WASHINGTON – Environmentalists are furious at the Bush administration for issuing new proposed rules on logging in national forests that environmentalists say take away important safeguards for protecting the nation's trees.
Critics claim that the administration is in bed with timber companies because of its decision to lift requirements for in-depth environmental or scientific studies on the impact of logging on the local wildlife.
"We believe this is payback time in a proposal that was written by the timber industry's allies and long term supporters for the benefit of the timber industry and not for the American public," said Robert Dewey of Defenders of Wildlife.
"Under these new regulations, big industry gets to carve up our national forests like a holiday turkey,'' said Randi Spivak, executive director of the environmental group American Lands Alliance. "Industry executives are going to gobble this new policy up.''
The plan aims to streamline the planning process for 192 million acres of national forest by giving local managers more leeway in deciding on the management of the land they supervise without seeking studies or permission from U.S. Forest Service.
Bush officials defended the proposal as a way to remove red tape and paperwork costs.
"Processes were so cumbersome and analytical before, that for the average citizen, you almost had to have a PhD to participate. So we are trying to make it a process that's much more understandable and I think people will be much more encouraged to participate," said Sally Collins, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
Collins said land management plans for America's 155 national forests now typically take as long as seven years to complete because of requirements for scientific studies and other paperwork. She estimated that the Forest Service could save 30 cents on every dollar now spent by eliminating what she said are often duplicating efforts.
With these forest rules coming just a week after new, relaxed clean air standards, critics see a pattern of pro-corporate moves by the White House. They also question the timing of the announcement, made on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day.
"This proposal was made less than hours before many people sit down to enjoy a Thanksgivng turkey on the weekend and not focus on major federal public policy questions," Dewey said.
The U.S Forest services said that the rules have been a long time in the making and just happened to be ready for comment on Wednesday.
A 90-day public comment period on the new regulations begins as soon as the rules show up in the Federal Register. Without massive written protest, the regulations are likely to become law without much revision.
The rule making is the latest administration measure aimed at national forest management. Bush officials earlier pushed measures to cut down excess trees blamed for fueling wildfires and they have tried to limit the ability of environmental groups to get plants and animals added to the endangered species list.
"This is a very serious and troubling assault on many of the basic protections we have had for national forests for 20 years,'' said Mike Anderson, a policy analyst with the environmental group The Wilderness Society.
"It's going to drastically reduce the level of environmental analysis and public involvement that goes into national forest planning and development.''
Fox News' Steve Centanni and the Associated Press contributed to this report.