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Kelpie Wilson: Like A Christmas Tree In The Gutter

Like A Christmas Tree In The Gutter

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 29 December 2004

We love the Christmas tree as a symbol of the evergreen renewal of nature and spirit, and we embrace it in our homes this time of year. In the aftermath of the New Year, we see the skeletal brown trees with shreds of tinsel lying on our curbs and in our gutters and we experience a passing moment of sadness at the demise of the symbol. Then we forget it and move on.

Three days before Christmas, the Bush administration announced its destruction of the National Forest Management Act, the key legislation that keeps our magnificent national forest heritage healthy and whole. The timing of the announcement makes it clear that the Bush league hopes the distractions of the season will cause you to forget it and move on.

But for those who care about the forests, there is no chance that we will forget it and move on.

The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) was passed in 1976 in response to the acceleration of logging in the post-WWII economy. The forests were ruled by an iron triangle of interlocking interests: the timber industry, industry-oriented forest managers, and local congressional representatives bought by the timber industry. The national forests had become a private timber reserve dedicated to massive clear cutting.

The original NFMA set limits on the size of clearcuts and subjected forest planning to public accountability. In 1982, as biologists realized how severely depleted wildlife populations had become, a wildlife "viability" rule was added that required forest managers to maintain viable populations of wildlife species across their native habitat.

It was the viability rule that set the stage for the Northwest Forest Plan that dramatically slowed the logging of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest. The rules were not strong enough to protect the trees directly, but they did protect the presents under the tree: the salmon, owls, red tree voles and other forest creatures. And protecting the presents required protecting the trees.

Soon, using the courts, the rule was applied to national forests around the country, and during the 1990s, the management of the National Forest system began to approach a balance between ecological wholeness, recreation, and timber.

But Bush's new NFMA puts the timber industry squarely back in the driver's seat and gives it a full tank of gas.

Bush's new interpretation of NFMA is best described not as a new regulation but as a new anti-regulation. It subverts the intent of regulation by substituting a murky process called an Environmental Management System (EMS) for rules that the public can hold agencies accountable to. The new NFMA rules are not rules but guidelines.

The old viability rules said: "Fish and wildlife shall be managed to provide viable populations... well distributed in the planning area."

The new viability guidelines are a masterpiece of management mush-mouthing, full of buzz phrases like: "provides a high likelihood," "to the extent feasible," "should foster...biodiversity." Language that means nothing in a court of law.

Completing the evisceration of the viability rule, the requirement to do wildlife surveys and monitoring is being dropped. No data equals no problem.

The new NFMA regulations also destroy the power of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA is the law that requires public input to environmental plans. It also requires that agencies consider the cumulative impact on an area of all the clearcuts, roads and other developments. Otherwise, agencies may dismiss the small impact of any one project as insignificant without looking at the larger picture.

The new regulations exempt forest-wide plans, the overarching management plans, from NEPA. This is huge.

It also amounts to an insidious shell game, as the Bush administration claims that NEPA is not needed at the plan level since it will be applied at the project level. But according to Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society: "For the past four years, the Administration has adopted a series of regulatory changes - mostly under the umbrella of the 'Healthy Forests Initiative' - aimed at reducing the Forest Service's duties to comply with NEPA at the project level, such as for timber sales."

By eliminating all mandatory standards and substituting optional guidelines, Bush's NFMA gives maximum discretion to the agency itself. And so management direction will depend on who is in charge: scientists who understand forest ecology or timber managers who focus on "getting the sticks out."

In Bush's Forest Service, it seems like open season on scientists, who may become the next endangered species. Here are few examples:

A San Diego developer is suing three Forest Service biologists under the RICO racketeering law for blocking his development plans at Big Bear Lake. The frightening thing is that the Forest Service has not stepped up to defend its employees but is letting them hang, twisting in the wind.

In eastern Oregon, Forest Service biologist Kristine Shull could see that the big old trees that survived a fire were green and healthy but her boss wanted her to sign off on a plan that certified they were dead and available for logging. She refused and now fears for her job. She said, of upper management, "Since Bush has been in office it's just this feeling that they can say and do anything and get away with it."

For a recent article in Salon, writer Rebecca Clarren interviewed Shull and more than a dozen other Forest Service biologists who say they are being pressured to lie about the science in order to get the cut out, and who refused to give their names for fear of losing their jobs.

Bush is casting our environmental laws, our forests, and the fine people who defend them into the gutter like a discarded Christmas tree. A Christmas tree grown on a farm will always be there again next year, but ancient forests are not agricultural products. The big trees and the wildlife they shelter will be gone forever if we forget about what Bush has done and move on.

The public has 60 days to comment on the NEPA proposal which is posted at Written comments may be sent to: Forest Service Content Analysis Team, P.O. Box 22777, Salt Lake City, Utah 84122. Comments also will be accepted by email: or by fax: 801-517-1015.


For help writing a letter on the NFMA regulations, visit


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon.

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