In its ongoing effort to boost commercial logging, the Bush administration on Thursday proposed giving managers of the nation's 155 federal forests greater discretion in letting timber companies cut down more trees on the federally controlled land.
The new planning rule is the latest response by the Forest Service to court rulings that have rejected previous policies as not doing enough to protect wildlife and the environment. Officials said the new rule would ensure public involvement in the nation's 193 million acres of national forests.
But environmentalists said the Bush administration was again trying to strip important protections for wildlife and clean water for the benefit of the timber industry.
"In general I would say they have moved up from an F for the 2005 regulations to a D-minus for the 2008 rule," said Marc Fink, a lawyer for Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has challenged the planning rule. "They have started to move slightly in the right direction, but are far from ensuring the protection necessary for the fish and wildlife that depend on our national forests."
Fink and other critics said the new rule suffers from the same defect as the 2005 rule, which a federal judge rejected last year. Both hold that there is no direct or indirect impact on the environment from a rule that governs the national forest system from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
"It really is like Alice in Wonderland, where planning for ... our country's 193 million acres of forest land can't have an impact on the environment. It's preposterous and the courts haven't agreed with it," said Trent Orr, an attorney for Earthjustice, another advocacy group that challenged the forest management rule in court.
Administration officials said last month they had decided it was quicker and cheaper to do an environmental impact statement on the 2005 rules, as ordered by a judge, rather than wait for a federal appeals court to consider the case.
"We're proud of this vitally important planning process, and yet we recognize that improvements were needed to emphasize more public collaboration, to be more adaptive to changing environmental conditions and to ensure the protection of wildlife," said Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the National Forest System.
The agency received more than 79,000 comments on a draft rule released last summer, Holtrop said. The latest plan provides extensive public participation and offers an approach to quickly respond to changing conditions, he said.
But environmentalists said the issue was far from settled.
"From what I've seen so far, I think it's a safe bet that we'll be back in court," said Orr.