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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Rethinking Timber

Air Date: Week of December 20, 2002

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In the aftermath of widespread fire this past summer, the Bush administration is speeding up, what it calls, necessary tree-cutting and limiting the public's chance to object. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon Greenbaum reports from our Washington bureau.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Major changes are underway at the U.S. Forest Service. Since the end of a summer that left six million acres blackened by wildfire, barely a week has passed without announcement of a new order, or a policy from the Bush administration. The proposals include tree thinning and timber cutting with far less environmental review.

The White House also wants greater authority for on the ground foresters, and officials are rethinking forest plans in the northwest and Sierra Nevada, with an eye towards more timber output. From Washington, Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mark Rey oversees the Forest Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a long-time timber industry lobbyist, Rey knows the forests: where the roads are, what's for sale, which areas are being considered for wilderness. He says their current condition is disastrous.

REY: We have forests now that are dramatically thicker with trees than what was the historic ecological norm. Stands which had a couple hundred trees per acre now have a couple thousand trees per acre.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Rey estimates almost 200 million acres of federal land are at high risk of fire due to overcrowding. Part of the solution, he says, is thinning small trees and brush, and to do that quickly, he wants to get rid of some of the environmental red tape that now confronts land managers and timber companies.

REY: The tragedy that we're facing right now is that we are applying well-intentioned environmental analysis requirements that take a good deal of time to execute, in a situation where the need to act on the ground is itself a compelling environmental initiative.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: To get things moving faster, the White House is proposing all fire-related work, from thinning to reseeding, proceed without environmental assessment or public comment. Citizen's objections would be subject to tougher guidelines. This is crucial, says Rey, because until now, environmentalists have been able to hamstring project after project with appeals. Mike Francis of the Wilderness Society says often they have no alternative.

FRANCIS: Just because they're trying to create this hysteria and this myth that the courts are somehow bad, and that people's ideas are somehow bad, doesn't mean that you don't use, in a democracy. The provisions that are given to us by the Constitution that allow us to challenge government action. Government in this country doesn't operate by fiat.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Francis says the administration's wildfire plan is just one sign that it wants to eliminate the public from the public lands. Recent proposals have come so fast, environmentalists have been able to do little but issue frantic press releases. One proposal would require review and public comments only on specific projects, not on forest-wide plans. Mike Francis argues the whole point of those plans is so people can see the big picture.

FRANCIS: If the Forest Service says, "We are going to protect five million acres of roadless area that now still exists. We're going to try to have this many board feet of timber coming off the forest," that sets the perimeters for what happens. And what that does is give you and me, as a citizen, an idea of looking at the forest and saying, "Okay, I know what they're going to do," then we'd pay attention.

But if Mike Francis says the government should listen to the will of the people, Michael Klein of the American Forest and Paper Association asks which people? Klein says the Bush administration is trying to give voice to the folks who live in and around the national forests. Contrary, he says, to what happened under the former Clinton administration.

KLEIN: You had local land managers, local knowledge, and local decisions being excluded to the benefit of national environmental activism groups based in New York or San Francisco who could completely overrun the local communities.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Klein admits it's not only local people who will benefit. The new forest planning regulations are exactly what his clients in the timber and paper companies have been asking for.

KLEIN: The previous administration really put an emphasis on ecological values over all others. And what this administration seems to be doing is advocating a shift back to the Congressionally-mandated multiple-use sustained yield, where you're going to look at balancing ecological, social and economic values.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That balance, says Klein, is what Teddy Roosevelt wanted when he created the Forest Service almost a century ago. Mike Francis of the Wilderness Society also recalls the late president. But when he looks back, he sees Roosevelt trying to tame the great timber barons of that era.

Environmental groups are calling on their members to send letters of protest over the recent proposals from the White House. Mark Rey at USDA says he will read the comments, but this isn't a plebiscite and he won't be counting votes.

For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.

 

 

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