WASHINGTON – A new Forestry Service (search) rule proposed by the Bush administration aims to give more power and flexibility to the managers of the 155 national forests in the United States by easing environmental regulations that date back to the Reagan administration.
But environmentalists suspect business interests like loggers will benefit from the shift.
"The Bush administration is giving away our national forests as a Christmas gift to big industry," said a statement issued from Greenpeace (search).
In fact, officials say, the new rule can ease the way for loggers if locals agree to them.
"If we, for example, on the front range of Colorado here, want to have a forest that looks like a more natural forest around the turn of the century, we would do a lot more thinning and remove a lot more of the trees, and it would be more open-grown and park-like," said Rick Cables, who oversees 11 national forests in the Rocky Mountains (search).
Cables said the new rules will cover logging, livestock grazing and recreational use every 15 years.
"The old rule, it took five to seven years to do a forest plan, in some cases 10 years to do a 15-year plan, and I just don't think anyone thinks that is reasonable."
Among Cable's favorite elements of the plan is the opportunity for forest managers to actually get out into the land.
"Our field people have been chained to their computer terminals in their offices instead of having boots on the ground doing the work that the American public expects us to do," he said.
Officials say the new rule proposes reducing the number of scientific reports forest managers must make and ending the need to individually count fish and wildlife. It lets managers consider the habitat as a whole instead of protecting every species in it, and allows managers to decide when to lessen the forest fire risk by clearing brush and small trees.
President Bush showcased the rule in August of last year.
"Every forest will be treated according to its unique circumstances. Federal policy must be flexible to be able to deal with the problems in each particular part of our country," Bush said at the time.
Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (search) says the administration is adopting a corporate approach, and he's not sure he wants to endorse it.
"I certainly would not oppose that on its face, but there are going to be some people who are going to say, 'Look, is it the corporate face of Mutual of Omaha, which is okay, or Enron?'"
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Wendell Goler.