WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has agreed to review Clinton-era regulations that directed forest managers to put ecosystem health above all other concerns.
The rules, issued in November, limited logging, skiing, hiking and other activities in national forests if forest managers believe those activities might permanently harm the ecosystem.
"This is a solid decision on a rule that was impossible to implement, overly complex, burdensome and expensive," said Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees forests. "Secretary Veneman's decision to revise these regulations is to be applauded."
A Forest Service report concluded that the rules were impossible to put in place successfully. It said the "ecological sustainability first" mandate is at odds with the reality that forests have ecological, economic and social uses, and is a significant departure from the agency's historic interpretation of its mission.
David Tenny, acting deputy undersecretary of the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, wrote the Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth Wednesday, directing him to develop a plan to modify parts of the planning rules and resolve the report's major concerns.
"The goal is to have a revised rule by the end of the calendar year," Tenny wrote.
The decision comes as the administration is also reviewing the Clinton administration's ban on road-building on a third of the country's national forests. Western Republicans and the timber industry have criticized policy as a sweeping mandate from Washington.
President Bush suspended the roadless rule, which should have gone into effect in March, until May 12 while his administration reviews the policy. The results of that review could come next week, when the Justice Department will file a brief in a lawsuit filed by the state of Idaho challenging the rules.
The Wilderness Society said the administration's decision to review the forest planning rules and the road-building ban is an "all-out assault" on the national forests.
The planning regulations "were developed over a three year period based upon the recommendations of a committee of scientists and very elaborate public involvement," said Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst for The Wilderness Society. "I am very suspicious."
Not all environmental groups agree. The Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of a dozen conservation groups, filed a lawsuit in February in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California saying the planning rules gave the Forest Service too much freedom to manage its 192 million acres of forest land.
The overhaul of the regulations had been in the works since the first Bush administration. It was the first time in almost two decades the Forest Service changed the rules implementing the National Forest Management Act of 1976, a law that governs activities in federal forests.