate management. "Our new regime of national forest management will be ruled by lack of regulation," said Earthjustice's Trent Orr. "In the end, there are really no standards of any sort."

Even more egregious, the Forest Service slipped these new regulations through under the radar last September. By classifying the changes as an "interpretive rule," the agency exempted them from public notice and comment requirements, even though the new regulations have to do with public lands making up eight percent of the country's collective landscape. The final rule (PDF), without any form of public input, was published in the Federal Register on January 5 of this year.

In the late '90s, the Forest Service under Clinton also relied on administrative changes rather than legislative ones. Only they went the other direction, convening a committee of scientists and forcing the agency to focus more on ecological sustainability. The Bush administration's new regulations, by contrast, represent a "paradigm shift" in forest management, as the rules themselves proudly proclaim.

A lawsuit (PDF) is in the works against the new regulations, filed by a coalition of heavyweight environmental groups who argue that the Forest Service was not merely clarifying the regulations, as it claims, but actually making new law, without any legislative oversight. Unfortunately, suing the government is the only recourse citizens have left at this point. As Orr said, "The public is being left behind, and they're not going to have many opportunities to influence the process at all."