"Healthy" or "Stealthy" Forest Initiative?

 

On December 11, 2002,the Bush administration took administrative action to implement the highly controversial “Healthy Forests Initiative.” Using the specter of wildfire, the Administration announced plans to eliminate time-tested environmental protections for our national forests. Four separate but interconnected actions were proposed by the Bush Administration that will collectively and brazenly undermine citizens’ rights to participate in management of public lands, expedite national forest logging, degrade ecosystem health and clean drinking water, and exacerbate forest fires: 

1. Categorical Exclusions to log for "fuels reduction" and fire "restoration",

2. Appeals processes changes,

3. Streamline and shorten Environmental Assessments, and

4. Streamline and reduce Endangered Species regulations

Waiving environmental laws and logging large, fire resilient, old growth trees in the backcountry will not protect homes and lives from wildfire. If the administration were truly serious about protecting the public form forest fires, it would focus money and manpower to the Wildland Urban Interface.

1. Categorical Exclusion Rule for Fuels Reduction and Fire Restoration

This proposal exempts "fire risk reduction" projects and "fire restoration" from environmental review and sound planning process. The proposal threatens millions of acres of national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges with unrestricted logging. Opportunities for public involvement -- such as the ability to propose and comment on project alternatives -- would also be severely limited if not eliminated.

Agencies are already allowed to thin brush and small trees and utilize prescribed fire under current Categorical Exclusion (CE) rules. The new rules will vastly expand agency latitude to take virtually any action including old-growth logging under the rubric of “fuels reduction” or “restoration.” 

2. Forest Service Appeal Rules changes

This proposal calls for changing the appeals process to make it more difficult for citizens to challenge logging on national forest lands. Although announced as part of the “Healthy Forests Initiative,” the proposed changes would reduce opportunities for public participation in all Forest Service projects- not just those intended to reduce fire risks. 

The proposal will reduce or eliminate the public’s ability to request that a Forest Service decision maker reconsider a decision to implement a logging project. It also prioritizes profits for a few above the environment and the public interest by exempting salvage logging projects from the appeals process so that timber corporations can quickly log and sell off our forests without any say from the public. This proposal is essentially another “notch in the belt” for an administration that is trying to eliminate or drastically weaken the basic tools of a free society to hold government accountable and participate fully in decision-making.

3. "Guidance for Environmental Assessments of Forest Health Projects" proposal

Through this proposal, the administration seeks to fast track logging on our National Forests, Parks, and Wildlife refuges by gutting the environmental review and planning process and limiting public participation. The administration has selected 10 pilot projects to demonstrate how they can reduce an Environmental Assessment to a flimsy, substandard environmental review, and effectively restrict or even eliminate public input. 

The 10 pilot projects range in size from 152 to 20,000 acres, and may entail commercial logging, brush removal, and prescribed burning. The proposal gives an impracticable length restriction (10-15 pages maximum) and provides the agency with the discretion to limit environmental assessments to one proposed action instead of a range of alternatives, and again, to limit public participation. These rules and guidelines will likely result in inadequate environmental analysis and subsequent environmental degradation of our national forests. 

The Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery project in Leavenworth, WA, is the smallest of the pilot projects. The project aims to remove small trees and brush on 152 acres of Federal lands adjacent to the community of Leavenworth, where fuel levels are already relatively light. The project was not selected using a local fire policy and prioritization. In fact local agency officials from the Forest Service and the Fish Hatchery were not consulted, and only informed about the project a week before the December 11, 2002 Whitehouse news release. Locals like US Forest Service Leavenworth District Fire Ecologist, Mick Mueller were baffled by the selection of the Leavenworth project, who said that considering the scale, location, and the considerably low fire risk of the area it didn’t seem a good candidate for a national fire risk reduction pilot project. 

The Leavenworth Fish Hatchery project is not an accurate representation of fire projects that are conducted in the area. The vast majority of fuels reduction projects are much larger in scale and entails logging large trees well outside of the Wildland Urban Interface (¼ mile around homes and communities). The environmental review process is a critical tool to analyze complex environmental issues such as soil health and habitat for threatened and endangered plants and wildlife. Yet, the Leavenworth project is so small and relatively environmentally benign that it likely could proceed under Categorical Exclusion, something that cannot be applied to most fire reduction projects. 

Considering the Bush administration’s anti-environmental track record, it is highly probable that this non-controversial project is simply a Trojan horse. The Leavenworth pilot project could be used to demonstrate that the environmental review process can be streamlined without damage to the environment. Once the public takes the bait, the floodgates could be opened to extensive harmful logging in the backcountry. 

4. Expedite Endangered Species Act consultations

This proposal prioritizes logging for “fuels reduction” and fire “restoration” above the immediate survival needs of Endangered Species. It dictates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for ensuring the conservation and protection of species at risk of extinction, should look the other way when these species will be adversely affected in the “short term” by logging for “fire risk reduction”. The proposal also provides an illogical plan to log for fuels reduction to “protect” endangered species while at the same time it allows the harm of those species the logging was meant to “protect.”

Summary

The Bush Administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative” is a smoke and mirrors plan that uses the guise of “fire risk reduction” to sell off our national forests to timber corporations. If the Bush Administration were truly serious about protecting people’s homes and communities it would focus money and manpower directly around people’s homes and communities, and would not need to rely on underhanded tactics to undermine the public interest by eliminating environmental review and democratic process. 
President Bush has launched a series of attacks on the environment.