POLITICS: Saving the Forests

Rejoice, tree-huggers: The Bush administration has finally ditched its effort to eviscerate the land-management rules protecting America’s 192 million acres of national forests.

For years now, the administration has been seeking to gut Reagan-era Forest Service regulations, hoping to smooth the way for logging companies that want to buy up and clear-cut vast tracts of public land. Under the proposals, mandatory limits on timber harvesting would have gone out the window, along with rules protecting wildlife and clean water; in their place would have come watered-down “aspirational” goals that might as well have been dictated by the logging industry.

Fortunately, greens managed to convince a district judge to block the move, on the grounds that there had been inadequate environmental reviews and public consultations. Initially, the government refused to accept the ruling; this week, though, it finally threw in the towel and dropped its appeal.

That’s good news of course, but it shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the White House has had a change of heart. This is, after all, the administration that sought to sell off 300,000 acres of public forests in order to subsidize the federal deficit, and that prefers to sell fire-damaged land to logging companies rather than giving forests a chance to regenerate naturally.

Logging rules have already been severely eroded on Bush’s watch, and there’s no sign of things improving. In Arizona and New Mexico, rules protecting the Northern Goshawk’s habitat from logging were unceremoniously axed late last year, despite strenuous objections from wildlife agencies and state biologists. In Colorado and Idaho, the administration is rolling back the Clinton-era “roadless rule”, which protects some 58 million acres of wilderness across the country; similar measures are expected shortly in Alaska.

“The pattern is clear - the Bush administration is trying to leave our most pristine forestlands open to corporate special interests - and it is doing it through death by a thousand cuts,” says Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

As for those Forest Service land-management rules, the administration has already begun drafting a new, virtually identical set of regulations and has conducted a rubber-stamp environmental impact assessment; environmental activists say that further lawsuits will be necessary to stop the Forest Service pulling a bait-and-switch. Unfortunately, it seems the fight to save America’s forests is far from over.