September 30, 2004

Wildlife Protections on Hold

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Under a temporary rule issued Wednesday by the Bush administration, national forest managers won't have to adhere to strict wildlife protections that have been in place for more than two decades.

The rule is not the last word on the protections, which since 1982 have directed the U.S. Forest Service to manage national forests to maintain "viable populations" of fish and wildlife. Officials could not say when a final regulation would be published.

Issued in 1982 by the Reagan administration, the viability requirement was often cited in lawsuits that forced the Forest Service to reduce timber cutting in regions with declining populations of owls and other animals.

Many conservationists consider it a key safeguard for wildlife. "It's been the [agency's] only rule protecting wildlife," said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The Bush administration proposed nearly two years ago to weaken the requirement as part of a revision of forest planning rules that had been rewritten by the Clinton administration.

Forest Service spokesman Joseph Walsh said there was confusion over the two rewrites, and that the temporary directive was intended as a clarification.

It states that until final regulations are issued, forest managers can follow the 1982 regulations if they wish but that they are "not in effect." It directs managers to base forest plans on "the best available science."

There is no mention of species viability in the temporary rule, but Walsh said it remained a Forest Service concern. "What we're trying to do is ensure all species have a viable habitat," he said. "If that's not good enough, I don't know what to say."

Environmentalists called Wednesday's edict a precursor to a formal abandonment of the viability protections.

"This is another effort to sidestep the law and eliminate accountability … and give free rein to exploitation of forests," said Earthjustice lawyer Todd True.

The "best science," he added, could mean radically different things to different managers.