The Bush administration is proposing to give managers of the nation's 155 national forests greater leeway to approve logging and commercial activities with less examination of potential environmental damages.
The administration said Wednesday its intent was to improve the forest management regulations issued by the Clinton administration two months before President Bush took office.
The new land management rules would affect some 190 million acres of forests and grasslands overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.
The changes are "designed to ... better harmonize the environmental, social and economic benefits of America's greatest natural resource - our forests and grasslands,'' said Sally Collins, the Forest Service's associate chief.
Asked whether the changes will result in more logging, Collins said, "We can't say it's going up or down or sideways or the same.''
The administration in its proposal said the Clinton rules were too complicated and "neither straightforward nor easy to implement.''
Both the 2000 rule and the proposed revision provide for multiple uses of federal forestland, but the new proposal would turn more of the decision-making over to regional foresters. Environmentalists have complained that regional foresters often develop close ties with local timbering interests.
The Bush administration proposal also would eliminate specific standards and procedures for maintaining and monitoring wildlife populations that foresters had to comply with, substituting broad goals in their place.
Complying with the Clinton rule's requirements for ecological sustainability and reliance on consistent scientific data "would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish,'' the Bush administration said.
It complained that the old regulation for implementing the 1976 National Forest Management Act also required "a level of involvement by scientists that may or may not be needed.''
Environmental groups complained that the proposal not only eliminates scientific oversight but also increases agency discretion so as to reduce public involvement to the benefit of the timber industry.
"It's a blatant effort by the Bush administration to boost logging and help the timber industry, which had a clear hand on the pen of these regulations,'' said Robert Dewey, vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental advocacy group.
The new proposal would allow local federal forestry officials to develop management plans for the land they supervise without having to first conduct an in-depth environmental impact study.
The administration argues that such plans are essentially a zoning document, and that it would be better to do environmental studies on a case-by-basis when possible environmental concerns are anticipated.
A regional forester, however, still could decide that a management plan itself has significant environmental impacts, triggering the need for a study. But the official no longer would have to formally assess the environmental impact every time the management plan is revised.
Democrats accused the administration of attempting to "undo most of the environmental safeguards that protect our nation's forests.''
"We are at a loss to understand why ... (the draft rule) goes so far as to eliminate any assurance of protection for fish and wildlife and their habitat,'' said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
He said the plan provides no minimum standard for protecting endangered or threatened species and "no solid protections whatsoever for wildlife and environmental sustainability.''