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New forest plan released

Summit Daily/Reid Williams
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SUMMIT COUNTY ” Regional forest managers can now implement commercial logging or fire mitigation work without having to conduct environmental impact statements, according to a new plan released by the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday.

Management of 155 national forests and 20 grasslands, including the White River National Forest, can now approve projects without a process that can take years to complete.

Forest Service officials say the new rules are designed to make forest planning more responsive to changing conditions ” notably fuels management to reduce catastrophic wildfires and control of invasive plants that threaten other species ” by eliminating paperwork and relying on evaluations by local and regional managers.



“We really have a process that takes way too long,” said Forest Service associate chief Sally Collins. “We need to use our limited public dollars to work to restore degraded landscape and monitor our actions to make sure we’re getting results on the ground.”

The changes will be published in the Federal Register next week as revisions to the the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which requires periodic reviews of forest and grassland plans.



Forest officials still must abide by National Environmental Policy Act requirements. The shortened planning process will also enable the public to participate more, officials said.

Environmentalists reacted with skepticism, saying the administration was catering to the timber and paper industries and weakening standards for protecting endangered or threatened species.

“The president’s forest regulations are an early Christmas gift to the timber industry masquerading as a government streamlining measure,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

Collins disagreed.

“No decisions are made regarding specific actions like the cutting of trees or creating a ski area,” she said. “The planning process is much broader. It brings citizens together to discuss what they want the desired condition of the land to be, what needs to be done to improve the environment, enhance wildlife and take action pursuant to that plan that takes us toward that desired condition.”

Officials have long complained that detailed analyses required under the law take years to complete. For example, a 15-year management plan for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest in Colorado took seven years and $5.5 million to revise. Under the new rule, forest plan revisions could be completed within two to three years, officials said.

“I learned in Alaska that trying to get a plan completed takes 10 years and it only lasts 15 years once it’s completed, said Fred Norbury, deputy associate chief for the Forest Service. “We came to Washington to find a better way to do our forest plans. With this rule, I believe we’ve found it.”

The rule will allow regional forest managers, who are more familiar with their forests than officials at the national level, to look at their forests more holistically and, by working with the community, develop a common vision about what they want their forest to look like.

“Sustainability is the foundation of this rule,” Collins said. “Sustainability must be provided for on every one of our national forests. Only by having social and economic and ecological aspects in harmony with one another, we can assure our forests will be sustained.”

An annual independent audit conducted under internationally accepted environmental management guidelines would monitor the Forest Service’s actions.

The audits are based on a concept known as “environmental management systems.” Such standards are frequently used by the timber industry as a way to address environmental issues and ensure compliance with the law, Collins and other officials said.

Environmentalists said there is no evidence a corporate model will ensure accountability for managers of public lands.

“It sounds like they are keeping on track with putting the logging interests in the driver’s seat while shoving wildlife and the public to the back of the bus,” said Marty Hayden, legislative director of the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice.

The new plan won’t affect Forest Plans that are currently being updated, but forest managers will have the option of continuing under the old guidelines or implementing elements of the new plan.

No one was available at the Dillon Ranger District to comment on the rule.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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