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Key rules are eased to boost logging
The Northwest Forest Plan no longer will require surveys for rare species, and guidelines for salmon streams are revised
The Bush administration Tuesday made two major changes to the Northwest Forest Plan that substantially could increase old-growth logging on vast stretches of public land in Oregon, Washington and Northern California.
The government dropped a rule requiring forest managers to look for rare plants and animals before logging, and it reworded rules protecting salmon-bearing streams.
The changes eliminate obstacles that have kept logging well below what the Northwest Forest Plan intended when it was the subject of agonizing negotiations a decade ago. Conservation groups and the timber industry characterized the changes as "significant" -- but for different reasons.
"They are destroying the safety net for wildlife that depend upon old-growth forests," Regna Merritt, executive director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, said Tuesday.
The changes would allow "some flexibility that we haven't had in recent years," said Robbie Robinson, president of Starfire Lumber in Cottage Grove.
Language added late in the drafting of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan required U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employees to survey for about 300 rare plants and animals before an old-growth timber sale could proceed.
The requirement, known as the "survey and manage" rule, offered protection for species not listed under the Endangered Species Act. That included such plants and animals as mosses, slugs and the red tree vole, one of the most controversial. But the timber industry challenged the rule in court by arguing that the surveys were expensive and took years to complete.
Last spring the federal government said it would reconsider its survey and manage rule as part of an agreement settling the industry's lawsuit.
"There's nothing in the law that requires such special protection for species that aren't listed," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based timber industry group.
"There's no need to spend millions and millions of dollars having people crawling around on their hands and knees looking for these species anymore," West said.
Cost, staff time
Cost and staff time were among the reasons the federal government dropped the survey and manage rule. The Forest Service and the BLM estimate they will save $16 million a year, dollars that could be used for forest restoration, fuels treatment and timber harvest as prescribed under the Northwest Forest Plan.
The government will continue to monitor some sensitive old-growth species under other programs, said Rex Holloway, a Forest Service spokesman.
In the past, if forest managers found evidence of the rare species, protections such as buffer zones had to be put in place. The rules sometimes left small blocks of old growth standing within areas designated for logging. Now forest managers and biologists will look for rare species in a timber sale area and, if they find them, they will have to make a decision about whether protection is important, Holloway said.
Merritt of the Oregon Natural Resources Council has her doubts.
"They had a look-before-you-log principle, and now they're returning to blind-cutting of old growth," she said.
The survey and manage change affects 5.5 million acres of old-growth forests and is not subject to administrative appeal by citizens. But Merritt predicted it would be challenged in court, casting uncertainty about when the region would see an increase in old-growth logging.
The Northwest Forest Plan originally promised timber companies 1.1 billion board feet of harvest a year. That number eventually was revised down to 805 million board feet. But Northwest timber sales consistently have fallen short largely because of challenges made possible under the survey and manage rules.
In 2001, the Forest Service and BLM offered 116 million board feet. Most of what is offered is sold and eventually cut.
Last year, the agencies offered 475 million board feet, and this year they expect to offer about 500 million board feet, Holloway said.
Without the survey and manage rule, federal forest managers expect timber harvest could increase by 70 million board feet a year, topping out at 775 million board feet.
Conservationists also were dismayed about a clarification the administration announced to another part of the Northwest Forest Plan designed to guard watershed and aquatic health.
The government made it clear that individual timber sales will not be required to meet all of the objectives set out under its Aquatic Conservation Strategy. Instead, federal agencies will monitor entire watersheds ranging from 30 to 150 square miles in size.
Holloway said rules requiring green buffer zones, in some cases as wide as 300 feet on each side of a stream, would remain in place.
Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, has filed lawsuits in the past in an attempt to force federal agencies to follow the strategy on each logging site. Tuesday's rewording, he said, "institutionalizes scientific ignorance."
"Before they had to look at impacts of timber harvests and operations on salmon," Spain said. "Now they don't have to look at anything on a site-by-site basis. The impacts will still happen. They're just not going to look for them."
Spain said his group, the largest organization of fishing families on the West Coast, intends to challenge the change.
Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; firstname.lastname@example.org
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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