Bush Proposes Forest-Thinning Rules

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Logging on federal forest land and projects aimed at reducing forest fires will face less environmental review and public scrutiny under a Bush White House plan.

President Bush, rebuffed by Congress on his forest fire plan, proposed new rules Wednesday to speed up thinning of fire-prone forests and removal of brush to ease the risk of wildfires. Angry environmentalists said the administration was merely doing the bidding of timber companies.

The rules apply when the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department reduce ``hazardous fuels'' or do fire restoration projects on public lands managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs or Bureau of Land Management.

But they can't be applied if a project involves pesticides or herbicides or construction of a permanent road or building, administration officials said. They also can't be employed if a project would harm threatened or endangered species and habitat critical to their survival or affect the ``wilderness character'' of wilderness or wilderness study areas.

Congress this fall wouldn't enact Bush's legislative proposal to cut trees and remove brush by exempting up to 10 million acres of federal forest land from environmental reviews and citizen appeals.

But Bush is going ahead with the core provisions of that proposal through his administrative rule-making plan _ subject to 30 days to 90 days of public comment, but not to congressional approval _ that builds on a program first used by the Clinton administration.

Federal land managers are sending teams to 10 forest areas to start cutting by next year's fire season. They plan to do a quick environmental assessment, rather than following the current requirement for a more complete review which usually takes years.

James Connaughton, Bush's senior environmental adviser, said exhaustive environmental impact statements will be done in cases where the effects of thinning are unclear.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said they hope to curtail the catastrophic fires that have increased in number and size in the past decade, culminating in last year's season in which 7.1 million acres burned and 21 firefighters died.

``Every one of the governors from the Western states would say it's a move in the right direction,'' said Montana Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican.

Environmentalists and Democrats, however, said they feared it would damage federal lands, increase fire risk to communities and make it harder for opponents to stand in the way.

``By shutting the public out and promoting more logging, the Bush administration is leaving communities at risk from forest fires,'' said Carl Pope, Sierra Club's executive director. ``It is disingenuous to promote increased logging packaged as fuel reduction.''

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Bush's plan ``is not detailed enough for me to determine whether it goes too far or whether it contains adequate safeguards.''

Two weeks ago, the administration also proposed giving forest managers more leeway in approving logging and commerce with less examination of potential environmental damages.