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Bush ready to reshape federal forests

Bush ready to reshape federal forests

The president's second term promises several policy shifts that favor more Northwest logging
Thursday, November 18, 2004

President Bush enters his second term poised to refashion the Northwest's public forests, reviving some logging after its near collapse while curtailing environmental reviews that opponents use to restrain cutting.

His actions over the next four years may fell more old-growth trees, reconsider safeguards for the northern spotted owl and shrink the U.S. Forest Service -- the biggest federal land manager in Oregon and Washington. Together the moves could rebalance federal land use by stressing logging for jobs and revenue -- and as a tool to clear overgrown, flammable stands.

Although forest issues received little notice during the presidential campaign, "there's very little doubt we're going to see comprehensive changes in the rules," said Michael Goergen, chief executive officer of the Society of American Foresters.

The administration laid the groundwork with subtle adjustments in regulations during the president's first term, when cutting rose only slightly. His second term is likely to leave a more lasting imprint, with policy shifts that include:

Making logging a top priority on 2.2 million federal acres in Western Oregon, and possibly dropping older forest reserves meant for wildlife.

More cutting of old-growth trees. The cutting was called for in the Clinton administration's 1994 Northwest Forest Plan but slowed by lawsuits and species safeguards.

Looking at industry arguments that the northern spotted owl and other protected species do not need extensive older forest reserves.

Reshaping the Forest Service into a smaller agency more focused on goals such as thinning fire-prone forests. Tightening budgets will cost the agency jobs, and nearly half its staff becomes eligible for retirement in the next five years.

Undoing Clinton administration rules that put roadless national forest land off-limits; instead, letting state governors recommend how much of that land merits protection.

Appointment of federal judges more likely to let timber sales and other projects proceed even when challenged by activists.

Perhaps the region's most hotly debated forest issue involves cutting the remaining 10 percent of original old-growth trees.

Some old growth has been on the chopping block since the Clinton administration's 1994 plan sought to log scattered stands not viewed as critical to wildlife. It was to keep sawmills alive while larger tracts were set aside for wildlife such as the northern spotted owl.

But few of those large trees were cut.

The Bush administration pledged to meet the 1994 logging goals, close to twice that of current levels. Doing so likely hinges on cutting old growth, because younger, smaller trees yield far less wood. The administration paved the way in the past few years by relaxing wildlife provisions that helped opponents block cutting.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act the president signed last year protects large old-growth trees during thinning operations, but the trees could still be felled independently. Some suspect public opposition and debate will keep much more old growth from being cut, though.

"They're going to tell the agencies to put up sales, but they're not going to invest much of their political capital in actually cutting them," predicted K. Norman Johnson, a professor of forestry at Oregon State University.

He said the administration should modernize the current "multiple use" mandate that seeks to balance competing uses on public land into a new vision that reduces conflict. Goergen said the administration wants to address the old-growth debate, but not in a way that locks up large tracts of land.

Northwest logging probably will never again reach the heights of the 1980s, when federal forests turned out roughly two logging trucks of wood each minute. But the timber industry contributed heavily to the Bush re-election campaign, and it has pressed the administration to free up trees for cutting.

Several top donors were Oregon companies.

Activists face battles

Activist groups are readying for a tooth-and-nail fight to stop the shift, although with fewer legal footholds and dwindling ranks of friendly judges.

"It's going to be harder and harder for us to get the message out that these forests are important to these species for many reasons, but we're going to work harder than ever," said Susan Ash of the Audubon Society of Portland.

A rule that requires national forests be able to maintain "viable populations" of native wildlife could be relaxed when the administration rewrites planning policies. Timber industry officials argue that judges have read the rule so strictly it stands in the way of logging and other projects.

"Some courts think you need to inventory every species on every acre," said Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland.

Such changes "will fundamentally alter the way we plan and manage these forests," Johnson said. Goergen said the Forest Service needs to reduce the paperwork burden of planning and spend more time on work in the field.

Federal protections for two birds -- the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet -- slowed rapid logging that sliced away habitat through the 1980s.

The timber industry sued the government in 2002 to force reviews of whether the species still warrant protection. A decision on the spotted owl was due for release Monday but was delayed in the Interior Department.

Scientists say the birds remain at risk in the region, and habitat protections are vital. But threats may be shifting from logging, given its decline, to other factors such as an influx of aggressive barred owls. The timber industry argues the government needs to address those troubles, instead of putting forests off-limits.

"Cutting mature forests is not the reason these species are still at risk," West said. "Science doesn't support the assumption that the spotted owl and marbled murrelet are dependent on large tracts of untouched old growth."

Deal reached on railroad lands

The administration has agreed to an industry request to make logging the top priority for 2.2 million acres of Western Oregon known as the Oregon and California Railroad lands. That's about 10 percent of the land under the Northwest Forest Plan. Courts have ruled that unlike most public acreage, the railroad lands are primarily for timber production.

A rewrite of plans that guide the railroad lands will consider doing away with older forest reserves as much as possible by 2008, according to the agreement.

As such lands go their own way, the overriding Northwest Forest Plan that guided forests in the region for a decade may gradually fade.

"One of the things we learned is that having a broad-scale plan, without a provision for doing things differently on a more local level, isn't really very efficient," said Lisa Freedman, regional director of resource planning and monitoring for the Forest Service.

But the shift worries conservation groups who saw the Northwest Forest Plan as elevating species protections regionwide.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com



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